Sunset Building stood on Holly for 80 years

Built in 1890, tenants included saloons, theaters, dentists, lawyers

The Sunset Building, the former de Mattos Block, after expansion gave it a fourth floor in 1907. The Hannah Block is on the left and the two-story Model Block is on the right. (Photo by J.W. Sandison #2410, Whatcom Museum of History & Art)

Jeff Jewel
   The Sunset Building, one of Bellingham’s greatest business blocks, stood for 80 years at the northwest corner of East Holly and State streets. The three-story building was financed by James P. de Mattos and named the “de Mattos Block” when erected in 1890.
   Its architect, Willis Ritchie, is best remembered for the half-dozen county courthouses he designed in Washington state during the early 1890s. The de Mattos Block’s entire Romanesque first floor, as well as the brick upper-floor detailing, was finished in sandstone from Nathan Hadley’s Sehome Stone Quarry at the top of Allen (Mason) St. Ritchie had the same stone used in the Whatcom County courthouse at G and 18th (Ellsworth) streets, which was under construction at the same time as de Mattos’ new building.
   De Mattos, frontier lawyer and judge, moved to Whatcom in January 1883 and, after the town incorporated later that year, was elected its first mayor. By the beginning of the railroad boom, de Mattos looked to contribute to “the city’s advancement” through investing in “one of the finest structures of its kind on Bellingham Bay.”
   The construction contract was for $23,650, yet before the building was done the contractor skipped town and left de Mattos scrambling to find a replacement. By its completion in October 1890, the building’s final cost had soared to more than $32,000! The new de Mattos Block, “handsomely finished inside and out,” had a frontage of 110 feet on Elk (State) St. and 50 feet on Holly.
   In 1893, the Silver Panic plunged the nation into a depression and that summer four banks failed in the Bellingham Bay towns. Mortgages were called in. De Mattos, his finances weakened by extra building expenses, sought compensation in court from his original contractor.
   By November 1893, even Nelson Bennett’s powerful First National Bank of Fairhaven was humbled. Bennett, the bank’s president and instigator behind the Fairhaven boom, reorganized the First National Bank of Fairhaven, changed its name to the Bennett National Bank and moved to New Whatcom.
   Taking up the de Mattos Block’s prominent first-floor corner, the arrival of Bennett’s bank was viewed by many in New Whatcom as signifying the obvious superiority of their city over its southern rival. They didn’t get to gloat for long, however, as the depression claimed the Bennett National on Sept. 14, 1896.
   Financial institutions may have tumbled, but the booze business remained steady. Simon McLeod’s C.P.R. Liquor Store, both a saloon and wholesale outlet, moved into a de Mattos Block storefront at 217 E. Holly early in 1896. The popular watering hole’s moniker paid homage to the Canadian Pacific Railway that New Whatcom was courting.
   De Mattos lost his building to creditors in 1898 when his tangle of lawsuits ended poorly in the Washington State Supreme Court. The “de Mattos Block” was renamed the Sunset Block and, eventually, the Sunset Building.
   At the turn of the century, the post office moved into the Sunset Building’s north-end storefront at 1307 Elk St. In a span of only four years, postmaster Hugh Eldridge saw this one post office serve a succession of three municipalities: New Whatcom, Whatcom and Bellingham. The post office opened in more spacious accommodations in a building on Commercial Street in July 1904.
   The three-story Hannah Block was constructed in 1902 just west of the Sunset Building. A one-story “annex” at 215 E. Holly was built between the two larger structures that became Charles Otto’s Whatcom Café. More a saloon than a restaurant, the Whatcom Café specialized in the “businessman’s lunch,” an inexpensive yet salty menu designed more for generating a thirst than satisfying an appetite.
   Among the Sunset Building’s tenants in 1905 were realtor B.H. Silver, druggists Nattrass & Arnold, homeopath Dr. Charles Teel, and the law firm of Phillips & Staley.
   The building gained a heightened profile when the Bellingham Bay Improvement Co. (BBI) moved into the Sunset’s first-floor corner at 1305 Elk St. in 1906. The BBI was in its golden age, under GIen Hyatt, clearing and selling vast tracts of residential lots across Bellingham’s north side.
   In 1907, the Sunset Building was made four-stories with addition of an extra floor that featured large Parisian-style dormers, mansard roof and wide cornice. Three stories were added to the adjoining one-story annex, fully incorporating it into the Sunset Building with matching appearance.
   The expansion gave the building a total of 74 rooms, 24 on each floor above the first. At the center of the building was a 15-by-40 foot “air and light shaft” allowing “an unusual amount of light” to enter the inside rooms.
   Interior woodwork was entirely in “rubbed antique oak” with offices “tinted according to the tastes of the occupants.” Medical offices were finished in “special aseptic enamel” for Dr. William Keyes, Dr. W.D. Kirkpatrick, Dr. A. Macrae Smith, and Dr. Edward Ruge.
