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Western Washington University

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New Whatcom Normal School
1896–present. 516 High St.
  • (Photograph by Lynette Felber)

Western Washington University (WWU) is acclaimed for the stunning beauty of its hillside setting overlooking Bellingham Bay and for its campus buildings designed by notable Pacific Northwest architects. The institution has been growing for more than 100 years, and its architecture ranges from period revival styles to striking examples of modernism. WWU, or “Western,” also features an impressive collection of public sculptures. As a public state university, its history illustrates national trends in higher education: the movement from the early-twentieth-century teacher training in normal schools, to cluster colleges in the 1960s and 1970s, to academic and technical specialization in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Located today in Bellingham, the institution began as the private Northwest Normal School in Lynden, 15 miles north of its current campus. In its permanent location, it was founded as the New Whatcom State Normal School on February 24, 1893. Skillings and Corner’s Main Building (later dubbed “Old Main”), completed in 1896, was the inaugural building at the center of the original 10-acre site. Classes were first held in 1899 after a 3-year delay in funding, establishing a campus pattern of growth and curtailment that led to a sequence of master plans and bursts of construction. As the campus expanded, first filling in the space adjacent to the original buildings and then moving southward, it produced a succession of character areas in diverse architectural styles.

Evolving from a normal school to a state university, the institution also embodied American trends in teacher education. During its formative years as a normal school, it trained primarily young women destined for teaching in one-room rural schoolhouses. From 1901 to 1967, teachers learned by training in a school on campus that educated local children. Before the first dormitory was constructed, the student teachers lived in boarding houses, inspected and monitored by normal school staff. An early women’s residence, Edens Hall (1903, demolished), was overseen by a matron. Resembling a large American foursquare house, it was expanded in 1907 with an expansive but similarly styled addition to accommodate more sleeping rooms and dining facilities. Over the years, the college experienced several name changes, reflecting the increasing rigor of qualifications required for teacher certification. Under the administration of President Charles H. Fisher, from 1923 to 1939, the school worked to raise standards of professional education and actively recruited faculty with terminal degrees and doctorates. In 1937, the institution became Western Washington State College of Education, and in 1961, Western Washington State College. In 1977, it adopted its current name.

As the baby boomers began to reach college age in the 1960s, enrollment boomed as well, increasing to over 8,600 by 1969. In addition to this growth, the institution responded to countercultural values of the time: demands for a more student-centered curricula and interest in the nascent environmental movement. Perhaps because of its isolated geography and small city setting, WWU did not follow the example of those campuses that responded to fears of violent student demonstrations by erecting concrete monoliths with slit windows. Fourteen new buildings were added during this decade, five of them dormitories. In keeping with progressive educational trends and at the urging of some faculty and students, the campus developed the Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, an experimental cluster college. In 1970, Western Washington State College also established the Huxley College of Environmental Studies, which is thought to be the first program in the nation with an environmental studies focus. Today with an enrollment of over 15,000 students and encompassing some 215 acres, WWU includes the 38-acre Sehome Arboretum, a verdant forested backdrop to the campus.

Campus planning and architecture can be loosely traced by moving geographically from north to south, which reveals buildings of more traditional styles and materials (such as stone) on the northern edge to more modern constructions of concrete and glass towards the south. Brick-faced buildings are more clustered to the north, but brick paving runs throughout the campus. The earliest buildings are located near the north end of the campus and comprise the historic core, which contains a cluster of period revival style buildings. The early normal school campus was consolidated in a small, marshy area, with connections provided by wooden planked boardwalks.

Originally, all campus activities were located in the Main Building, a three-story, brick, Romanesque Revival structure. As the school needed more space, local architect Alfred Lee was brought aboard to design the South Annex (1901) and the Science Annex to the north (1907). Early on, the South Annex housed the training school that educated students in grades one through eight. An attractive green area in front of Old Main was planned by landscape gardener S.G. Harris of Tarrytown, New York, in 1908. Harris’s layout of walkways and specimen trees is still evident today.

The revival style architecture continued to dominate as the school adopted its first campus plan in 1924, produced by the Seattle firm of Bebb and Gould, which also designed most of the buildings of that era. The plan, which remained intact for nearly 30 years, proposed a much needed purpose-built library to the south and an auditorium to the west. The placement of the new buildings in relation to Old Main created three sides of an eventual quadrangle, with a lawn at its center, and brought coherence to what is now the historic core of campus. Bebb and Gould’s Romanesque Revival Wilson Library (1928) was sited south of Old Main facing the south side of the second Edens Hall (1921), a women’s dormitory in the Greek Revival style with a columned portico. This residence, designed by local architect T.F. Doan, who specialized in school design, replaced the earlier Edens Hall, and was also used to house faculty. The second Edens Hall was renovated in 1994 and is used as a residential facility today. The Men’s Residence Hall, also by Bebb and Gould, was built in 1947 and is now called College Hall. Another building in this campus plan was the Campus School (1943), again by Bebb and Gould, a red brick, Romanesque Revival building with a red-tile roof. The Campus School closed in 1967, however, and the 1968 renovation by Ibsen Nelsen removed almost all traces of the former school except the portion with the original bell tower. The expanded, transformed school was renamed Miller Hall and now houses the Psychology Department and Woodring College of Education.

