Held one of city’s oldest banks, Seattle First National, for more than 50 years
whatcom historical society
For 68 years, from 1891 to 1959, the magnificent stone building known as the Lighthouse Block graced the southeast corner of Cornwall and Holly Street in downtown Bellingham. During its lifetime, the ornate Lighthouse Block reflected the enthusiastic commercial growth of the city in the early 1890s and its continued economic success in the 20th century.
As home to one of the city’s major banking institutions for 51 years, the Lighthouse Block was a center of financial activity for numerous businesses, and a focal point in the daily personal financial transactions of countless city residents. The block’s corner turret topped by an onion-domed clock tower became a landmark of downtown Bellingham while it hosted the First National Bank from 1908 through 1939, and then the bank’s successor, Seattle First National Bank, until 1959.
The Lighthouse Block derived its name from Col. John C. Lighthouse, a wealthy businessman who operated a leather goods factory and tannery in Rochester, N. Y. Lighthouse, who was born in 1844, is credited with the invention of the leather U.S. Mail Pouch, which his firm produced under an exclusive contract from the government’s Post Office Department.
As a young man, Lighthouse became interested in U.S. coins, and shortly before the Civil War, he began collecting them as a hobby. Having extensive financial resources as an adult, he eventually amassed one of the largest and most notable coin collections ever assembled, and became a highly regarded expert in the field of coin collecting.
Following his commercial success, Lighthouse looked for further investment opportunities. His interest in coins and money quite naturally led him to banking, and the rapid expansion of Bellingham in the early 1890s attracted his attention, along with other Eastern investors.
In January of 1890, Lighthouse purchased a 50-foot lot at the corner of Holly and Cornwall for $8,500, on which he planned to construct an impressive bank building within six months. A distinguishing mark of the new building would be a clock tower over the main entrance at the corner.
Lighthouse’s new structure would be three stories high, plus a basement, with the first floor designed to house a bank and other retail businesses. The second floor would be designed for professional offices, and the third floor would have extended height in order to be used as a theater or opera house.
Construction of the Lighthouse Building began on June 28, 1890, with a crew of 30 men excavating the basement. Sandstone from the Chuckanut Quarry and bricks from local brickyards were the building’s primary construction components used by contractor C.H. Stocks. As the building neared completion in January 1891, Col. Lighthouse arrived from New York to inspect his building and arrange for its opening.
Completed at a cost of $55,000, the Lighthouse Block opened on January 30, 1891, with more than 1,000 people attending the grand ball of the Caledonian Club. Held in conjunction with the club’s celebration of Scottish poet Robert Burn’s birthday, the event included readings of Burn’s works, singing, dancing and stage presentations.
One of the first tenants attracted to the Lighthouse Block was the Whatcom Post Office, which moved into the building on Feb. 13, 1891, installing 1,300 post office boxes. Perhaps Col. Lighthouse’s business ties with the Post Office Department facilitated this move. For a time, the building also housed the United States Customs House and Immigration Bureau.
Looking to turn a quick profit from his investment, Col. Lighthouse sold his building on March 6, 1891, to the Pacific Loan, Trust & Safe Deposit Company for $75,000. As planned, the bank occupied the first floor, while offices were filling with tenants on the second floor.
The block’s top floor Lighthouse Theater opened on April 22, 1891, with a production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” At the time of its opening the Lighthouse was the second largest (to Tacoma) opera house in Washington, possessing a 30-by-44 foot stage and seating for more than 700 patrons. Notable among many events at the theater were public readings given by author Mark Twain during his visit to Bellingham in August 1895.
Several problems with the structure contributed to the Lighthouse Theater’s closure in the late 1890s. A primary concern was the danger of fire, as the theater had only one narrow exit, with a single twisting staircase requiring four turns to reach the street level. There were no fire escapes. In addition to these problems, the Lighthouse Building had no central heating and no elevator.
New ownership came to the building when it was purchased in November 1902 by downtown developers, brothers Charles and William Roehl, who immediately launched an upgrade, guided by local architect William Cox.
A primary structural change was to convert the theater into two separate floors, each having 22 offices. A steam heating system was installed, as well as the first magnetically operated elevator in the city.
After six years of ownership, the Roehls sold the Lighthouse Block to its long-term owner, First National Bank of Bellingham, on April 5, 1908, for $95,000.
In addition to the bank on the ground floor, the building housed 65 office tenants, ranging from a barber to attorneys, physicians and music teachers.
A major remodel to the block was launched by First National Bank in 1926.
In the remodel, the main entrance was moved from the corner turret to the Holly St. side of the building and marble flooring was installed. A huge vault was placed in the basement.
Two impressively large bronze doors for the entrance were designed by famed architect F. Stanley Piper, and made by local metal caster Knute Evertz.
Into the 1930s, the Lighthouse Block’s First National Bank was Whatcom County’s largest and most influential financial institution.
The bank’s success attracted the interest of Seattle First National Bank, which purchased it, the block, and its assets of more than $170 million in April 1939.
Seattle First National maintained its operation in the Lighthouse Block until 1959, when it constructed a new facility on Holly Street immediately east of the original corner structure.
Demolition of the fortress-like Lighthouse Block began on May 10, 1959, two weeks after the bank opened in its new quarters. Little is known of the disposition of artifacts from the building.
The tower clock’s chimes may have been moved to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
A single-story concrete and glass retail building replaced the old stone structure.
This new building eventually was eventually combined with Seattle First’s newer office and now as a branch of Bank of America occupies the corner of Holly and Cornwall, once guarded so grandly by the Lighthouse Block.
Local historian Rosamonde Van Miert has noted that a shadow of the Lighthouse Block can be seen today, outlined in contrasting paint on the north side of the Leopold Retirement Community on Cornwall.