   Landscape engineer Everett C. Lyle, designer of the Broadway Park neighborhood, had his office in the Sunset Building, as did civil engineer A.R. Campbell.
   Following the expansion, the New York Dental Parlors took up much of the second floor. The firm’s name was spelled out in electric bulbs on a sign hung above Holly St. that, at night, shone brighter than the city’s strings of streetlamps.
   Ads for the New York Dental Parlors claimed they were “The Big Men in Painless Dentistry” with Dr. Jordan in charge of fillings, Dr. Beach an “expert crown and bridge worker,” and Dr. Gilbert committed to false teeth that fit. Silver fillings were 50 cents and 22-karat gold crowns cost $5 dollars. The $8 price for a full set of dentures came with “free painless extracting.”
   Photographer J.B. Hann established a studio and lab in Room 415, on the Sunset’s new fourth floor, which he utilized until World War I. The darkroom would be in continual use for the next 38 years by a succession of renowned Bellingham photographers: Theodore Brown from 1914 to 1921, M.F. Jukes through the 1920s, and E.A. Hegg through the 1930s and World War II.
   Architects with offices in the building included Frank C. Burns and, later, T.F. Doan. Among Burns’ designs were the Daylight Building and Aftermath Clubhouse. The prolific Doan created such buildings as Roeder School, Edens Hall and the Hotel Cissna (Mt. Baker Apts.).
   Robert Oberlatz, merchant tailor, had his work rooms in the basement, as did tailor Ludwig Laznicka for the following generation. The Sunset’s cellar was also home to the tonsorial parlor of Jim Inks, Bellingham’s pioneer barber.
   The Whatcom Café was forced out of business on Jan. 1, 1911, when local prohibition closed all 50 plus Bellingham saloons. Later that year, Clifford Keplinger had the vacated bar remodeled into a storefront cinema called the Star Theatre.
   The Sunset also boasted the law offices of attorneys Charles Hurlbut, John Kellogg and Walter Whitcomb. And let’s not forget the Stocker Sisters, Bertha and Edna, chiropodists in Room 211.
   In December 1918, W.S. Quimby purchased the Star and turned it into a “ten-cent house” renamed the Dream Theatre. One of Quimby’s assistants convinced him to equip the Dream with sound effects to accompany t
he silent movies. Various contraptions produced the sounds of a galloping horse, a creaking door, a screeching car, howling wind and “the justly infamous stage thunder.” But the sound-effects’ operator often missed his cue, annoying the audience when he “would go on and keep a horse running after it had stopped on the film.” The effects, which had cost Quimby a rich $250, were discontinued.
   Fox Bellingham Theatres closed the 350-seat Dream Theatre in 1928, but Albert Haley and Bill Gibson brought it back. They installed new seats and restrooms, reopening the Dream on Nov. 2, 1929, as a “10 and 15 cent house” of second-run movies, musical acts and newsreels. The Dream boasted “the only theater orchestra north of Seattle” and, though “talkies” were the latest breakthrough in cinematic technology, the Dream promised only silent films. The theater’s motto: “Talk Is Cheap—Silence Is Golden.”
   When the Depression killed the Dream in 1932, Edward Adams revived it the following year as the People’s Theatre. The independent People’s showed second-run and low-budget films, even risqué material. The latter earned it a nickname of “the Peeps” and everyone who remembers this theater claims that their parents never allowed them to go there. The People’s survived both the Depression and World War II with cheap thrills and no frills.
   On April 4, 1951, a refurbished People’s opened as the Holly Theatre, operated by Frank Pratt. The Holly’s niche was an after-dinner single-feature, “so that people can arrive early and leave early,” along with newsreel and the Westbrook Van Voorhis-narrated series March of Time. Ever-increasing competition from television caused Pratt to shutdown the Holly Theatre in March 1955.
   In the 1960s, Sunset Building tenants included trade unions, the Christian Science Reading Room and Barbara Ireland’s Piano Studio, as well as counter-culture havens like The Changing Scene restaurant, the Artists’ Place and Bellingham Art Gallery. The front-corner office was used as local Democratic headquarters for the ill-fated 1968 election.
   In 1971, the National Bank of Commerce chose the northwest corner of State and Holly as the place for its new bank building. The bank’s old location in the Mason Building could not accommodate expanded drive-up service.
   The historic Sunset, along with the neighboring Hannah and Model blocks, were torn down that autumn. But after the National Bank of Commerce failed to acquire adjoining property, it looked for another site. The corner was left as a parking lot for the next 20 years. A Horizon Bank branch is currently on that corner.

Photo by Galen Beiry #1996.10.1671, Whatcom Museum of History & Art
Wrecking the Sunset Building in early October 1971. (Photo by Galen Biery #1996.10.1671, Whatcom Museum of History & Art)



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