What does ‘historic’ really mean?

Bellingham could get more historic districts

 

Lynette Felber stands in front of her 1908 craftsman home, which was originally built for Bellingham lawyer Charles A. Sather and his wife Emma. For the past year, Felber has volunteered her time to research and document the history of each home in the South Hill Neighborhood, as part of a project to establish a historic district.

 

Lynette Felber’s house in the South Hill Neighborhood turned 100 last year, and many of the surrounding homes will also soon reach that milestone.

For the past year, Felber has volunteered her time to research and document the history of every home in her neighborhood. This vast undertaking is part of the city’s Historic Resource Survey and Inventory Project, which is funded through a $150,000 Preserve America grant the city was awarded in 2007.

The project is focused on three Bellingham neighborhoods: South Hill, York and the Lettered Streets. Thus far, most of the research is complete and the final push is to nominate historic districts in those neighborhoods. Felber, who is the chair of the historic preservation committee for the South Hill Neighborhood, supports that effort.

This photo, from 1920, shows that few exterior changes have been made to Felber’s house.

“There are a significant number of historic homes in the neighborhood that are still intact,”

Felber said. “As a Bellingham resident and as someone who is interested in history, I think it’s important to preserve the historic structures we have left.”

But Bellingham residential neighborhoods aren’t the only parts of town that have potentially historic buildings. Beyond her own neighborhood, Felber is also adamant about saving the remaining Georgia-Pacific buildings on the waterfront.

“What we have at the waterfront is authentic and unique to Bellingham itself,” Felber said.

The fate of the former G-P buildings is yet undecided, but the issue sparked a lawsuit last year by the city to keep the port from demolishing three of the buildings. To some, those buildings are historic. To others, they are simply rundown old buildings.

So who decides what is and isn’t “historic?”

 

Defining ‘historic’

For a building or area to be deemed historic, it must first be on a local, state or federal historic register. To get on the local register, buildings must generally be at least 50 years old and have some documented historic significance, said city development specialist Katie Franks, who is also overseeing the Preserve America project.

There are financial benefits to being on the national register, but it’s a bit more difficult to get on that list, which is run by the National Park Service. The state list, called the Washington Heritage Register, is a little easier.

“There are some benefits with the state register, but it’s mostly honorary,” Franks said. “If a nomination doesn’t make the national list it usually makes the state list.”

For those looking to renovate a historic building, the Local Landmark Registry offers more than just a historic nameplate.

“Washington state has a special valuation tax incentive that they offer to local governments, which means we can offer special valuation to places listed on our local register,” Franks said.

The local register’s tax incentives allow a developer to deduct the renovation costs from the total assessed value of the property, thus lowering the taxes on the building, for up to 10 years.

Since Bellingham’s three historic districts — Sehome, Eldridge and Fairhaven — are on the National Register of Historic Places, buildings in those areas are subject to a different set of guidelines and also have more incentives available through the federal government. Of the three, Fairhaven is the only district to have regulations and guidelines regarding historic character.

In fact, in the Sehome and Eldridge historic districts, the designation doesn’t even stop landowners from tearing down their homes and building new ones.

“It essentially does not enforce any restrictions,” said Allen Matsumoto, former Sehome Neighborhood Association president. “You can, if you wish, tear down your house and build a glass box. It’s really just an honorarium and a label to make the community feel good.”

 

Preserving neighborhood character

So what’s the point of a historic district if there are no regulations?

For Felber, who has a doctorate in Victorian literature and culture, historic preservation is about acknowledging the past, even if only with an honorary title.

“I think it would be a sign of respect for our ancestors and for the people who built Bellingham and made it a great place to live,” Felber said. “I also think it would be beneficial to people in the community because homes in a historic district are valued higher.”

Older homes certainly do attract a higher price and also give a neighborhood character, said Matsumoto, who owns a 1928 home on Mason Street that was built by a Scandinavian millwright. Historic districts can also be a strong attraction for a neighborhood.

“When we were looking for a home in Bellingham, (the historic district) was something we liked,” Matsumoto said.

Now nine years after becoming a historic district, the Sehome Neighborhood is launching a campaign to identify historic homes with signs, much like the ones in the Eldridge historic district, stating whom the home was originally built for and when it was built.

Felber said she is hopeful to someday see such activities take place in her neighborhood, where many residents already know and cherish the history of their homes.

“Some people know the history of their house and are anxious to tell you about it,” she said. “Some of these homes have been in the family for years. Knowing the history of each house gives each owner a place in history as the next owners in a long line of owners.”

And by plotting the construction date of each home, it is possible to visualize how the South Hill Neighborhood developed over the years.

“One of the things we discovered was the movement of development up the hill,” Felber said. “More of the homes up here were built in the 1920s. There was a lot of infill in the ’20s — this was the suburb of the time.”

South Hill is far from being a simple suburb anymore, but through the historic registry, Felber hopes the neighborhood will retain some resemblance of its former self.

 

What is on the local historic register?

  • B&B Furniture Building (CH2M HILL), 1313 Bay St.
  • Barlow Building (Film is Truth), 211 W. Holly St.
  • BPOE Building (Elks), 1414 Cornwall Ave.
  • Old County Courthouse/T.G. Richardson Building, 1308 E St.
  • Daylight Building (Koi Cafe), 1201-1213 N. State St.
  • Fairhaven Firestation #2 (Fairhaven PAC), 1314 Harris Ave.
  • First Church of Christ Scientists (The Majestic), 1027 N. Forest St.
  • Immanuel School of Industries (Kaur Lounge), 1303 Astor St.
  • C.X. Larrabee House (Lairmont Manor), 405 Fieldstone Road
  • Leopold Hotel, 1224 Cornwall Ave.
  • Montague & McHugh Building (Crown Plaza), 114 W. Magnolia St.
  • Morse Hardware Company (Bellevue Healthcare), 1023-1025 N. State St.
  • Mount Baker Theatre, 106 N. Commercial St.
  • Roeder Home, 2600 Sunset Dr.
  • Roth Block, 1106 W. Holly St.
  • Sanitary Meat Market (Chuckanut Ridge Wine), 1015-1019 N. State St.
  • Sweet and Company, 1021 N. State St.
  • Waldron Building (Whidbey Island Bank), 1312 12th St.
  • Washington Grocery Building (The Woods Coffee), 1133-1135 Railroad Ave.
  • Whatcom Museum, 121 Prospect St.
  • Wolter/Tweit Home (Ennen Brothers), 1305 Old Fairhaven Parkway
  • Young Women’s Christian Association, 1026 N. Forest St.
  • For more information, visit www.cob.org and search for “historic preservation.”

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