The Last Clue of the Forgotten
In the early 1950s, when Ben Haggen and Doug Clark reached another rung of wholesome success in the local grocery business, they also outgrew their latest grocery store in downtown Bellingham, WA, called The White House. With this respectable achievement as a springboard, they dissolved their long-standing partnership and struck off in their respective, though similar, directions.
As Doug Clark journeyed on to open Clark’s Super Market at 1815 Cornwall in 1955, Ben and Dorothy Haggen, who were also motivated to invest themselves in an even greater ambitious endeavor, were cooking up an idea of their own. To better serve the changing needs of modern shoppers, they decided that it was time to build not only a roomier, more up-to-date supermarket of their own but a small, neighborhood shopping center as well. A block and a half of small, sleepy homes and businesses at the corner of Meridian and W. Illinois was chosen as the perfect suburban location to erect this fresh, modern shopping plaza.
Safely positioned within the developed edge of town, the site at the address 2814 Meridian was a good bet. Meridian was mostly a residential street politely peppered with commercial enterprises and reached far out into the county while crossing the exurban belt of quiet, residential W. Illinois Avenue. Illinois’ connection with Sunset Drive defined the northern, outer ring of steadily growing Bellingham. At a time when Telegraph Road, another mile north, was just a country lane and the roar of the freeway was still incubating on the state’s powerful drafting boards, the intersection of Meridian and W. Illinois crisscrossed the well-established Cornwall and Columbia Neighborhoods. By then, this was an area already growing gardens of new homes from the 1910s through the late 1920s. After the prolonged construction bust of The Great Depression and the suffocating building supply limitations during WWII, this growth returned with renewed, though tempered, activity to undeveloped lots and newly-platted neighborhoods in the vicinity. Even the blueprints of Parkview Elementary were on their way to being a completed school by 1957. With all this steady residential development being constructed near the limited shopping options in the area, the new shopping center would certainly be very convenient to those current and future residents who had to endure traveling the extra time to a crowded, jarring downtown. There was nothing nearby that, in the realm of services, was anything close to “bigger and better.”
Since the Haggens were going to run their store under a regionally recognized grocery store chain, I imagine that early on, they knew the supermarket would be named Haggen’s Thriftway. What to call the new shopping center, however, was another matter. The Haggens needed something evocative of small-town values and breezy, pastoral openness, a name that eschewed the grittiness of polluted, congested urban cores. What they landed on was “Town and Country Shopping Center.” The name “Town and Country” was by no means original, having already enjoyed wide appeal in the U.S. at that time with its safe and wistful connotations. It was a term that spoke volumes for millions of Americans who believed in a better life in that promising prairie of suburbanism. I can imagine that, to them, “Town and Country” said it all. And Bellingham was certainly not the only community to receive a newly minted retail center with this moniker. After WWII, city after city across the U.S. built suburban commercial plazas hand-over-fist, many with the name “Town and Country.” In Sacramento, CA, suburban Town & Country Village opened in 1946, purportedly made with salvaged materials at a delicate time when building materials were in short supply. Soon afterward, Palo Alto, San Jose, Marin, and Sunnyvale all got their own Town and Country Villages. Then there was the Town and Country Shopping Center in Kettering, OH, which opened in 1951, and Town and Country Shopping Center of Columbus, OH, in 1956. In October of 1956, Pensacola, FL, opened its first suburban shopping center, Town & Country Plaza. State after state, the list goes on.
But the term “Town & Country” was not limited to just shopping centers, though, showing up in other areas of popular culture of the time. The iconic, red, wooden-sided Radio Flyer wagon many loved as kids was originally labeled by the manufacturer as the “Town and Country.” Town & Country magazine has enjoyed an incredible run of 140 years and still ticking. Even Chrysler had a Town & Country of their own, a model that has come in many renditions over the years —most recently a mini-van — but in earlier years was a convertible, four-door sedan, two-door coupe, and a station wagon— the models of the 1940s and 1950s wrapped with those thick, glossy sides of real wood lovingly applied by the skilled, boat-building hands of auto-industry woodworkers.
