The Life and Death of A Glass Box
An Under-Appreciated Example Of Modernism Sits At The Cliff Of Its Demise
If there ever was the purest example of stark, beautiful modernism in Bellingham, WA, this is it — but not for long. The destruction of this outstanding example is due any day now.
I miss it already.
Built circa 1957 at 1811 C Street, the building's unknown architect gave it many of the aspiring characteristics of modernism that architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe espoused throughout his revolutionary career in the 20th century. As the father of the concept "less is more," Mies would have wholly approved of its use of modern materials, its flat roof, simple box shape, and its exposed steel box skeleton filled on two sides with floor-to-ceiling walls of glass. On its third and fourth sides, a ribbon of privacy glass runs along the top of both walls. Working in all that natural light must have been uplifting. Designed without deep eaves seen on other modern examples of that time, the unknown designer tested their mettle by boiling this concept down to its barest essentials. Even the landscaping offers the choicest minimalism with boxwood shrubs and young deciduous trees— two maples and two cherries. It evokes the imagery and emotions of Mies' iconic educational buildings of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. With such simple bones, its construction must have transpired very quickly. I would love to know if it has a basement or if it lives upon a slab-on-grade concrete pad, but I may not get to find out until this gem is reduced to a heap of twisted steel and shattered glass.
This building is one of my Bellingham favorites. When I heard the unfortunate news that it was doomed, I wasted no time capturing images to augment my attempt to document this public, yet invisible, landmark. And a landmark it is because there is nothing else like it locally. Upon my arrival at the site, I saw that the city had indeed pounded a yellow public notice sign into an overgrown flower bed of the low-slung medical building next door at 1815 C Street. The notice stated plans to remove both structures to build a high-density residential building. Of course, this comes as no surprise. Like most cities down the west coast and in the Pacific Northwest in general, Bellingham has been experiencing a city-altering building boom going back years. I realize change happens to reflect the needs at a given time, and these centrally located parcels are sensible candidates to build needed apartment buildings. But I dread the arrival of another bloated, over-scaled colossus. Since attractive townhouses have indeed popped up in recent years, I give this new project the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the developers have something more charming and human-scaled to offer our city.
But enough with the future. Let's go back in time as I unfold the latter history of these properties along this two-block section of C street. Through 1955, a row of smaller houses full of residents occupied the lots on and around where 1811 sits today. At that time, 1811 C street was the home of a person named Mrs. Cathy Parr. By 1956, Mrs. Parr had left, and the directory notes all the addresses from 1809 through 1815 were "vacant." I do not know when workers removed the homes, but it wasn't long after. It is important to point out that in 1956, the directory also mentions the following: "SW corner Bellingham Medical Center under construction," indicating that a lot was happening along this run of C Street that would transform the neighborhood into something else entirely.
By 1957, the directory lists a new pharmacy at 1811, the former site of Mrs. Parr's home, and at 1801, a food establishment named the Center Snack Shop. Since a Mrs. Inez Hartness was recorded at the same address, I wonder if they initially operated this business out of their home. The directory mentions no other addresses along this stretch for 1957 — with one exception. Across the street, the Bellingham Medical Center was now in operation, claiming the address of 1800 C Street. One unit was a two-storied medical building that faced Dupont Street. The rest of the medical campus was made up of similarly-designed modern structures like our little, flat-roofed pharmacy, offering a pharmacy of their own and all the off-street parking the future could promise. On the other side of the street, the young arrival of the glass-walled pharmacy at 1811 was but a lonely box of pharmaceuticals among grassy, vacant lots. Most of the clinical fun was happening across the street — you could just hear it. It didn't even have a parking lot to call it's own. But this isolation did not last.
By 1964, the little pharmacy was in the Big-Time. On its southwestern side, at 1801 C Street, a small, one-story building with off-street parking had been built; And on its northeastern side, a new building commandeering the address of 1815 C Street had recently replaced the two remaining homes. This new facility with deep eaves housed a physician and the county coroner. Outback of 1811 and 1815, the glory of a broad, paved parking lot was laid down for all to see. In 1965, 1815 C Street was listed under the umbrella of the growing Bellingham Medical Center as "J and K units."
The relationships along C Street between all of these medical structures and their patients stretched for about thirty-four years. But nothing is forever. A shift in the mid-1990s from medical clinics and pharmacies was slow but sure. 1996 brought many changes. 1811 found itself temporarily empty, and some of the luckier ugly buildings of the aging Bellingham Medical Center campus were put out of their misery, demolished to accommodate the new Bellingham police station. After demolition, three structures remained. One, the beautiful, two-storied medical building facing Dupont, soldiered on with the badge of 1800 C Street, while two other tired medical buildings were pressed into service for the police department compound. Somewhat altered, they are still there today, laboring away behind a chain-link fence and barbed wire.
