Office stack planned to replace historic building on onetime Poor Farm site - Salish Current
May 26, 2023
Office stack planned to replace historic building on onetime Poor Farm site
Matt Benoit

Then and now: An expansive lawn in front of the Northwest Annex in the 1940s now accommodates parking needs. The 1920s-era building is slated for teardown and replacement, while a group of veterans advocates for preservation.  (Top: Courtesy Whatcom Museum; bottom: Matt Benoit / Salish Current photo © 2023)

May 26, 2023
Office stack planned to replace historic building on onetime Poor Farm site
Matt Benoit


At the southeast corner of Whatcom County’s Northwest Drive and West Smith Road, a large concrete and stucco building has — for nearly 100 years — withstood the test of time. 

From a place for paupers to a county work farm and nursing home, this building, now known as the County’s Northwest Annex, has seen many uses. 

But its longevity may soon come to an end, as the County plans to demolish the building in favor of more modern accommodations for several departmental offices. 

Some local residents are hoping to bring enough attention to the building’s historical significance to preserve it instead. 

Checkered past

Long before the Northwest Annex was conceived, the land it sits on was the site of a murder.

The former Whatcom County Home building was surrounded by farmland around 1920. (Courtesy Whatcom Museum) 

Specifics vary depending on the source, but the gist is the same: In the 1870s, a settler named Peter Galiger — owner of 160 acres just outside Ferndale — was killed during a dispute by a man named Brown.

A 1899 Spokesman-Review article reported that Galiger was shot, while a 1948 book on Ferndale history insists he was stabbed with a butcher knife after flirting with Brown’s wife. Brown fled the area after the killing, while Galiger’s remains were buried in front of the present-day Annex. The white picket fence marking his grave eventually rotted, and his grave today is unmarked.

Galiger’s land was turned over to the State of Washington. In 1900, Whatcom County purchased the acreage with a $2,300 mortgage (roughly $80,000 today).

The county constructed a “poor farm” — a common sort of facility across the United States in the days before the social safety nets of the New Deal. Poor farms were generally run by county governments, supporting an area’s poorest residents at public expense. Those who lived on the farms worked to produce food to sustain themselves. 

The first main building on the Whatcom County Poor Farm consisted of a two-story wood frame building housing a dozen residents, most of whom were poor and elderly, with physical or mental health issues. As several old Bellingham Herald articles attest, some residents were alcoholics from the county jail who occasionally escaped to search for more booze before being captured and returned. 

By 1908, petty criminals were being sent to work on the poor farm, and a jail for 10 inmates and a 22-bed hospital were added. Soon after, the county renamed the farm a “county home” and built an addition.

The farm flourished, producing crops that ranged from oats and barley to cabbage, apples and tobacco. Cattle and pigs provided meat and dairy products. 

New in 1927, the building housing the Whatcom County Home still stands today. (Courtesy Whatcom Museum)

The area surrounding the farm also brimmed with activity from grocery stores, churches and meeting halls. Local sports teams used the “Poor Farm” moniker in their names and played in nearby fields. In 1921, the Bellingham Gun Club established a shooting range which still exists next to the edge of the property.

Prison … then nursing home

By 1926, the farm had a population of around 100 residents in facilities made for no more than 65. That fall, county officials and community groups planned a new $75,000 fireproof building. 

Bellingham architect F. Stanley Piper, whose work includes the Bellingham Herald Building, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Eldridge Mansion and Bellingham National Bank Building, was hired to design the facility.

The cornerstone was laid on June 4, 1927 (it supposedly contains historical documents), and an opening ceremony took place Nov. 1. The Tudor Revival style building was applauded as among the finest poor farm buildings, not only in the state but in the entire country.

Over time, the farm shifted away from prison labor and expanded its services as a hospital and sanatorium. Many religious denominations also held services in the new building’s chapel. After longtime superintendent Chris King resigned due to ill health in 1931, the county home’s condition declined as it again dealt with overcrowding. 

By 1937, the County Home no longer hosted prison labor (17 of the 24 Washington poor farms operating in 1926 had closed or been converted to other uses). 

In 1945, Whatcom County officially stopped maintaining the site’s farmland, renting it out to a private farmer and splitting harvest profits. From 1943 to 1963, the state-run Whatcom County Hospital occupied the facility until the County Home building became a county-run nursing home. When the Nor-Bell nursing home was fined $12,000 in 1988 for deficiencies in patient care, it was the state’s last county-owned nursing home. 

Regency Care Group operated the nursing home until 1991. The county then renovated the building and, since its 1993 reopening, the now-named Northwest Annex has housed the county Planning and Development Services department and the traffic and engineering sections of its Public Works department. 