To get ready for the construction of this small shopping center, the corner of Meridian and Illinois needed to be prepared. The Haggens acquired the requisite properties from this section of land originally laid out as two separate residential blocks with Peabody Street running between. Approximately nine small houses needed to be demolished, burned down, or moved elsewhere, and their associated sheds, garages, chicken coops, burn barrels, and landscaping removed. Three of these homes faced Meridian, five more once lined both sides of Peabody Street, and the final one sat on W. Illinois. Two other existing commercial structures were also situated alongside W. Illinois. One had the address of 1001 and 1005 W. Illinois. The second store, on the corner at 2830 Meridian, was listed in a 1954 phone directory as Cummings Market. In the aftermath of the excavation of the construction site, the following changes took place: The homes and their associated addresses all disappeared; One alley vanished while the other alley was annexed for parking lot access; And the entire 1400 block of Peabody Street, along with its companion sidewalks, was — except for one remaining house on the corner— utterly obliterated.
Witnessing the power that a large project has to take older points of reference and turn them on their head is, for me, endlessly fascinating to reconcile. Where once a Sunday morning resident sleepily wandered out in their bathrobe to retrieve the newspaper freshly tossed into their dewy front lawn, was soon to be the entrance to a grocery store. Where a neighbor of theirs tenderly fussed about in their flower beds on a sunny afternoon was about to become a flat plain of asphalt parking spots baking in the sun. And where the day’s mail was delivered into the mailbox on someone’s front porch would be shelves of canned goods in aisle 10. Though invisible to the naked eye, these mystical moments of motion and life still quiver, and those places of another time are there still.
In the autumn of 1957, after the wizardry of dust and noise had settled, the neighborhood found that it had a fresh, new shopping center in its midst. County tax records and a Sandborn insurance map show it was built of reinforced concrete, cinderblock, and wood beams upon metal posts. The structure of the supermarket was a fine example of the commercial architecture of the time. The angled flat roof of the supermarket gently rose to meet its westside entrance. Celebrating the asymmetrical, a long run of floor-to-roof plate glass windows and the welcome warmth of a monolithic wall of dark-gray rockwork anchoring the building’s corner relieved the vast planes of cream-painted concrete. Designed during the jet age, the store’s lines harnessed the expected horizontal and vertical language of a futuristic “bladed box.” To feed this new store, a modest, wood-canopied entrance vacuumed up shoppers as they left their cars.
To fulfill the title of “shopping center,” the site included a no-frills, 200-foot wing of plate-glass commercial storefronts shooting off from the west side of the supermarket, all the way to the sidewalk of Meridian. Viewed from the air, this gave the center a pregnant, L-shaped layout. Here again, we see the emphasis on the horizontal as the roof over this run of storefronts continued without the interruption of parapets right over the sidewalk as a sleek, cantilevered canopy, sheltering the shoppers as they went about their business.
I grant great architectural allowances to Bellingham, whose life was spent as a hard-working little mill city at the very corner of the United States — but when it comes to awe-inspiring, mid-20th century design — Bellingham is no mecca like, for instance, Los Angeles, or Columbus, Indiana. But that’s ok. Most cities aren’t and are still full of worthy, “down-in-the-trenches” interpretations of modern architecture. Though Columbus was a smaller city, modernist architects were commissioned during the middle years of the 20-century to design large-scale, breathtaking structures and public art. Understandably, this permanently put the city on the architecture map, not with a cute, little red pin but an attractive 18-inch, reinforced concrete spike. Bellingham — like hundreds of other cities — did pretty well with what it had, and equally wonderful examples of modernist architecture are to be found throughout the city. While the entirety of Town and Country Shopping Center had all the attractive trappings of a conservative variation of mid-20th century modernism, it was by no means a sweeping architectural statement, looking to some in later years more like that of a drab bunker. Still, I imagine it was all viewed in those early years as bold and refreshing.
