In Bellingham, a museum catches the light

Bellingham's Lightcatcher and itds courtyard. Photo: Tim Bies/Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects.

Things have changed in Bellingham, Washington, since I was a kid. Thanks to for this report on Saturday’s grand opening of the Lightcatcher, the showpiece of an $18.3 million addition and refurbishment to the Whatcom Museum that adds 42,000 square feet of gallery, education, storage and public spaces.

The $12.8 million new building’s defining feature is a 36-foot-tall, 180-foot-long curving wall of glass designed to capture natural light, a precious commodity in Whatcom County, which butts up against the Canadian border to the north and the gray marine storms that blow in from Georgia Strait to the west. Designed by Jim Olson of the Seattle firm Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, the new building becomes the focus of a downtown museum district that also includes the original museum building, in the city’s Victorian-style 1892 former city hall, and a children’s/education center next door in a 1926 former fire hall. The city hall building, which will focus more of its attention on the museum’s historical collections, has been closed for repairs and is expected to reopen in December.

Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall buildingThe design firm says the Lightcatcher’s concept is “that of a museum turned inside out” to make the building as active on the outside as it will be on the inside.” For those who track such things, the Lightcatcher is also Washington state’s first museum building to earn a silver LEEDS environmental-efficiency designation.

Eighteen million dollars may sound like spare change in the high-striving world of Big Civic Statement new museum buildings, where one mid-major city’s Calatrava rises up to smite its neighbor’s Gehry in a fierce battle of one-upsmanship.

But for a city like Bellingham, which has 75,000 people in a county with a population of 166,000, raising that much for a project like this is a huge achievement. And in a way it shouldn’t be a surprise: The city’s college, Western Washington University, has an outdoor sculpture collection that boasts some major 20th century names, among them Isamu Noguchi, Donald Judd, Robert Maki, Richard Serra, Mark diSuvero and Bruce Nauman.

Still, I confess I’m both surprised and pleased. I grew up in Whatcom County, and Bellingham was the close big city when I was a kid (Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia were the really big cities, and I got to know both of them, too, but with Bellingham I was intimate). Then, in the mid- to late 1960s, I went to college at Western, and stayed for a couple of years after that as a fledgling journalist.

In the 1950s and ’60s Bellingham was smaller, poorer and much more stagnant, or at least static. It had a population of about 35,000 people and was known more for the smell of its bayside pulp mill than for its cultural achievements. There was a town/gown split, and the town was proud of its blue-collar roots. I was, too, although I was also frustrated by the place’s infernal short-sightedness. It had a good, solid downtown that, like so many other small cities, it was letting go to rot. Starting in the ’70s the town boomed northward into a godawful cookie-cutter mall-and-shopping district that today has worse traffic tangles than anyplace I can think of in Seattle or Portland.

In my early 20s I was sure, as people in their early 20s are, that the city politicians and county commissioners were venal or stupid or both. Certainly immediate opportunity usually trumped foresight. The county routinely approved slap-’em-up developments in the middle of farmland with no accounting for necessary support services. It was here, as a young reporter and editor, that I learned how important planning is, because there basically wasn’t any. In Whatcom County, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” was much more than a pop song.

Yet Whatcom County was also a beautiful place, a natural wonderland, and on a good day you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. I eventually left, for the usual reasons of ambition, frustration and opportunity. But I left with some regret. My roots were deep, and I consciously pulled them out. When I moved east to an inland city the loss of marine air felt like an amputation, and while the rolling hills of upstate New York had their own magic, they lacked the embracing, fearsome, consoling, primitive power of Mt. Baker and the jagged North Cascades. Still, as my father once put it, you can’t eat scenery. And scenery alone can’t feed your mind.

When I was young the town’s cultural center for me was neither the college nor the museum but the Bellingham Public Library, just a couple of blocks from the museum, where for a long time my father would go every Wednesday night. Whichever kids wanted to go along — almost always my older and younger sister, sometimes my oldest sister, sometimes one or all of the three younger boys — would jump into the car to enjoy a few hours lost in the stacks. Then home at 9 when the library closed, laden with things to read before the next Wednesday night.

A few years later, at the height of the Vietnam war, peace vigils were held regularly on the library lawn. I was in college then, working on the school paper. One day my editor, a Vietnam vet named John Stolpe, pointed out the usual array of dark suits up on the library roof, taking pictures of the crowd. We always assumed they were FBI, although they might have been local police.

John had his camera. “Come on,” he said. “Follow me.” We went around to the side of the library, where a metal ladder was bolted to the building. We climbed to the top, and John began taking pictures of the G-men taking pictures. Eventually one of them turned around. “What are you guys doing?” he shouted, and started moving toward us.

I don’t remember if those photos ever saw print — probably not — but I do remember that in a pinch a young reporter can scramble down a ladder very fast.

So, I bolted. And I don’t mean from the FBI. Bellingham went its way, I went mine, and I haven’t regretted it. But other people stayed in the city, and still others came, and Bellingham became a different place than the one lodged in my memory. It became a city that, for one thing, thinks enough of the downtown that it once forsook to invest $18 million in a museum.

I like that. Maybe they’ve unpaved part of paradise while I wasn’t looking. I’ll have to go check it out.


  • Top photo: Exterior and courtyard of the Whatcom Museum’s new Lightcatcher building. Credit: Tim Bies/Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects.
  • Inset photo: Whatcom Musuem’s original building, the old 1892 city hall. Credit: Whatcom Museum.