The History of Old City Hall

By Colton Redtfeldt, Marketing Assistant

Reaching into the sky with its four spires and clock tower, Old City Hall is one of Bellingham’s most iconic landmarks. Everyone in Bellingham has seen the building and many have been inside when they visit the Whatcom Museum, but fewer people know the long and interesting history behind it — and the many secrets that it holds.

Interior of Comptroller’s Office, c. 1913 Photographer Unknown: Whatcom Museum #1988.16.19

The story of Old City Hall starts more than 100 years ago. Prior to 1891, the New Whatcom City Council had been housed in the Oakland Block at the corner of Champion and Holly Street. However, as the government grew, it became evident that the City Council, which had shared the space with a clothing store, a music dealer and a hotel, needed something bigger. They asked local architects to submit plans for a new city hall and in November the council accepted a design from local architect Alfred Lee.

Lee, a self-taught architect, pulled the designs for the late-Victorian building from various catalogues and combined different plans together.

The council purchased a plot of land on a bluff overlooking Bellingham Bluff for $5000 and construction started in February 1892. Construction was wrapped up quickly when an economic depression in 1893 caused funds for the project to disappear, leaving the second and third floor interiors unfinished. One side effect caused by this abrupt stop was that the clock faces that had been installed didn’t actually work. Instead, the city moved the hands on the clock to permanently read seven o’clock. These didn’t last long, however, as strong winds eventually knocked out the clock faces and the city, not having the funds to replace them, simply left them as gaping holes.

The city did install a large, three-feet-in-diameter bell in the tower, which was rung to alert the volunteer fire department whenever there was a fire in the city. The height of the building made it easy to see any fires in the area.

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