When Haggen’s Thiftway opened on November 6, 1957, it was clean, modern, uncongested, and in contrast to their previous location, larger. Among other amenities of the shopping center, such as a pharmacy and, perhaps, even a barbershop and hair salon, there was also the convenience of acres of free, off-street parking in a quieter setting. In a celebratory, full-page ad published in the newspaper the day before its grand opening, the shopping center was touted “As Modern As Todays’ Woman” and “A Completely Wonderful Shopping Center Just For You.” Considering for a moment that a second Soviet satellite — Sputnik II — had just been launched into orbit only three days earlier, the Cold War at that time must have felt even chillier. I wonder if the subtext of this event underscoring Americans were behind in the space race caused a degree of insecurity in the backs of some people’s minds. Did the novelty of free parking or the vastness of the frozen-food section momentarily distract customers from the specter of two communist orbs transmitting somewhere above America’s anxious blue skies? Maybe it did, or maybe it didn’t. Or maybe it was just another alarmist bell going off in the endless conveyor belt of news. Whatever the case, shopping carts still needed to be filled, hair-doos needed to be done, and deals like “Buy-One-Get Five Free” may have reassured folks, even during the muscle-flexing frolic of cold war nuclear testing sprees, that life goes on, and everything was going to be ok.
Since signage is a business’s relationship with its audience, it claims its rightful place as part of this story. Whether extravagant or restrained, there is an inherent degree of showmanship involved, and I find it interesting just how signs were built, designed, and integrated into the whole. In the study of this shopping center, Haggen’s used signs in several ways. First of all, an approximately 20-foot tall road sign, seen in the second photo above, was firmly pierced into the edge of the parking lot along Meridian. At that time, the popularity of neon signage was in decline, seen by then as sleazy and troublesome to maintain — and expensive. As a result, businesses began to favor the more affordable, reliable, and happy sterility of back-lit plastic, and the transition between these two sign-making disciplines is more than evident on this Town and Country Shopping Center sign; The emergent, bold plastic name on top, and below a stylistically simple metal arrow with the words “shopping center’’ written in neon glass tubing. By any measure, the sign was certainly a roadside classic. I do not know whether or not there was another, similar sign along the edge of W. Illinois. On the structure of the supermarket itself, signs were positioned both above and below. As both photos show, the first set of signs deployed the use of smaller letters marching along the top of the west and northside canopy, spelling the name, “HAGGEN’S.” Here I am unsure how the letters were built or lighted up — characters of backlit plastic or sheet metal letters with neon-tube — or a blend of these two types. These letters appear to have been later removed sometime in the mid-1960s and replaced with an enormous, updated Haggen’s typeface of back-lit plastic emblazoned across the entrance’s exterior, hiding the entirety of the upper half of the attractive rockwork wall and windows. Adorning the top slope of the building’s roof, a second sign loomed as a string of larger-than-life, stand-alone letters in bright red proudly announcing “THRIFTWAY.” Once again, I don’t know what these letters were made of or how they were lit up. This collection of rooftop letters was mounted at an angle to the corner of Meridian and Illinois, readily visible to motorists. By 1971, this lofty Thriftway sign had entirely disappeared.
For nearly twenty years, this crisp, modern supermarket served the northern side of Bellingham.
But, like so many things in our expeditious culture, even Haggen’s supermarket may have begun to feel as outdated as the older stores it itself replaced when it was built in 1957. Even the significance of the once reassuring Town and Country name might have faded to a philosophical yellow more akin to twenty-year-old newspapers. Once again, it was time for a change. During the 1970s, as bloated muscle cars began their long decline and the comet of “disco-mania” returned to earth for the second time with stratospheric popularity, the Haggen folks began planning for a new flagship facility. To make way for this upcoming store, the commercial site was enlarged all the way east to Vallette Street, consuming six more small houses, and part of the existing asphalt parking lot was scraped up. After the new store was completed in 1979 and the parking lot repaved, the parking-space arrangement switched from running north/south to east/west as it is today. Even the parallel parking spaces in front of the commercial wing were redrawn as perpendicular parking. Once Haggen’s shifted the contents of the old store into the new one, a life-long Bellingham resident and neighbor of mine, Steven Peters, recalls that the old supermarket was immediately demolished and paved over, leaving the shopping center’s wing of commercial storefronts intact and functioning for nearly another decade.
But if this is the sequence of events, there is a riddle for me in this: Since the old supermarket and the newly constructed store overlapped in their respective footprints, I am not sure how the two could have simultaneously existed. The only theory I have is that the new structure was cleverly constructed around the existing northeast corner of the old store. Once the older building was demolished, it left behind the new building to be completed with the covered outdoor patio space we see today. The inside, 90-degree corner of this covered patio reflects the northeast corner of where the old store would have been. It’s the best theory I’ve got, but never-the-less, it’s intriguing to imagine.
