Overlooking Bellingham Bay on North State Street, the Bellingham Armory building immediately stands apart. Chuckanut sandstone, arching windows and timber support beams at once uphold the imposing castellated structure—and its history.
Washington National Guard armories are among their cities’ most distinctive buildings, with façades recalling the past, but present purposes in flux. Bellingham Armory is no exception.
“It’s a 110-year-old structure that’s had a variety of uses,” says Curt O’Connor, owner of Nor-Pac Equities Development, Inc., the Armory’s current developers. “A lot of people have an attachment to the building because it’s just so magnificent when you drive by it.” Bellingham Armory has been a military station, event venue, roller rink, and storage space—and new developments are afoot.
Officially, Bellingham Armory’s story began in 1910. However, nineteenth-century Fort Bellingham and turn-of-the-century establishment of National Guards and the “Triangle of Fire” set earlier precedents for Bellingham coastal defenses. Established in 1890, Bellingham Company M desired an armory as Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane gained theirs in 1907. The Bellingham riots, theft of National Guard property, and national fears of invasion that same year motivated the Bellingham Armory’s construction.
With expansions of Bellingham Guard and $75,000 from the State Legislature, Bellingham Armory received Chuckanut Sandstone Company blocks by rail. “This was one of the last buildings built from that mine,” says O’Connor. Seattle firm Blackwell and Baker built it. Interurban Day—a November 10, 1910 half-holiday and parade—celebrated the Armory among other Bellingham developments.
Before and after World War I, Bellingham Armory held military balls in addition to drills, rifle practice, and other training. In July 1917, Bellingham’s Coast Artillery Companies 2 and 9 mobilized at the Armory before serving the war effort at Fort Casey. The City held another half-holiday and parade for the 236 soldiers after residents watched their departure.
During World War II, Bellingham Armory served as a defense point for lumber, coal, and fishing industries. It also hosted Bellingham Filter Center, a civil defense plane spotting system. Starting December 8, 1941 (the day after Pearl Harbor), over 150 women volunteered to monitor aircraft from renovated Armory rooms. Army officers commended the center, which 400 total volunteers had served by the time of its 1943 closure.
After World War II, the National Guard’s reorganization and new facilities ultimately retired Bellingham Armory from military duties.
A Farewell to Arms
In the twilight years of its National Guard ownership, Bellingham Armory mainly held events. These included sports, dances, scout meetings and, most popularly, live music. “One of the people in the open house said they danced with Duke Ellington there performing,” says Kristin Bunnell, Nor-Pac’s Asset Manager. Senator Joseph McCarthy, before achieving Red Scare notoriety, attended the 1948 GOP Washington State Convention there.
The National Guard leased the drill hall to Ted Bruland for a roller rink in 1953. Mead’s Rolladium hosted the local roller hockey team Bellingham Bruins, who won the 1970 national championships. “I think that people have fondness towards it,” says O’Connor. “They have been in there roller skating, or were part of the National Guard. There’s still some old-timers that remember that.”
Western Washington University acquired the Armory for one dollar in 1972. Closing the Rolladium in 1989 due to water damages, they faced high repair costs. The Armory aided the Theater Department’s prop and set design, plus storage. “Western Washington was a great steward for the building for many years,” Bunnell says, but in that span, “it wasn’t really used by the community.”
Bellingham Armory received renewed public interest when Washington Trust for Historic Preservation listed it as an endangered property in 2006. Nor-Pac purchased it in 2018. The company also rebuilt Whatcom Middle School and Lynden’s Waples Mercantile Building after fires. O’Connor and co-owner Pete Dawson have fond memories of roller skating at Bellingham Armory, excitedly planning its restoration for the public’s use.
“I think it’s important to the community to have these buildings stay and not change the character of neighborhoods,” Bunnell says.
Renewing Bellingham Armory
With the historic preservation trust’s guidance, Nor-Pac plans to preserve the Armory’s iconic façade, roof beams, and bay views. The City of Bellingham has permitted “a combination of residential and commercial uses,” Bunnell says, and the next steps are rental talks, design, and building permits.
“I think there’s some excitement, from what we’ve heard, from residents about being able to get back in there, whether it’s just a coffee shop, or while they’re walking by, or maybe a restaurant or brewery, or renting out space in there for their own small business,” says Bunnell.
Construction plans will include full renovations of the interior shell and a parking lot to accommodate neighborhood traffic. From its heyday through its preservation, Bellingham Armory has remained fortified.
“Everyone kind of has a personal connection,” O’Connor says. “I think to people driving by it, it just makes them feel like there’s a sense of history there.”