Historic Bellingham brick building gets new life as event venue

By Emily Hamann

It’s the oldest brick building in the state, and now it has a new life as a meeting place and event venue.

In March, the Tremaine family purchased the Territorial Whatcom County Courthouse from the Whatcom County Historical Society, which has been working to restore the building for almost 15 years.

Restoring the building was an enormous cost to the historical society, and the building still requires several thousand dollars worth of maintenance. Eventually it became too much for the historical society.

“I love the history. I love the architecture. I have a history with this building,” Rick Tremaine, a historical society member, said. “It’s too important. It just can’t be let go.”

Now Tremaine, along with his wife Janis and daughters Heather and Holly, plan to turn the building into an event venue.

Tremaine said the small building would be great for a small wedding, of around 40 guests, as well as group and club meetings, and other events.

Tremiane’s family goes back hundreds of years in Whatcom County. In fact, his family history can be traced back to that exact building. In 1884 his great grandfather went inside the building, which was a courthouse at the time, to get a marriage license to marry Tremaine’s great grandmother.

It was built in 1858. The Fraser River gold rush had begun a year earlier, and tens of thousands of people poured into the town of what was then called Whatcom on their way up north. The building originally served as a store to provision the gold seekers, and was the first masonry building built on Puget Sound.

Tall windows on the bottom floor of the courthouse overlook downtown Bellingham. (Courtesy of Trish Loop Candid Photography)
Tall windows on the bottom floor of the courthouse overlook downtown Bellingham. (Courtesy of Trish Loop Candid Photography)

But the boom in Whatcom was over almost as soon as it had begun, after the British Columbian governor decreed that anyone seeking gold in the Fraser River had to buy a permit in Victoria first. That meant Whatcom no longer offered a direct route to the gold fields.

In 1863 the county government purchased the brick building for use as acourthouse. It was the first brick courthouse in the Washington Territory, and also served as the jail, at one time housing Daniel “Dirty Dan” Harris, the founder of Fairhaven, who was jailed for killing a man during a brawl.

Over the years, the building was also home to a Civil War veterans organization, Jehovah’s Witness church services, a taxidermy shop, and the alternative newspaper Northwest Passage. In 1971, the building was listed on the Washington State Historical Register, and in 2003 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2004 the building was gifted to the Whatcom County Historical Society, which began the lengthy, expensive process of restoring it.

The historical society found drawings of the building from around 1903, and have tried to restore it back to that.

The doorway into the main room had been moved and had to be relocated. The original, 160-year-old wood floors still existed on the top floor, but were covered beneath several layers of other flooring. The bathroom had to be redone; the roof was leaking and had to be fixed.

“It was pretty bad,” Wes Gannaway, the president of the historical society, said.

In total, around $350,000 was put into the building. More than $200,000 of that came from state and county grants. The rest came from donations and the historical society, which took out loans to cover the costs.

“It was a quite a struggle because of the tremendous cost of everything,” Gannaway said.

And there’s more work that needs to be done. The brick needs to be resealed and Tremaine wants to replace all the windows, so it doesn’t take as much energy to heat. Tremaine plans to charge $250 per day for to rent out one floor, or $350 for both floors. Hourly rates are also available. His only goal in holding events, he said, is to recoup some of the costs of maintaining the building.

“I am convinced we are not going to make a profit on this building,” Tremiane said. “But I would at least like the building to pay for itself.”

For info on building rental, contact TremaineLLC@gmail.com or 360-319-0065.


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