Over the next ten years, Haggen’s Corporation continued to assert a more unobstructed, cohesive identity for their upgraded store site. As a direct result, the motley crew of structures in the margins of this commercial block may have been seen as obstructive, too rag-tag, and not in line with the new corporate image. Between 1980 and 1984, the old commercial building at 1001 and 1005 W. Illinois was demolished. In its wake, between 1984 and 1988, the last cluster of four houses populating Maryland Street, directly behind the wing of commercial storefronts, vanish. Whether these residential properties — 2800 Meridian, 1006 and 1008 Maryland, and 2801 Peabody — were purchased during the 1950s or annexed in peace-meal fashion in later years is unknown. By 1988, the former lots healing from their house-wounds had gone wild. Choked with tall grass and an unsightly crop of blackberry vines snagging their yearly allotment of plastic bags, the ugly, faceless backdrop of the commercial wing’s cinderblock rear wall only added to the blight. But as you will soon read, even this scene was not long for this world.
I have been curious about what kind of businesses were housed in the center’s commercial wing over the years. Some businesses are there from the beginning and run for decades. Others move on, live shorter lives, or are taken over, continuing under new names. But in good time, all the spaces are empty in the end. To give a general idea of the options shoppers once had and also show the slow exodus of commercial tenants squeezed out by evolving times, I offer the leap-frog survey that follows. Since I refer to aerial views, a tax record, and a limited assortment of Polk’s directories I have on hand, this is by no means a comprehensive list.
In 1957, the shopping center’s opening, Haggen’s Thriftway, was curiously the only business listed. This is perplexing to me, as I can clearly see in the second photo above a drug store, but the shopping center was likely still under construction when Polk’s gathered the information earlier in the year. For the rest of the spaces, I surmise that possibly they had yet to be finished and filled with tenants. Cumming’s Market, at the address of 2830 Meridian, was still listed, but I believe this was a fading leftover in its last year and likely not part of Town & Country Shopping Center proper. By 1963, the Cummings Market building was gone and replaced with a Chevron service station wearing the same address.
Here we skip over a nine-year gap of Polk’s directories I do not possess or have access to due to COVID restrictions.
By 1969, Haggens dropped the Thriftway name, renaming it as Haggen’s Food Center. The following tenants — A barbershop, beauty salon, cleaners, laundromat, and pharmacy — all fell under the prefix of Town & Country, including Town & Country North Dress Shop. Another two spaces show a Helen Tweit Realtor and Bellingham Stereo Appliance Center. The corner service station replacing Cummings Market was listed as Randy’s Chevron Service.
On Whatcom County Assessor records dated 1971, a ball-point pen layout shows a tiny post office substation with an office mezzanine tucked away within the rear of the supermarket structure. Oddly, this is not mentioned in most of the directories I have but is listed in 1988. I feel safe to assume it was there all along. This may have been accessed by customers inside the dry cleaners or from inside Haggen’s Thriftway — I am not sure. The mezzanine, with a window all it's own looking out over the roof, I suspect was used as the supermarket office. If this is true, I wonder if the office also had a bank of windows inside, overlooking the store sales floor. Such mezzanine offices often did.
Randy’s Chevron Service, guarding the corner for only twenty-some years, is demolished between 1969 and 1971. It is not replaced, and its address by 1972 is no longer listed.
Back to the Polk’s directories, we have in 1972 Haggen’s Food Center, the Town and Country Barbershop and Beauty Salon, Town and Country Cleaners and Laundromat, Glen Gossage Pharmacy, Town House Realty, and Hansen Jewelry.
In 1976, Town and Country Shopping Center was listed as well as Haggen Food Center. In the margin of the Polk’s directory is a simple Haggen ad, with the tagline “Groceries With A Smile.” Then we have Town and Country Cleaners, Edie Adams Cut and Curl Beauty Shop, Northwestern Realty, State Liquor store, and Hansen Jewelry all holding down the fort.
In 1980, approximately a year after the current store was built and the old supermarket was razed, Town & Country Shopping Center is still listed, followed by a renamed Haggen Foods. The occupants for this year are Town and Country Dry Cleaners, Hair ’Em Styling Salon Beauty Shop, Northwestern Realty, State Liquor store, and Link’s Optical Eyewear.
