The Hamilton Building, which now houses VECO Engineering, nicknamed the ‘Flatiron’ for its resemblance to the Fuller Building in New York City
Photo by J. W. Sandison #1467, Whatcom Museum of History & Art.
On Sept. 5, 1889, Talifero Simpson Hamilton arrived at Colony Wharf aboard a passenger steamer and walked the three-quarter-mile long pier into town. His first impression of bustling little Whatcom was that “it looked good.”
T. S. Hamilton had come from Los Angeles ready to establish a furniture business if what he’d heard of the boom on Bellingham Bay was true. It turned out business was so good that Whatcom didn’t have a vacant storefront to spare.
John Stenger’s Bellingham Hotel was under construction and its commercial rooms would be ready in about two months. Hamilton signed an agreement with Stenger to secure a space and took a boat to Tacoma where he found a job for $75 a month.
Returning to Whatcom two months later, Hamilton opened the new Bellingham Bay (B.B.) Furniture Co. on Dec. 1, 1889. His inventory wasn’t quite worth $500 but it was paid for, as was the first month’s rent and the nifty “B.B. Furniture Co.” sign over the door. The 23-year old had $4 left in his pocket.
Sales were brisk for Hamilton’s new store, as all the new houses springing up in what are now the Columbia and Lettered Streets neighborhoods brought in scores of furniture hunters. Within two years, Hamilton had to seek larger accommodations and moved across the viaduct to the Victor Block on the northwest corner of Holly and Central Ave.
Photo by Emil Jacobson #80.74.815, Whatcom Museum of History & Art.
Hamilton’s initial success was tempered in 1893 as the local boom collapsed under the weight of a national financial panic. B.B. Furniture would survive, but there were many days when not a single customer came into the store. On one day in particular, Hamilton later recalled, his only entry in the ledger was the fact that his head clerk had “remained sober all day.”
The commercial district was moving east up Holly toward the former town of Sehome, which had joined with Whatcom in 1891 to become New Whatcom. Following this trend, Hamilton moved his store again, in 1896, to three buildings that faced Holly on the southwest corner of Bay St.
By 1900, a significant recovery was underway and the B.B. Furniture Co. secured two more buildings behind those it already had on Holly. The store offered an “Easy Payment Plan” that proved very popular and introduced new lines of goods that included “Everything to Furnish a Home.” Already the leading furniture retailer in Whatcom County, Hamilton expanded his territory by sending salesmen into Skagit, Snohomish, Island and San Juan counties. Even with five buildings for showrooms and stock, B.B. Furniture needed more space.
On August 19, 1903, T.S. Hamilton married Lillian Handschy and the following month the newlyweds took out a permit for construction of their new home at 1905 Eldridge Ave. The house, finished in 1904, was designed by an “old school friend” of Mr. Hamilton’s and had ten rooms, two baths, a distinctive stone-pillared porch and “one of the finest views of the bay to be had in the city.”
In 1907, work started on a new building that could finally house the growing B.B. Furniture Co. The “Hamilton Building” was designed by local architect Frank C. Burns, with much of the preliminary specifics regarding its concrete construction prepared by architect James Teague.
Thirty-five thousand barrels of cement and 200,000 pounds of steel later, the B.B. Furniture Co.’s new home was completed, at a cost of $100,000, in February 1908. The six-story structure, with basement and first-floor mezzanine, was wedged into the lot bounded by Bay, Prospect and W. Champion streets. It had 47,000 square feet of floor space and was described as “majestic,” a “concrete palace” that “elicits great praise from every citizen and passing stranger.” Residents pointed to it proudly as Bellingham’s “first skyscraper.”
The triangular Hamilton Building instantly gained the “Flatiron” name for its resemblance to the Daniel Burnham-designed Fuller Building in New York City. Completed in 1902, the Beaux Arts-style Fuller Building rose 22 stories over Madison Square and, like the much smaller Bellingham model, has the shape of a clothes iron.
One of Bellingham’s earliest buildings made of reinforced concrete, the home of B.B. Furniture was constructed strong enough to support the potential addition of another six stories. It was announced in 1910 that “these additional floors will soon be needed.” However, those plans were obviously never implemented. Still, the building would remain Bellingham’s tallest until the Herald Building was finished in 1926.
Photo by J. W. Sandison #1450, Whatcom Museum of History & Art.
On the night of April 28, 1924, B.B. Furniture was gutted by a spectacular fire that vented through the roof by way of an elevator shaft. Company records survived in a safe that fell into the basement when the office floor burned through. The blaze caused $400,000 in damage and left the building a burned-out shell.
But the structure’s concrete walls and steel beams were intact. With ninety percent of the store’s loss covered by insurance, reconstruction of the building’s interior soon began. The Herculean task included plumbing the entire building with a sprinkler system linked to a new water tank on the roof and the conversion of the first floor mezzanine into a full second floor. When Hamilton’s Flatiron Building finally re-opened, it had become seven stories tall without adding to its overall height.
For the complete B.B. Furniture experience, customers were encouraged to start at the top floor and work their way down. On the seventh floor was a “large stock of dining, dinette and breakfast sets, together with a line of nursery furniture.”
The sixth floor was “devoted to living-room suites and studio divans.” Featured on the fifth floor were lamps and “any occasional piece, whether chair, table, mirror, what-not, desk or bookcase.”
Bedroom furniture and bedding took up the entire fourth floor and included displays of forty complete bedroom sets. On the third floor were carpets, rugs, and linoleum, as well as blinds, curtains and draperies.
The second floor held “house wares, dishes and notions.” It also had a department that introduced “the latest gadgets.” In due time this included radios, electric refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and other technological innovations for the home.
The first floor was given over to “seasonal merchandise” and boasted eye-catching window displays from various departments. Furnaces and stoves were in the basement along with used furniture and the shipping department.
In 1933, Hamilton sold his share in B.B. Furniture to business partners Carl Lobe, Frank Mercer and William Carter. Lobe was the company’s new president, having started at the furniture store in 1901 as a stock boy in the china department. Working his way up, Lobe had become a department manager and, in 1914, vice-president.
B.B. Furniture was known for its employees’ long-term service, as well as its long-time customers, serving hundreds of families through two and three generations.
When Hamilton passed away in 1939, his will provided a six-figure endowment to be used in assisting Whatcom County’s disadvantaged. Lobe served as the chairman of B.B. Furniture’s board until his death in 1963. He had worked for the company for more than 60 years.
B.B. Furniture continued through the 1960s under the ownership of Lobe’s daughter, Carolyn, and her husband. They sold the business at the end of the decade to Cyril Van Selus and George Peterson, who renamed it Vans B.B. Furniture. In 1978, the store moved to 3550 Meridian, dropped the “B.B.” from its name and became Vans Furniture and Carpet Center.
The Flatiron stood vacant for an entire decade before Christenson Engineering restored the building and made it into their headquarters in 1990. It became the offices of VECO Engineering in 1993. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Bellingham Bay Furniture Co. Building is now fully occupied by the engineering firm of CH2M Hill, which purchased VECO just last month.