The Granary Building looks as though it expects to be rammed by an icebreaker churning across Bellingham Bay at full speed. The builders of the towered relic on Roeder Street made it like a fort, adding concrete and beams and columns until they figured nothing could knock it down. If the Port of Bellingham has its way, though, bulldozers and a wrecking ball will prove them wrong in the next year or so.
On Aug. 15, two dozen visitors—a handful of experts and a roomful of curious—explored the Granary for a clue to its future. Reborn for some good use, or demolished in favor of a street?
Port staff and a hired consultant say it would cost far too much to adapt the 84-year-old building for reuse as either a commercial or public enterprise. Five hundred thirty-three dollars a square foot, the consultant’s report predicts.
Others, including local architects who’ve done notable rehab work, say it might cost one-third that amount, at the most. Recently Bellingham City Council unanimously urged the port to send out “requests for proposals,” to see if there’s a developer out there who could make money by making the building useful for the first time in 50 years.
During the tour, architect Michael Smith of Zervas Group was intrigued by the rugged, overbuilt style of the place. There are six-inch interior walls made of stacked two-by-sixes, laid flat. There’s flooring three inches thick. Signs warn that the load limit is 300 pounds per square foot—probably unsafe for a convention of World War Two Sherman tanks.
“It’s a slam dunk to rehab,” Smith told reporters after scrambling around inside the tower by means of vertical ladders lighted by hand-held flashlights. “It’s in amazing condition,” he said. “I’d love to get hold of something like this and rehabilitate it.”
He would love to be the architect, but Smith acknowledges he’s not the developer to give the Granary new life. The would-be developer is still to be heard from—someone with a couple million to invest and access to a few million from somewhere else.
Just to be clear, none of that will come from the City of Bellingham, according to Mayor Kelli Linville, who also toured the site.
“We can’t do anything with this,” Linville told architect and preservationist Dave Christensen, as they chatted in the vestiges of the Egg and Poultry Co-op’s once-cheerful lunchroom, coated now with half a century’s dust and pigeon droppings. “We don’t need it. We can’t use it.”
“It’s a cool building,” the mayor admitted, “but we’re overstocked with buildings that we own and can’t use. We don’t have the resources to subsidize anything more. We’re losing $200,000 a year by owning the old [downtown] Federal Building. We have no tenants. The PDA [Bellingham Public Development Authority] is in there, and that’s it.”
Unfavorable as that reads, it’s a shift from the mayor’s position of late June, when she worried that even a public dialogue about the Granary would damage the outlook for waterfront redevelopment.
“I’d hate it if this issue keeps us from moving forward,” she said at the time. “And it could, because it’s at the entrance to the waterfront. It could stop everything. We need to get going, get it done, and get Bellingham people connected with their waterfront.” Linville is careful to point out it’s the port, not the city, who’ll decide whether the Granary stays up or goes down.
In response to growing interest, the mayor and the three port commissioners seem more willing to hear opinions in favor of giving the Granary another chance. Commissioner Mike McAuley, who firmly believed a few months ago that the Granary had to go, and the sooner the better, has been notably open to arguments for saving the old building. He facilitated the tour, which port staff had been reluctant to approve.
“It’s been frustrating that we haven’t moved on this,” he said this week. “Why haven’t we sent out RFPs long ago, and we could have this behind us one way or the other. It seems to me there’s been some foot dragging by people who don’t want to do RFPs. Other than demolition, nothing has happened to advance redevelopment in the past two years.”
It’s been seven years since the port and city began collaborating on a master plan for the 220-acre waterfront project. The plan that’s currently favored links downtown to the bay by streets and pedestrian/bikeways meeting the water at the front door of the Granary, on Central Avenue and Roeder Street. Port staff advocates a new street directly through the space where the old building now stands.
A newly organized “Save the Granary” assemblage of architects, historians, community activists, along with small, local developers and some City Council members, have other ideas. They perceive the street and pedestrian way routed around the Granary, allowing it a rebirth as the center of commercial activity and historic interest, something in the fashion, if not the function, of Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
Those on the Aug. 15 tour—organized by developer and longtime community organizer John Blethen—clearly favored adaptive reuse. If there was any “tear it down” sentiment in the group, it did not make itself heard.
Conversation tended toward the overlooked history of the place and the waste of resources inherent in demolishing a usable building, where none can be built in its place. Shoreline regulations appear not to allow the Granary to be replaced by any building of any kind. The Granary extends over the water. The city’s own shoreline rules require a 50-foot setback.
A history of cooperation
No one seems to dispute its historic importance, although important gaps remain in the Granary’s annals. Scarce records evidence early 20th century poultry farmers struggling to pay their bills, and needing to band together and sell eggs to fill a freight car, not just the back seat of a buggy. In Feb. 1917, some 100 farmers met in Seattle and created their own marketing
agency. It became the Washington Poultry and Egg Cooperative Association, whose members built the towered museum piece on Roeder Street in 1928.
The cooperative bought grain, ground it and produced in the tower’s bewildering array of elevators, bins and chutes, a wide range of chicken and dairy feed mixes for its members. The association’s feed delivery trucks collected eggs throughout Whatcom County and sent them by rail, truck and ship as far as New York City. At the peak of its poultry-ness, Whatcom is said to have produced more eggs than any county in the West, except for one in California.
At the depth of the Depression, the Cooperative boasted 23,000 members statewide (1936). The organization maintained its own research lab in Bellingham to test feed mixes and combat poultry diseases. Hens past their egg-producing years arrived in the grocery store as Lynden Brand canned chicken, produced in a plant up the street from the Granary. A nationally prominent section for hatching chicks still stands, on Central Avenue across the tracks from the
Granary. The Cooperative’s geneticist, Dr. S.S. Munro, is credited with developing the Washington strain of White Leghorn hens, which became the standard for farm flocks all over the country.
Research for this article turned up little to explain the demise of the Cooperative. By the 1960s it had abandoned the Granary. The building apparently stood empty until Georgia-Pacific bought it in 1971, using the lower levels for warehouse storage until the port took it over, six years ago. Now it’s vacant again, nearly all its windows broken out, pigeons doing what pigeons are noted for.
Time is quickly obscuring the history of the organization that built it. Children of those who were active in the Bellingham and Lynden locals are now in their eighties. Many are deceased. Leaders whose names show up in records of Bellingham cooperative meetings—C.E Van Horn, Marvin Allyn, Paul Gaskill, Olaf Jensvold, Irving Hawley, Ada Perrson, scores of
others—likely have descendants in the County. Those the Weekly has contacted recall little or nothing of their parents’ association with the Granary.
In the broadest terms, the Cooperative’s legacy survives in the ideal of doing business based on collaboration and mutual trust, manifested in local organization such as the Bellingham Community Food Co-op and Saturday Farmers Market. And the 600 or more Northwest Washington businesses who’ve organized as Sustainable Connections, to buy what they need from within the community and from each other, so that the money stays home.
Something like that invigorates Jack Weiss’s theory of renovation. The City Council member, a leading advocate for the Granary, says the community benefits from the economics of renewing old buildings, more than it does from new construction. The idea is that most new buildings are manufactured, in pieces, overseas.
The money goes to the foreign firm that made the pieces. By contrast, Weiss says, when you give an old building new life, the work is done here. The labor is local. The money stays home.
Bob Simmons is a freelance writer and former KING-TV journalist living in Bellingham.
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