We’ve all seen it: the tall beige building at 119 North Commercial Street, looming large over its downtown surroundings. At 157 feet high, the structure (known today as the Bellingham Towers) has been the city’s tallest building since its 1929 construction. It accompanies Mount Baker Theatre‘s tower as one of Bellingham’s defining landmarks, and its history – from luxury hotel to commercial office space — packs enough stories to fill each of its 15 floors.
The 1920s was a golden time of economic opportunity for downtown Bellingham, much of it based on tourism and leisure. Chuckanut Drive became a paved road during this time, and a tulip festival was created to drive traffic to Bellingham. Mount Baker Lodge opened and the Bellingham Herald Building was also built.
By late 1928, plans for two separate hotel ventures were simultaneously taking shape: a new 10-story building expansion to the Leopold Hotel (another of Bellingham’s surviving historic structures), and an entirely new hotel across the street from the freshly-built Mount Baker Theatre (MBT). The latter was to be a “community hotel,” seeking citizens to invest funds and, hopefully, profit from its eventual success. Advertisements in November issues of the Bellingham Herald proclaimed hotel stock to be not only an investment, but a “civic duty” – helping further develop Bellingham into a more metropolitan destination.
Despite antagonism towards the new hotel by those associated with the Leopold, plans for the 15-story structure, to be called simply “Bellingham Hotel,” continued. In April 1929, construction began. The tower was designed by architect Robert C. Reamer, who also designed MBT. At a cost of about $500,000 ($7.43 million in 2018), the hotel was built with reinforced steel and concrete faced with brown stone brick. Although its exterior features an Art Deco-style, Reamer’s original design imagined the building in Spanish Renaissance style, similar to that of MBT.
By early October, just weeks before a stock market collapse triggered the Great Depression, outer construction was completed. The final touch was a 162-foot tall metal spire, set on a triangular base, with glowing neon letters.
Each letter was seven feet tall, placed by sign-hangers who clearly had no fear of heights. When it was completed in November 1929, the spire – several feet taller than the entire building – was the tallest neon sign in the world, rising 319 feet above the ground. According to a Bellingham Herald article of the time, the tower was built to withstand 120 mph winds while also being visible to pilots from 100 miles away. On November 23, 1929, its orange-red neon letters glowed for the first time.
On March 1, 1930, the Bellingham Hotel officially opened, comically dwarfing the miniature golf course next to it (now a parking lot used mainly during MBT shows). Inside were 150 rooms, each with a bathroom and a view. The hotel’s interior was extravagant, featuring a black marble fireplace, Art Deco carpeting, inlaid wood ceilings and colorful walls decorated with reproductions of Japanese art pieces, inlaid on panels. The building featured coffee, cigar, flower and barber shops.
Opening night, 700 people attended a banquet dinner and dance featuring live orchestra music. Despite an economic depression and continuing prohibition on alcohol, things were looking up.
Top of the Towers
One afternoon in May 1930, two Fairhaven High School students had an idea. It wasn’t particularly smart or safe, but 19-year-old Galen Biery and 16-year-old David Morse did it anyway. The two gained access to the roof of the Bellingham Hotel and proceeded to scale the 162-foot spire. Eventually, Morse produced a camera and snapped a vertigo-inducing picture of the men’s shoes, hundreds of feet above the ground.
Morse ended up dropping his camera, which broke and shattered four of the spire’s neon letters. The camera film was salvaged, though, and later developed.
Jeff Jewell, Whatcom Museum archivist and historian, says it’s probably his favorite story involving the building. The picture Morse took can be seen in the book “Old Hotels of the Bellingham Bay Cities,” available at the Bellingham Public Library.
The two boys weren’t the only daredevils. In March 1935, D.D. Roland, a man widely known as “The Human Fly,” ascended the side of the hotel without any climbing gear. He grabbed onto extruding bricks, along with frequent breaks at windowsills, to successfully scale the building. As a newspaper article of the time reads, upon reaching the top, Roland yelled to the cheering crowd below to take his picture.
Sometime in the spring of 1935 – it’s uncertain exactly when – the massive spire was removed from the building, leaving only the triangular sign reading “HOTEL” on the roof. The spire withstood some nasty windstorms, but the brackets holding it were damaged. This caused cracks in the roof, leading to leaks and other damage. Removal was probably the right move; Jewell says the spire would often creak and groan during windstorms, causing understandable unease among guests and onlookers.
From Then to Now
By 1937, the Bellingham Hotel Company was insolvent, and entered receivership. Over the following decades, the building’s ownership changed hands numerous times, in addition to undergoing name changes, redesigns and redecorations.
In 1945, a discrimination lawsuit was filed against the hotel by an African-American woman, after she was refused a room because of her skin color. The hotel’s racial policy violated a 1909 state law prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations. Although the woman eventually won her case, she was awarded only $1 in emotional damages.
In 1960, an elegant restaurant called the “Florentine Room” opened to guests of the hotel, but good times didn’t last. Bankruptcy forced the hotel to close for good in 1962. The building transitioned to residential apartments in 1963, focused primarily on retirees, much like the Leopold did decades later. In 1974, the building was renamed the “Bellingham Towers.” The owners, Jewell says, pluralized “tower” because they thought it sounded more impressive.
In following years, the building transitioned slowly to commercial space, retaining a top floor restaurant. It was fully commercial by 1981, when the last apartment tenant finally left. The top floor restaurant and bar went through different names and owners over the years including, most recently, Nimbus, which closed in July 2011.
Today, the top floor is comprised of various business suites, along with the rest of the building. Bellingham Towers is currently owned by Mike Hollander, who bought it in 1997.
So, why has this building remained Bellingham’s tallest for 90 years?
“Bellingham was kind of frozen in time with The Great Depression,” Jewell says. “We reached a crescendo in the late 20s with downtown construction.”
When building ramped back up in the 50s, suburban construction was the norm, causing Bellingham to grow outward instead of upward. The closest Bellingham Towers ever came to being dwarfed, Jewell says, happened right before the Great Recession of 2008. A developer planned to erect a 23-story building on what’s now a parking lot next to the Daylight Building, along State Street. It never happened, but if it had, Jewell says it would have stuck out like a sore thumb.
The next time you’re downtown, take a moment to glance at our city’s tallest building and consider all the changes it has seen. Better yet, take an elevator to the top and enjoy the magnificent view: it has stood the test of time.