Bob Hall is considered by many to be the father of modern-day downtown Bellingham, and for good reason. He’s perhaps the most influential figure in helping pump life back into an area that was 40 percent vacant in the 1980s.
Today, only two buildings are vacant downtown, says Hall, a developer who owns 25 historical properties in Bellingham. He estimates he owns about 15 to 20 percent of the entire downtown—a list that includes the Herald, Daylight, and Pickett buildings.
“He was really the pioneer in championing the downtown,” says Kathryn Franks, development specialist for Bellingham’s Planning and Community Development Department. “Over time, other people have stepped up. But he was the catalyst to bringing the streets back to life.”
As owner of Daylight Properties, he has put 11 buildings on historic registers and has made a living off renovating edifices no one wanted. “I almost see them as if they’re orphans on the street,” says Hall, 70.
But there was a time in his life when it was difficult to see daylight. Back in 1988, Hall was operating a sweater business from his garage in Bellingham. Needing more room, he took a bold step: He rented out his home, bought the dilapidated Unity Building downtown and moved his family in.
Hall, along with his son and daughter, slept on foam pads and cooked on a camp stove on the third floor for a year. They had to join the YMCA to shower. On the verge of foreclosure, he had to either fix up the Unity Building or lose everything.
“I was a long-haired hippie guy,” Hall says. “I didn’t like doing that kind of stuff, but I learned how to do it. It was just a sacrifice I had to do. I learned all these tricks because I didn’t have a choice.”
He cut his hair and bought a suit so he could apply for loans. After recognizing he could make money from restoring properties and renting out units, Hall decided to expand. Now, 30 years and dozens of projects later, he lives in a sprawling, 1916 renovated home in Bellingham’s South Hill neighborhood—a house he’d walk by as a youth and dreamed about living in.
When Bellis Fair Mall was built in 1988, downtown Bellingham vanished overnight, he recalls. “You could sit on Holly Street and not even see a car on it.”
After reviving his third structure, the Daylight building, he realized he could make a living—and a difference—by breathing new life into forgotten structures. So he began peeling back, literally, 1950s-era building facades and revealing hidden masterpieces.
Local historian Lanny Little made a 42-minute documentary about Hall’s effect on the downtown area. “We would have a different city if Bob hadn’t inadvertently entered the real estate business,” Little says. “Nobody wanted the old buildings and saw them as eyesores, whereas Bob decided there was a lot of life left in them.”
In 2016, Hall wrote a book about his craft: “This Old Building. A guide to buying restoring and managing historic commercial property.” In it, Hall lays out a blueprint on how to fix, finance, and manage old properties.
“I want to save the buildings,” Hall says. “Not just here but everywhere in North America.
“When I was younger, I sold crafts on the street. I sold almost anything that would sell. Now I get to do something to actually make some money, and that I’m proud of.”
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