Cue the wrecking ball

Serious considerations to redevelop the site and possibly demolish the Annex began in 2008.

According to the Bellingham Herald, the county council approved a $286,000 contract that year with an architectural firm to create a master plan for departmental needs and development options. Bellingham historian Kolby LaBree recalled McMemamins briefly looking into the property. None of the plans went far. 

On Feb. 9, 2021, the county council voted unanimously to have an RMC Architects proposal refined to replace the Annex and redevelop the property. 

Staff of the Nor-Bell Nursing Home, which operated in the building throughout the 1980s, occupied the building for decades before it was renovated and turned into county office space. (Courtesy Whatcom Museum)

Now, that proposal appears to be moving ahead.

In addition to a new two-story 48,000-square-foot office building, the current proposal includes a newly paved parking lot that could be shared by the nearby Phillips 66 Soccer Park. Future phases of redevelopment include a 2,500-square-foot drive-through coffee shop, another two-story office building of about 30,000 square feet, and a mixed-use office and daycare building of similar size. 

Other suggestions include a walking trail and a roundabout at the Northwest-Smith intersection, as well as possible housing of the sheriff’s office, Whatcom County Health and Community Services and Washington State University’s Whatcom County extension office. 

All eight existing structures on the site would be demolished or relocated. 

Incorporating the past

After consulting with several state agencies, a county fire district, the Nooksack and Lummi tribes and the City of Ferndale, the county submitted a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) checklist to Planning and Development Services in March. 

Tyler Schroeder, the county’s deputy executive, said the county also hired Drayton Archeology to conduct a historical preservation and cultural resource review of the Annex. 

The SEPA determination, he said, will lead to a final architectural design to submit building permits. The process will take time. 

“Any actual land disturbance or work or demolition will not happen until at least a year from now, if not a little bit longer,” Schroeder said. 

The new building is estimated to cost between $20 and $22 million, and the county currently lacks the funding to build it. 

Schroeder said the SEPA determination, which is used to place potential conditions on building permits, requires the site’s historical context to be noted. 

Pieces of the old structures, including chapel windows of the Annex and wood shiplap paneling from the barn and granary buildings, will be reincorporated into the new design, Schroeder said. In addition, interpretive signage and an exhibit will be placed in the new building’s lobby or exterior to note the site’s historic uses. 

County redevelopment plans call for the chapel windows to be removed and saved, for possible incorporation into the new building. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current photo © 2023)

“We’re working with the historical preservation consultant to develop a plan that incorporates those (elements),” Schroeder said. “(We) have every intention to accomplish that work as the project moves forward.”

Erasing or preserving 

These historical tribute ideas are of little consolation to Joel Douglas.

The 83-year-old county resident, developer and preservationist is heading an effort to raise public awareness of the building’s historic and practical value, hoping to get it added to state and national historic registries. 

Along with other veterans groups, Douglas would like to see the Annex turned into a facility for local veterans. 

“It’s a terrible waste,” he said of possible demolition, adding that the proposed replacement building “looks like an ironing board.”

Douglas, whose aunts were once nurses at the poor farm infirmary, has successfully saved other local historic venues from destruction, including Bellingham’s Lairmont Manor and the San Juan County Courthouse. He recently hired Seattle-based architectural historian Tom Heuser to craft a report for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, while also recommending the Annex for National Register of Historic Places inclusion.

Most but not all poor farm properties have disappeared. Skagit County’s poor farm building was demolished in 1966, as were Kitsap and Snohomish County’s structures in 1974 and 1992, respectively. Clark County put its poor farm site, with several existing structures, on the Washington Heritage Register in 2013. 

Even if the Whatcom site was to be added to a state or national registry, those designations do not legally stop a property holder from doing whatever they want with a historic site, including demolition. 

While Schroeder said the county has reached out to Douglas and veterans about finding an alternative site for veteran services, many of them are not interested.

“We’re not looking for another place,” Douglas said. “We’re looking for a building that we can save and put money into and make it work.”

The renovations done in the 1990s are worth millions in additional value to the existing building, he said, and the county has neglected certain elements of the site’s upkeep, including parking lot striping, he added.

Obtaining historic recognition will allow public sentiment to grow, Douglas believes, putting pressure on the county to reconsider their options. It could also help allocate restoration dollars from public funding that otherwise wouldn’t be applicable without historic recognition. 

Nearly 50 organizations are interested in helping the preservation cause, Douglas said, although many are not yet ready to fork over money for a public structure. As long as the nearly century-old building continues standing, he and others will keep trying to save it. 

“If you give up hope, then nothing happens,” he said. “I have no understanding of people who want to tear things down. Do you tear your house down just because it gets old?”

— Reported by Matt Benoit


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