In the Pacific Northwest, we don’t do old too well. The architecture we have, the buildings still standing, they aren’t old, in all reality. The East Coast knows old. Europe really knows old. So when a pre-Civil War structure gets a little attention, it can actually turn a few heads around here.
In Bellingham, Wash., a community group rallied around what could be the oldest brick building north of San Francisco and is certainly the oldest brick building in the state. Built in 1858, the T.G. Richards Building harkens to early white settlers in search of Canadian gold. It stood before the railroad. Before the Civil War. And before cities took root in Puget Sound. It was the first brick masonry building in Whatcom Territory, the oldest still standing in the state, and now it has some new life.
But restoring the ancient—remember, we are using Pacific Northwest standards here—structure in downtown Bellingham took plenty of time and community involvement.
And it was the origination of the building that made it worth all that work. A group of San Francisco natives built the mercantile shop on what is now E Street hoping to serve prospectors headed to the Fraser River gold rush in British Columbia. But that didn’t last long, as the wave of gold rushers soon petered out thanks to a drop in available gold and new permitting rules north of the border. So, Whatcom County took over the building five years later and used it as its Territorial Whatcom County Courthouse. It closed the building in 1888, deeming it unsafe.
As Bellingham built up the tide flats around where the building sits, the first floor of the building turned into a basement, but businesses still operated out of the T.G. Richards Building. Former owners Carl and Nickie Akers ran their taxidermy business out of the square-like structure from 1955 until 2001 and then gifted it to the Whatcom County Historical Society a few years later. It was soon listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the society has been working to raise money for restoration since 2004.
This Saturday, the group is finally ready to show off the old courthouse, complete with a rehabilitated shell and new interior. The historical society used grants and donations in excess of $550,000 and utilized volunteer labor to turn the 2,500-square-foot building into a usable structure again. Fixing the foundation was the big thing, simply getting everything back in line and squared up, Rick Tremaine, the leader of the effort, told the Bellingham Herald.
Without original plans to work from, contractors used a 1934 federal survey of the courthouse.
Now, with the bulk of the work complete on the building, the open room upstairs—the former courtroom—will feature plenty of historical information and the former courthouse lobby and jail downstairs can be rented out as meeting rooms for the public.
Sometimes it can be nice to actually have a little history around here.