In 1890, the town of Fairhaven was poised to become the new San Francisco. In anticipation of the Great Northern Railway possibly ending in the small town, investment money poured in. It was under those circumstances the historic Fairhaven Hotel was built on the corner of 12th Street and Harris Avenue in 1890.
“The hotel was the key development during that time that showed this was an up-and-coming place,” says Jeff Jewel, archivist and historian for Whatcom Museum. “It was the centerpiece of Fairhaven.”
Over the next 100 years, the hotel fell from its glory, even serving as a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients at one point. It was ultimately demolished after a fire.
Now, after decades as a relatively empty lot, local developers Alliance Properties are building on the site of the former hotel. The final product will serve as a nod to the site’s history.
The construction project, currently underway, is optimistically set to be done by late summer 2020, says Travis Black, president of Alliance Properties.
The five-story structure will be home to 5,000 square feet of commercial space on the first floor and 35 residential units on the floors above.
The building is set to restore the corner of 12th and Harris as a focal point of Fairhaven. In acknowledgment of the site’s storied past, the new building will also include a 96-foot-tall tower right on the corner, designed after the prominent observation tower for which the old hotel was known.
“We wanted pay some type of homage to what was there at one point, and the most defining feature, we felt, was that tower that sat right on the corner at 12th and Harris,” Black says. “We’re calling the building Fairhaven Tower to give that corner some of the prominence that it once had.”
The Fairhaven Hotel was a 5-star accommodation in its day.
“It was whimsical and eclectic in that Victorian way that only Victorians really could do,” Jewel says. “It had a lot of doodads and a lot of ornamentation that unfortunately fell out of favor in not too long a time.”
Even though it was a beautiful building, the hotel was never that successful, Jewel says. Fairhaven never became the city people expected it to, because the railway ultimately ended in Seattle instead.
It was also doomed for another important reason, Jewel says. The hotel didn’t serve alcohol.
After it was built, its original owner Nelson Bennett sold it to Charles Larrabee. Larrabee had struggled in his childhood, growing up with an alcoholic father. As a result, he made the decision not to serve alcohol at the Fairhaven Hotel.
That didn’t go well for him, Jewel says.
“Apparently, when people go on vacation, they like to imbibe spirits,” Jewel says. “Not having alcohol in the hotel was not a major selling point.”
The most famous guest to complain about this was Mark Twain. In 1895, Twain spent a night at the Fairhaven Hotel and was very frustrated that he couldn’t order a brandy from the hotel restaurant, Jewel says. He ended up spending his evening across the street at a gentlemen’s club and left early the next morning.
Whether due to the railway bust or bad press from Twain, the hotel never picked up in popularity. By the late 1890s, it was essentially used as a private long-term residence for the Larrabees, only sometimes hosting guests for short stays.
The hotel officially closed in 1931. In 1953, the building caught fire and was ultimately demolished three years later. A gas station was built on the site in 1956, but even that didn’t last.
After the Great Depression, Jewel says Fairhaven became a hub for hippies. Some people developed makeshift businesses in train cars that sat on the site of the gas station, selling art and other wares.
A prominent local realtor and developer named Ken Imus wanted to change that.
“Ken didn’t like hippies at all,” Jewel says.
Imus worked to revitalize the buildings and open more stores and boutiques, but his efforts didn’t come to fruition right away.
“Ken didn’t have a big enough boot to get them out of town,” Jewel says. “They just hung out like hippies can do.”
It wasn’t until the turn of the 21st century that Fairhaven started to see the kind of growth Imus was trying to ignite.
“Ken’s dream kind of came true,” Jewel says. While Jewel himself was more aligned with the counterculture movement, he was a friend of Imus’ and says it’s too bad Imus didn’t live to see how Fairhaven looks today.
The construction of Fairhaven Tower will contribute to the regrowth the town has seen over the last two decades but for history buffs like Jewel, it’s hard to let go of the idea that the Fairhaven Hotel could someday be restored in its original form.
“It’s a better use of that property and higher density than a filling station and a few train cars with hippy businesses,” Jewel says. “That said, I wouldn’t have minded if they tried to replicate the Fairhaven Hotel with modern materials.”