On May 9, 1893, the New Whatcom City Council holds its first meeting in the town’s grand new City Hall. Town boosters hope that the new building will be “a beacon to all vessels coming into our harbor, and a sure index to all new comers, tourists and travelers of our taste, thrift, enterprise, and intelligence” (New Whatcom Daily Reveille, January 16, 1892).
Deserving of a Grand City Hall
As a result, in November 1891, the City Council commissioned local architect Alfred Lee (1843-1933) to design and build its new home. At first, the Council planned to put the new building near New Whatcom’s Cornwall Avenue, between two streets, so that people could approach from two directions. Thus, the front and rear façades that Lee envisioned were virtually identical.
But the site wasn’t perfect. For one thing, soot from the town’s power station would soil the building’s majestic exterior. And on Cornwall Avenue, the new City Hall would sit directly above an old Bellingham Coal Company tunnel -- into which, the Council feared, the building (and they) could fall. So they chose a new site, on a bluff overlooking Bellingham Bay.
Soon after crews began work on Lee’s building, a major economic slump hit the Bellingham Bay area. Local banks and businesses failed. Construction on the outside of the building went on, but except for the sumptuous public spaces on the first floor, the building’s interior remained unfinished. Workers installed the ornate four-sided cupola and clock tower that Lee planned, but they had no money to buy working clock parts, so they fixed the clock’s hands at 7:00.
Despite all this, the building became New Whatcom’s official city hall on May 9. It remained the seat of the city’s government even after New Whatcom merged with the town of Fairhaven to form the city of Bellingham in 1904. In 1939, the city government moved its business to a much larger, more streamlined City Hall designed by the Bellingham modernist Leonard W. Bindon (1899-1980).
Two years later, the old City Hall became a county museum. Its largest display was the ornithology collection of John M. Edson (1861-1954), an amateur scientist and collector who had led the campaign to build a public museum in Bellingham. In 1962, an electrical fire nearly destroyed the building’s roof along with its iconic cupola and clock tower. Restoration of the building was slow but steady, and in 1974 the Whatcom Museum of History and Art re-opened to the public. Today, the museum includes three nearby buildings along with the old City Hall, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.