For another eight years, the new store and the old wing shared the site during this transitional moment, two different generations of structures eyeing each other across the parking lot. The listings in 1984 still show the name of Town and Country Shopping Center, along with Haggen Foods, Town and Country Dry Cleaners, and a state liquor store, but aside from two listings of “vacant,” no other businesses are mentioned.
Around 1988, the remaining businesses vacated the premises. Jeff Jewell, Research Technician at the Whatcom Photo Archives, was helpful in the researching of this post and noted that the last tenants listed in these spaces in the 1988 Polk’s Directory were a Town and Country Dry Cleaners, a post office substation, a yarn shop called Fibers, and the State Liquor Store.
Between 1988 and 1991, the string of storefronts of the old Town and Country Shopping Center store was smashed into little-bitty pieces and raked away into a dump truck-sized trash can. The feral land of blackberry vines behind was also removed.
By 1991, about thirty-three years after the shopping center’s opening, Haggens had finally dropped the Town & Country name entirely. Renamed Haggen’s Shopping Center, with Haggen Foods being the only business listed at 2814 Meridian, both shared the same phone number.
I remember visiting the site right after the wrecking crews had finished crushing the old commercial wing into fragments. While their excavator was sleeping quietly to the evening’s setting sun, I noticed that the sidewalk that once spanned the storefronts was still in place for the moment, next to a smattering of broken glass, shredded wood, and concrete debris left behind. When I inspected the status of the site days later, all the debris and the sidewalk were gone, but the curb was curiously still intact, running the entire length of where the missing strip of sidewalk and storefronts had once been. Soon after, the fresh earth of the building's footprint was filled in and paved, using the old sidewalk curb as the highpoint, the parking lot version of a continental divide between two separate drainage basins.
For the next sixteen years, the old curb slept beneath the cars, tickled by tires and awakened only by the screaming vacuum of the nightly parking lot cleaning vehicle or an occasional snowplow. But even as safe and sound as it otherwise seemed, unstoppable Time has nibbled away at this defenseless leftover, never satisfied to leave well enough alone. Sometime after 2016, heavy equipment arrived to excavate a small section of the Haggen parking lot. This required removing 100 feet of what was once a 200 foot stretch of the original concrete curb. What is left today is only the western half.
That remaining section of the 100-foot of curb still visibly embedded in the asphalt is all that remains of the Town & Country Shopping Center.
With the Fountain District’s rezoning for taller structures along Meridian, this last remnant will likely be ripped up if that corner of Maryland and Meridian ever gets developed. This is more than just silver-tongued speculation. I noticed a bright yellow Planning Department sign posted on that corner in December of 2019, announcing an application to develop that part of the parking lot with a multi-storied building. After the shoddily-built year of 2020 took off from its historic, potholed runway, someone took the sign down, and there has been no further activity — for the moment.
If you hop on over to Haggen’s parking lot for a look-see, I recommend you do so soon. You can find the old curb in plain sight, running perpendicular from Meridian, in the vicinity of the postal drop-box and WTA bus stop. Follow it due east for 100 feet to where the recent excavation took place. Another 100 feet of old curb once continued from there, terminating at the eastern end of the former commercial wing. This is where the old supermarket once stood. Note how the once-highly exposed north edge of this remnant curbing is rounded over by design and damaged its entire length by its first forty years of perhaps being nudged and scraped by car’s hubcaps and steel rims and chiseled by hapless shopping carts and the undercarriages of cars. Also, note how the southern edge is sharper where it once met the edge of the sidewalk.
Since the beauty of the mundane is forever embedded in its matrix, even an unnoticed remnant like this can vibrate stories about our past. Turn your back for a moment, and it is gone forever. We are lucky to have it still, as it inspires us to imagine the neighborhood and streets that once were and the refreshing shopping center that followed, the site ever-evolving as the death of the old and the birth of the new repeats itself, again and again. I conjure up motion pictures in my mind of shoppers of the past, stepping out of their cars and up onto this curb and the covered sidewalk that was — a routine replayed hundreds of times a day for a short stack of decades. That run of businesses behind those sheets of glass would have greeted them all the way to the east, where Haggen’s modern supermarket of yesterday once stood, serving a neighborhood and customers of a very different era.