Take a stroll down Garden Street near Western Washington University and you’ll encounter historic homes with an abundance of charm, many of which now house students, families, and even businesses. Stop on the corner of East Chestnut and North Garden in front of the teal two-story house with brick chimneys on either side, and you’ll see a unique-looking dentist office that has a history as intriguing as its architecture.
Originally built in 1890, this historic house was constructed as a private residence for Edward Fischer, a land agent for the Bellingham Bay and British Columbia Railroad. It was later used as a women’s dormitory for the university. The home is now on the National Register of Historic Places, alongside other Bellingham landmarks such as the Mount Baker Theatre, Broadway Hall, Old City Hall, and the Bellingham Herald building.
The home’s exterior has been preserved and remains largely unchanged in appearance from how it looked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The home became known as the “Donovan Home” when Fischer sold it to his railroad colleague, executive engineer J.J. Donovan, who was also the president of the First National Bank. Donovan was a prominent influence in Bellingham’s booming logging industry and served as the director for the Bloedel-Donovan Lumber Mill.
According to the Department of Architecture and Historic Preservation, Donovan added the unique exterior paneling and updated it from what was first described as being “plastered outside,” adding to the historic Tudor style charm it retains today.
In 1908, as Donovan was wrapping up remodeling and adding intricate, elaborate details to the exterior and interior of the home, a car crashed into the house, calling for much more extensive construction work.
When Donovan’s wife, Clara, died in 1936, the house was used for lodging and became known as “Grey Gables.” It transitioned again, about a decade later, when Western Washington University—known then as Western Washington College—considered purchasing the home for use as a residence hall.
The university was facing difficulties in having adequate amounts of student housing for women. Minutes from the Board of Trustees meeting on December 19, 1945 note the first proposal for the university to “request Governor Wallgren for the release of funds for the purchase of a large private dwelling, such as Grey Gables, at 1201 Garden Street, to be used for the housing of women students.”
The governor approved the purchase of the residence in 1946 and released funds for additional women’s dormitories; university representatives were instructed to negotiate the purchase for $17,000. Western Washington College’s student-run newspaper, the WWC Collegian reported to students and the community on April 5, 1946 that, “The old Donovan home, situated at the corner of Chestnut and Garden, and now known Grey Gables, will be opened summer quarter as a residence hall for upper-class women.”
Before students moved into the hall in the summer of 1946, the Board of Trustees renamed the residence “Senior Hall.” Various dances and university events were held at the popular residence hall.
Senior Hall remained a residence hall until 1963 when the Board of Trustees passed a motion to close it for the 1963-1964 school year while they evaluated possibly selling the property.
In 1966, the University decided that the residence was “surplus to the college needs,” according to a letter from Joe E. Busbaum, business manager to the Washington Department of Natural Resources in Olympia.
The university hoped to exchange their property at 1201 Garden Street for two properties of equal value, a large lot at 2209 Hill Street and a small grocery store at 700 High street. Senior Hall was evaluated at a “fair market value for $30,000,” Busbaum noted in his letter. The exchange went through and the formerly known Donovan Home returned to a private residency.
The new owner, Joseph Clark, returned the house’s name to reflect its historic roots by naming it Donovan Hall. The building was soon placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1983.
The dentist who now owns the building has run his business on the ground floor since 1990, with private rental rooms located on the second floor. No matter the current owner, the building will always reflect the rich history of the Old Sehome neighborhood and of Western Washington University.