Vanished Houses On High
It is interesting when big civic changes of the past throw history enthusiasts of the future a bone. Two leftovers along one block of High Street in Bellingham, WA — an old set of steps with its ball-topped newel post and a long, rock wall — are indeed a couple of wonderful bones to chew.
Remnants like these are some of those surprising details left after a neighborhood undergoes an invasive but necessary city improvement. I usually expect a big project to eliminate every detail that existed, leaving behind nothing for us to ponder. Time can be so thorough when it erases things. Yet, for some glorious and mysterious reason, here they still are.
Having once lived on High Street myself, I have been curious about these remnants for decades. Finally, in the spring of 2020, I peeled back the pages of time to learn what that stretch of High Street once looked like. Investigating the 1950 aerial image on the City of Bellingham’s website, it is fascinating to see how much has changed. One block to the east from High Street, the southern-most end of Billy Frank Jr. Street (originally named Indian Street) once narrowed from a residential street into an undeveloped, dead-end alley about the width of a wheel-barrow — right at the foot of Sehome Hill. Around that same time, High Street led right up to the university campus and was populated with an uninterrupted line of late 19th-century and early 20th-century homes and apartments. By the early 1960s, this was no longer the case.
In an aerial photo from1963, quiet Indian Street woke up one morning to find it had become a wider avenue, losing its green strips on both sides of the street for shoulder parking, and the houses along one side of an entire block of High Street were gone, erased by a wide, sweeping thoroughfare. This efficiently connected for the first time Indian with High Street and WWU’s campus, and the necessary removal of homes at this spot was a harbinger of bigger projects to come. To satiate the need for additional parking and high-density student housing, WWU’s hungry campus would annex more residential properties farther up High Street in the following decades.
I am not sure, but it is an educated guess that after the residents had moved out and this entire block of homes was rubber-stamped by the city into legal oblivion, many vacated houses along the path of the snaking new connector if they were not jacked up and moved elsewhere, were perhaps demolished and hauled away or, as was sometimes the practice of the time, bulldozed into a pile with their flattened garages and burned on site. Whatever their fate, with their mature landscaping, trees, and lovely lawns, seven of those modest houses once stood in a dignified row, right above the sidewalk, at the 700-block of High Street — exactly where these two details can be seen today.
Both of these leftovers are poignant.
When stopping for a moment to drink in the obscured set of steps long ago stripped of its address, it is wonderfully haunting, drifting one into another time. It leads up to the phantom of a pathway that meandered like a backward ‘S’ through nicely landscaped flower gardens of a hipped-roof home on the biggest lot of the seven lost houses. The house appears to have been possibly two-stories high, surrounded by a nice yard front and back, with beautifully large deciduous trees shading the back yard. At the rear of the property, there was a single-storied garage that met the alley.
The steps out front were at one time significant to the proud house that once was — a focal point of access for so many for so long, a formal, and sturdy interface with the neighborhood, sidewalk, and street. Postal carriers and service technicians likely would have traipsed up them. Milk-truck drivers may have done the same, setting fresh milk bottles on the porch, if not at a side door nearer the kitchen. Lonely traveling salespeople, in their hopeful hustle for a sale, would have left the sidewalk on these steps to ring the doorbells of their income potential. Maybe even a few pianos were delivered via these steps by clever piano movers. Add to this, years of a likely parade of families, renters, and eager college students moving furniture up into and back down these steps throughout the seasons. Today, however, the world has moved on, turning its back on this proud, purposeful landscaping feature it once faced.
It is clear that in 1950 each house along this stretch had a modest version of these front steps. But their pathways through the front lawns were not whimsical like the first, each meeting High Street instead with a no-frills perpendicularity. Just why the other six sets of steps were removed while this one set of steps was left behind may never be solved, the reason forever locked behind the curtain of time.
As eerie as the remaining buried set of steps may be, it is also poetically defiant. Holding an insulting stack of broken concrete with zen-like resignation, it labors on against tree roots, the pressures of the hill, erosion, and the mockery of youth. With a pair of goofy eyes drawn on the remaining sandstone ball, and graffiti defacing the newel post itself, it appears that I am not the only one to notice this irresistible landscape detail. Regardless of the sophomoric treatment of this gem, the still-intact, ball-shaped sandstone finial is certainly the rare, stone cherry on top. I can’t help but wonder where its mate ended up. Perhaps it rolled to the bottom of High Street half a century ago.
The rock retaining wall, on the other hand, seems generally unmolested at the time of this writing. Still dutifully holding back the hill, just up the sidewalk a bit, it is a beautiful vintage piece of work to see, with various naturally-colored river stones lovingly cemented in place. When I took the photo, the vines had just been given a haircut, hinting that someone, perhaps a neighbor, also appreciates the attractive old wall, allowing a passerby to view it in all its glory. Built below where a front yard would have been, it’s plausible that it could have been made by a former homeowner, and I wonder if there could have been more to the wall that was lost during demolition. It’s stepped return wall at one end adds even more personality, demarcating what might have been the southeastern junction of the old property lines or punctuating a corner where another set of steps may have ascended to the missing house. Sadly, since this photo was taken, a large stone is now missing from the corner, and the ivy has grown back over the rocks. Still, the wall is otherwise holding up to all the opposing forces pretty well — no major cracks or vandalism — just sitting proud as if nothing has changed.
In some ways, nothing has. The college neighborhood up High Street, despite more transformative changes over the years just a few blocks further, is still peaceful to stroll through and most of the old homes remain. As the last two children of a clan of vanished houses, I’m delighted these orphan siblings are still available for anyone to savor, living on to tell us their fading tale.