To gather the short parade of occupants of 1811 since its birth, I paged through one old city directory after another. In the 1957 Bellingham City Directory — likely the time of the structure's completion — Graham Prescriptions is listed. The public library does not have a 1958 directory, but I can say that by 1959, Graham Prescriptions shared the building with Center Snack Shop, which I mentioned had recently operated at the address of 1801. This relationship between these two businesses under one roof existed until 1973 as Glen Gossage Pharmacy took over the space of Graham Prescriptions. By 1977, Center Snack Shop was no longer listed, and nothing had taken its place. But that may have been a transitional year as a new food establishment took root in the Center Snack Shop's old digs. In 1978, this new business was in operation and named something more memorable — don't giggle — The Munchery Coffee Shop. In 1994 Glen Gossage Pharmacy was still on-site with The Munchery, but by 1995 the pharmacy space was vacant while The Munchery munched on for only one more year. By 1996, The Munchery was gone. With old pharmacy space still hollow, this left the building empty for the first time since its completion twenty-nine years before. That's a good run for a building, and this recess did not last for long. In 1997, the legal firm of Nelson, Brinson, and Elich took over the entire place and continued to operate, in one version or another, as the final tenants until 2020.
Since a building's true worth is more than just novel appearances on its opening day, I can only imagine the inherent liabilities of this type of attractive yet harsh architecture over time. Ever the glutton for philosophical collisions, I swig stories of glorious idealism clashing with cold, hard reality and find it fascinating how stakeholders manage such conflicts. Several of these muddy tales are wonderfully showcased in Richard Snow's delightful book, Disney's Land, Harold Zellman and Roger Friedland's enlightening read about Frank Lloyd Wright, The Fellowship, and James Dugan's riveting, riotous account of human hyperbole and folly in The Great Iron Ship. So, what was it like for the untold number of people who worked during its sixty-plus years, eight-hour shifts in what amounted to an upside-down, glass-and-steel milk crate? And, for that matter, what was it like for its owners to maintain? For a more objective perspective about working conditions inside that building, I reached out to an attorney who worked there since 1997. But I was just a dollar historian among the urgent static of a lawyer's stack of solid-gold emails, and it should be of no surprise that in reply, all I heard were crickets.
Since I couldn't get even an abbreviated glimpse of 1811's track record, I think a survey of possibilities through dissection is in order here, and coming from a life in building trades, I see red flags in every plane of this building.
First of all, an interior enclosed with glass walls can come at a high cost. What a blinding hothouse it must have been in the sunnier months. Even if there were air vents to ventilate the sizzling flat roof, the heat right above their heads still must have only added to their agony. Of course, air conditioning would have been a standard weapon against inhumane temperatures inside. That, along with acres of window blinds, could have minimized the glare and passive-solar physics of the greenhouse that it was. But in that context, air-conditioning may have eventually become an expensive, desperate tool in an age of rising energy costs. In the winter, again, with all that glass, it also must have been as costly to keep the spaces heated to a comfy 65 degrees. The secondary drop ceiling topped with insulation batts would have helped mitigate this issue, and the forced-air heat vents embedded in the concrete floor did all they could to keep the chill at bay. On a subsequent visit, I noticed that the primary ceiling drops down maybe 18" and then oddly angles back up at 45 degrees to meet the tops of the windows. I believe this reflects the shape of spindly steel roof trusses hidden beneath the ceiling's drywall veneer, and the spaces between the trusses would have provided a cavity for insulation. Whatever attempts the builders and later owners made to combat the cold, I pray they did not also rely on electric baseboard heaters.
Considering the walls of glazing that wrap the building, it's my educated guess that insulated glass units — or IGUs —eventually having become more widely available in the 1950s and 1960s, were installed at the time of the old pharmacy's construction. These, however, would have been rudimentary and inefficient versions over the better IGUs we know today. Based on the twenty or thirty-year lifespan of insulated glass, the heavily fogged panels presently in place demonstrate they have lost their insulating qualities — a hint they were perhaps installed about 1997 or earlier. What joy it must have been to gaze out through walls of moisture. Perhaps this fogging is a testament to the owner's strategic plan of deferred maintenance during its last few decades of use.
And what about the steel-framed structure? That exposed exoskeleton of hollow, square-tubed steel must have delivered some degree of cold, and even condensation, into the interior. It does not appear the owners addressed this; no visible attempts to buffer occupants from the chilly metal exist other than thin strips of who-knows-what along the steel baseboards. Glued on as afterthoughts, these show signs of adhesive failure as they buckle and bend outwards like flaps of Formica laminate.
