Historical Building Reincarnated For Another Life

One could say Bellingham is lucky to have as many wonderful historic buildings as it does, but luck is really a small part, compared to the hard work and generosity of people passionate about keeping the local heritage alive and well. The history of the Territorial Courthouse is no exception.

On Aug. 27 of 2011, almost 153 years to the day since it first opened, there was a “Grand Reopening” of the Territorial Courthouse, after a seven-year effort by members of the Whatcom County Historical Society to save the courthouse from becoming a heap of rubble at its Old Town location. Honored guests at the sunlit street celebration were Carl and Nickie Akers, who purchased the building for their taxidermy business in 1955, and retained ownership even after they moved their business in 1969. In 2004, the Akerses deeded the building to the Historical Society.

The courthouse has a rich and varied history, starting with its construction in 1858 as a warehouse and mercantile to outfit prospectors headed north to the Fraser River gold fields. This lucrative business was short-lived, however, because the British Columbia governor decreed that miners headed to the gold fields must stop in Victoria to buy a mining permit. This left what was then the town of Whatcom, out of the gold rush loop.

In 1861, Whatcom County purchased the building for its courthouse. At that time, the county was much bigger, encompassing also what are now San Juan and Skagit counties. The building was used as a courthouse and jail until 1888, and at times held some businesses as well, such as a drugstore and the local newspaper. Later, it was a clubhouse, and after the Akerses moved their taxidermy business, they rented the building to several different businesses, including a woodworking shop, a pottery studio and an outdoor sporting equipment store.

According to Rick Tremaine, restoration project chairman, approximately $550,000 has been spent to do seismic upgrades and refurbishment of the building. That figure includes cash donations from over 200 individuals and in-kind donations from over 100 businesses. Tremaine praises city personnel for their outstanding help and guidance, and cannot say enough about the local businesses and individuals who have helped out. About a quarter of the funds came from a state grant. Smaller grants came from Whatcom County and the city of Bellingham.

Much of the plaster, the wainscoting and the downstairs flooring is new, but some sections of the original wainscoting have been preserved. It was with great anxiety, Tremaine relates, that a maple overlayment of the upstairs floor was removed. No one knew what would be found underneath. The original wooden planks were worn but intact, still held by the original square-headed nails. Marks in one corner look as if someone took a hatchet to it, and it has a dark patina of age. An access panel in the ceiling allows a view of the building’s original tin roof.

Tremaine and Historical Society President Wes Gannaway did most of the interior finishing work. Tremaine has had careers as both a banker and a contractor, so was an excellent fit for spearheading the restoration.

The building’s upper level will be used for historical displays. The downstairs, which once housed the jail and the county treasurer, will be available for public events. When the building was first erected, the first floor was at ground level, situated near where Whatcom Creek met the bay. That area was eventually regraded, and what was the first floor, is now a daylight basement.

One more thing has to be accomplished first: A ramp down from the street and a wheelchair lift must be installed. When that is accomplished, there still will be no wheelchair accessibility to the upper floor, but Tremaine hopes to install a video system that will allow visitors downstairs to view the upstairs displays. While public buildings generally must be accessible to persons with disabilities, exceptions are made for historical buildings, when necessary.