Save City Hall? Make Museum!

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Wed, Mar 31, 2010, 11:30 pm  //  Kamalla Rose Kaur

The restoration of Bellingham's 1892 City Hall Building after the tower and cupola burned in 1962 - and the simultaneous creation of The Whatcom Museum - involved the time and money of nearly everyone in Whatcom County. Leading the project was local visionary architect George Bartholick and Pacific Northwest painter, Pat Fleeson. The restoration of the 1892 Building took more than a decade.

Yes, We Can!


“When I think about the 1892 building, it amazes me that just forty years after white settlers arrived on Bellingham Bay, those lumberjacks, fishermen and miners built that elegant City Hall,” Pat Fleeson reflects.

I'm visiting Pat to ask her about an important civic experience that occurred between 1962 to 1974. It was during my childhood here, when "we-the-people" of Whatcom County saved Bellingham's historic 1892 City Hall from ruin.

I tell Pat, “For me there is nothing more inspiring than when people in this region successfully work together, over many years, to achieve community goals – for instance, take the many heroes who recently fought against the Chuckanut Ridge development!”

“Yes! Thank goodness for neighbors who put the environment, beauty, community, culture, and good living above money,” Pat declares, then adds, “Bellingham stayed small for most of our history. In the last few decades we've doubled in size. Recent development has been shocking and frightening. We've accepted and supported environmental destruction, shoddy construction materials and methods, and inferior architecture.”

“Your advice?”

“Labor to make Whatcom County a wonderful place to live. One of the great joys of freedom is successfully merging our talents, resources and muscle to create a terrific home in this uniquely beautiful land.”

In 1993 the Bellingham Municipal Arts Commission and Mayor Tim Douglas officially honored Pat as one of Bellingham's “Living Treasures.” Pat is in her nineties now. She moved here in 1927, at age 11, when her father, Ralph Roberg, became the manager of the pulp mill, then The Puget Sound Pulp and Timber company. In 1948 she married Richard Fleeson, a Harvard Law School graduate from Kansas who became the lawyer for businesses like Seattle First National Bank, Intalco and Morse Hardware.

“I wanted to be an architect but I learned when I enrolled in the architecture school at the University of Washington that I couldn't measure, no talent for it. So I turned to my lifelong love of painting, and studied art.”

Over the years Pat has had many art shows including a one-woman show at the Whatcom Museum. Her paintings have toured with exhibits of Northwest art and she is a Signature member of the NW Watercolor Society.

The Old Museum

In 1929 Bellingham officials moved into a new City Hall across from the present downtown library. The abandoned 1892 Building was subsequently rented by the city to the Historical Society for one dollar and they opened up as Bellingham's first museum.

“It was Aunt Tilly's attic! An exceptional hobbyist ornithologist from Lynden named Judson stored his big birds with their eggs collection there, and who can forget the stuffed alligator?”

There was a huge Civil War flag, a Native canoe, and display cases packed with objects both rare and silly.

“Citizens donated some excellent pieces, yet many were just using the building as a free storage unit,” Pat recalls. “I remember there was a clump of mud, which someone brought from Missouri. They thought it looked like an elephant footprint, a mastodon!”

Fire and Failure

In 1962 an electrical wire shorted and fire destroyed the main tower and one cupola of Bellingham's historic first City Hall and jail.

“They only had $4000 insurance money, just enough to raze the building. Bellingham's downtown businesses coveted the land. My architect friend George Bartholick convinced me that we couldn't let it be destroyed, rather it should become a real museum. Unfortunately, there were no architectural plans! Still George thought he could create architectural drawings from old photos, which he did - and did perfectly. He told me, 'We can restore it in stages, one floor at a time. It should take about ten years!' I howled, 'Ten years?' I didn't want it to take ten years! But it did. It took over a decade of community effort.”

Their small group met and decided to hire a professional fundraiser to launch the project. Unfortunately his efforts proved costly and ineffective leaving them $10,000 in the hole with nothing to show for it.

“The City Fathers who put up the money decided to quit. They thought we should cut our losses - they stood up and left the meeting. But 'the ladies in flowered hats' - that's what the Smithsonian Institute called women like us - remained behind, determined.”

Awareness and Fund Raising

First Pat composed a letter to Bellingham service clubs asking them to each appoint a representative to create a working committee.

“They fell for it! So I wrote another letter and sent it to every church and club in the county letting them know that they could choose from any number of museum fundraisers - pancake breakfasts, dances, fairs, shows - just let us know when and where! They went for that too! And when these local churches and clubs sponsored their museum fundraisers, the Bellingham Herald advertised their events and our mission.”

In 1966 Susan Barrow, who had restored the Alaska State Museum, moved to Bellingham as the first Director of the Whatcom Museum.

“Sue became my great friend. She not only knew all about museums, she knew how to raise funds. With Susan beside me I had the courage to visit Prentice “Bing” Bloedel and ask him for money. 'Will $25,000 be enough?' he wanted to know and I told him, 'No! That won't be nearly enough!.' Of course we were very unorganized compared to the normal complicated grant applications he received. We amused him, so he told us if we could raise $35,000, he'd give us $50,000!”

Civic Success

The Whatcom Museum opened in June 1974. A small group of Bellingham citizens had successfully inspired thousands to offer time and money to save Bellingham's 1892 City Hall Building, and creae the Whatcom Museum. When the tower was finally complete, Pat Fleeson took a white bed sheet and black paint and made a flag. She flew it from the pole atop the lovingly, accurately, restored main tower. It read “WE DID IT!”

Pat Fleeson today

Rebuilding the tower and cupola. We did it!

Marian Beddill  //  Fri, Apr 02, 2010, 10:07 am


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Save City Hall? Make Museum!

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