Another area of concern is the flat roof. Flat roofs inevitably become a weak spot on older buildings in the Pacific Northwest's traditionally wet climate. In this case, the roof is constructed as an unusual layer-cake of wonders. Cinnamon-colored steel roof trusses covered with sheets of galvanized corrugated steel Pringles, all smothered with a four-inch bed of almond-paste mortar topped with a sumptuous frosting of dark-chocolate torch-down tar roofing all make up this odd dessert. Sprinkled with protrusions of sewer vents and an electrical mast, what a treat it would be with coffee. But after 20 or 30 years of being massaged by broad temperature fluctuations, the likelihood of leaks as its petroleum-based, torch-down roof materials eventually grew brittle and cracked could have been a nuisance. Experiencing the stains and drips of this slow failure may have occurred around 1977 and perhaps again in 1997. But this is only a possibility, and we will never know for sure. If deferred maintenance was indeed happening as indicated by the window failures, I doubt the old pharmacy got an expensive, new hat in 2017 — a time so near the conclusion of the structure's career.
Finally, there is the floor. I suspect it is concrete. Working shift after shift on such an unforgiving surface beneath staff's feet certainly would have been slow hell on the human skeleton. This is why when people tell me that hell lies below, I believe them.
It's no wonder I don't see more of these old glass boxes around.
Oh, well, I suppose ground-breaking design comes at a price. Owners of forward-thinking Frank Lloyd Wright structures continue to have their share of problems, too. The only difference here is that each of their expensive engineering mitigations of Wright's legacy costs well into the millions. But, to them, it's worth every penny.
During my initial photographic visit in February 2021, I peeked through the windows of the severe little building to ascertain the status of its demise. Were any businesses still occupying the place? Boxes of paperwork from the last tenants remained stacked on the floor, but the building appeared otherwise empty and no longer in use. Those stacked boxes of legalese and procrastination remained there through the following seasons, and by autumn, the boxes had finally moved out. Both 1811 and 1815 sat vacant with no more activity than a few posted "Do Not Enter" signs.
For a while, all was quiet on C street. That is, until recently, as I noticed the typical, clockwork symptoms of a structure's impending oblivion. In December of 2021, I found 1811 and 1815 with long demolition trailers parked behind them when I arrived. Being a Saturday, everything was peaceful. Workers had cleared away Rhodendron bushes from flower beds behind 1815, and outback of our glass-walled subject was a pile of debris of pink, tan, white, and silver — all the colors of the demolition rainbow. From a block away, these tones told me the pile's list of predictable ingredients. Wooden studs, pink fiberglass insulation, window blinds, florescent lights, conduit, and what looked like the entire building's drop ceiling was all stacked six feet high. Medical-grade solid core doors leaned nervously against the back of the building, naked and anxiously mingling as they waited for an unknown fate. A few days later, the bushes in front of overgrown 1815 C Street were trimmed back to its decorative fence panels, revealing an impressively well-hidden tent-hive of a homeless person. In an odd juxtaposition, workers in hazmat suits above were busy removing unknown materials from the roof. Peering through the windows of 1811, I could see that the building was halfway gutted, well on its way to becoming a simple, roomless box. Additional small events continued in quick succession over the following days. The interior was taped up with airtight sheets of plastic — a possible sign of interior hazardous material abatement — and on December 22, 2021, a temporary construction fence was finally in place, framing the entire site.
It won't be long now.
With the unavoidable loss of this structure, the insatiable stomach of much-needed housing will have feasted on another noteworthy example from Bellingham's architectural inventory. It isn't the first landmark lost to change, and it won't be the last. Local interest has kept alive the 1912 craftsman Roeder Home, the streamlined-moderne Bellingham High School, the mid-19th-century Territorial Courthouse in Old Town, even a fountain by George Tsutakawa still standing near the hospital since 1976 — all worthy examples. But, with the total erasure of the 1951 Lee Memorial Park Fountain in 2018 and the imminent removal of this remarkable building at 1811 C Street falling under the radar, I feel that preservation has not caught up with Bellingham's endangered modernism yet. I hope interest does catch up soon, as Bellingham has more keepers in that vein.
As an exceptional, sincere statement of modernist design philosophy, I think 1811 C Street sits at the top of that pile. Despite this, it will be extinguished, demonstrating that even a singular example of design can be replaced with probable mediocrity no one will ever celebrate. 1811 may be astoundingly imperfect, but it is anything but dull. It is bright, bold, unusual, and strikingly simple. Before it is gone, at the very least, I can say I am glad it was here.