Behind the scenes at Old City Hall
What: Private, self-guided tours for each household of up to six people
Where: Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall and Lightcatcher Building
WHEN: 12pm, 1:30pm, and 3pm Feb. 25-28; the museum opens at 25 percent capacity Thurs., March 4
Cost: $25 per building; COVID-19 protocols are in place
Wednesday, February 24, 2021
On the Thursday before Valentine’s Day, my sweetheart surprised me by ordering a drive-thru fried chicken meal that we ate overlooking a scenic lake near Lynden. On Friday, I one-upped him by renting the entirety of Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall for a self-guided tour.
“You really went all out,” he commented as we climbed the stairs to the former government headquarters, where visitor services staffer Todd Warger welcomed us into the stately 129-year-old building, which was all ours for the next 75 minutes. Later, I’d admit to my date that it only cost $25 to rent the space for the private tour—a little more than he’d paid for our feast the prior afternoon.
We’ve been in and out of Old City Hall countless times, but typically it’s to check out temporary exhibits in the galleries on the main level, attend events up the stairs in the Rotunda Room, or peruse the John M. Edson Hall of Birds on the top floor. On this go-round, we took our time and paid closer attention to the permanent exhibits that tell the tales of the building’s architecture, Bellingham’s early days, and logging and waterfront history.
For reasons unbeknownst to me, I’d never stepped foot into the Orientation Theater, a small room near the entrance that started its life in the late 1890s as the first mayor of Bellingham’s office. In addition to watching most of an audio-visual recording focusing on how Old City Hall got its start, we gleaned a variety of historical tidbits and trivia—including an interesting note about the “one hundred pounds of cats” that had been ordered by the city clerk soon after a fire station opened next door and mice had started moving into City Hall, drawn by the oats fed to the station’s horses. It was a typo, but there really were a number of felines who had been brought in to keep rodents away.
Since we were mostly alone, nobody gave me a funny look when I cackled at the contents of the cat poster or spent an inordinate amount of time in front of a black-and-white photograph titled “Arnold’s Big Cat Act, 1910” next door in the “Vintage Vaudevillians” exhibit curated by superstar historian and archivist Jeff Jewell. The collection showing through May highlights a dozen vaudeville acts that performed in Bellingham in the early 20th century and is comprised of publicity photos saved and collected by James “Jim” Warwick, a stage manager at a number of downtown theaters during vaudeville’s heyday.
In addition to being entranced by the leopards and cougars who seemed to be more interested in pleasing their keeper than tearing open his throat, we also learned more about a mysterious mechanical doll named Phroso, Australian rifle shot and sword combat artists Lillie Mantle and Rosy Tell, the “modern athletes” known as the Carson Brothers, and Parisian illusionists Fern & Harris (among others).
Next, we took a slow stroll through “Green Gold: Logging the Pacific Northwest,” where we discovered what a “river rat” was and spotted Sasquatch and a stealthy shark fin among the detailed dioramas depicting the loggers who made their living felling enormous trees in the mid-to-late 19th century. From there, we followed the signs to “1968: The Year That Rocked Washington,” where we were greeted by a cardboard replica of Seattle-born musician Jimi Hendrix.
The Legacy Washington exhibit explores the lives of Washingtonians caught up in one of the most tumultuous years in world history, and the section on Hendrix features a photo of the world-famous guitarist with legendary DJ and concert promoter Pat O’Day. Hendrix had returned to Garfield High School—which he had dropped out of to seek stardom—and O’Day was there with him for a special pep assembly at his alma mater.
Among the other notable names on display were civil rights activists Nat and Thelma Jackson, Larry Gossett, Lem Howell, and Maxine Mimms, canny conservationist Polly Dyer, football player turned affirmative action defender Arthur Fletcher, and many other notable Washingtonians who helped shape the history of the state.
It was while I was reliving the late 1960s that I realized my date had gone missing. When I queried Warger, he pointed to the stairwell, which I followed until I came to the Maritime History Gallery on the second floor. My fella was standing in front of a large window overlooking Bellingham Bay with a dreamy look on his face.
“I can almost picture what it was like when steam ships and schooners plied these storied waters,” he said wistfully. “It’s so great to be able to be here to reimagine history in so many different ways.”
Photo of “Arnold’s Big Cat Act, 1910” by Frank T. Dunlap, from the James Warwick Collection.
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