Other buildings adjacent to the historic core were added as the campus expanded between 1935 and 1957. The earliest works of architecture added during this era continued the emphasis on period revival styles, but midcentury modern buildings also began to appear. Bebb and Gould’s Physical Education Building (1936) was built in the Romanesque Revival style and faced in brown brick. Although the original building remains, in 1962, it gained a large modern addition by Fred Bassetti, which contrasted in both style and materials (1959–1961). During this era, the Auditorium-Music Building (1951), now called the Performing Arts Center, by Jones and Bindon with a 1971–1973 addition by Henry Klein, was added on the west side of campus near the site of the future Viking Student Union.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Seattle-based architect Paul Thiry was engaged for work on the campus as both an architect and a planner. Thiry brought the International Style to the campus, executed primarily through poured concrete and curtain wall buildings—but also through planning. Thiry’s master plan, created for an expected enrollment of 6,000, was commissioned in 1959 and was mostly followed until 1963. Thiry’s plan extended the campus to the south and west, but also included provisions for new buildings on the north end which eventually necessitated the demolition of houses previously used as student residences. Although closed to through traffic today (WWU is now a wholly pedestrian campus), High Street then provided a link to the adjacent residential Sehome neighborhood. Arguably the most significant part of Thiry’s legacy at WWU was his establishment of public art that was later adopted as part of the campus plan. He also proposed using towers to mark campus entrances, an idea that was partially achieved when the Mathes and Nash towers were built on the north side of campus in the late 1960s.

As campus development crossed High Street along its northwestern border, in a sense it closed the quadrangle begun with the construction of the earlier historic buildings. The earliest of this cluster on the west side of High Street was Bassetti’s Viking Student Union (1957–1959). Another building of this era, Thiry’s Viking Commons (1961), was subsequently modified. Thiry also designed Haggard Hall (1960), “Upper” Highland Hall (an addition to a men’s residence, 1960), and Higginson Hall (1961). The latter was a residence hall named after a local poet with a national reputation, Ella Higginson, and her husband, Russell Carden Higginson, one of the first normal school trustees. Although Thiry designed four campus buildings and enlarged the library (1961–1962), his work was largely obscured by subsequent architects, and his architectural stamp on campus is difficult to decipher today.

To accommodate rising enrollment in the 1960s, the campus acquired land towards the south and adopted a new brick palette for landscaping and buildings. Campus administrators, architects, and planners sought to harmonize new construction with the earlier period revival buildings, and a brick character area emerged. The expansion plans were overseen by Barney Goltz, director of campus planning, who was hired by the university in 1957 to plan the student union building. A growth plan for the brick area was developed by architect and planner George Bartholick from 1964 to 1968, based upon American interpretations of European outdoor community spaces. Elements of Bartholick’s plan are evident on the campus today: public art, a small cluster college, the pedestrian campus, and buildings that were of different styles yet, for the most part, complementary to one another.

The brick character area includes several academic buildings and two dormitory towers. Bartholick was an advocate of building tightly rather than saving space for incremental growth. He created a circulation pattern of brick walkways and open spaces to connect buildings in a fashion that would complement their materials. Observers have often noted that the brick character area evokes the medieval city of Siena, Italy—a resemblance attributed to the influence of Ibsen Nelsen. Planners Bartholick and Goltz recall that Nelsen traveled to Italy and studied its courtyards and squares before planning WWU’s Red Square, which predates Red Square at the University of Washington and which was part of Bartholick’s overall growth plan. The brick for Red Square was installed in sand, intended to be durable for pedestrian traffic in a marshy area that had once been a lake. It also serves as a base for an artwork, Sky-Viewing Sculpture, by Isamu Noguchi, which is one of several large-scale sculptures planned for the campus during this time. The fountain was named after the former college president, who was terminated by the governor and board of trustees in 1939 after “red scare” complaints from the local newspaper editor and others that Fisher was a subversive un-American radical.

The brick buildings surrounding Red Square make up a cohesive ensemble, and are distinguished by ground-floor arcades (or loggias), and unique window hoods—many of them designed by Bassetti. The Humanities Building (1961–1962) was the first of the brick buildings to surround the square, and Bond Hall by Nelsen, Sabin and Varey (1967–1968), and Miller Hall (the expansion of the old Campus School, 1969) would follow. Paul Thiry’s Haggard Hall, an International Style pavilion-type structure completed in 1960, would later be encased in brick during a 1994–1998 renovation by Zimmer, Gunsul and Frasca (ZGF).

Bassetti’s work at WWU more generally embodied the campus’s strong turn towards the environment in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps foremost among that work was the Ridgeway Dormitory Complex, now called Ridgeway Commons (1961–1965), built southwest of the historic core. The cluster of residences was designed to foreground the natural environment, which is hilly and wooded. The units, mostly of three and four stories, are nestled into the topography, with brick cladding forming a connection to Red Square.

Not all architectural turns to the environment would necessarily “look” like the natural environment, but landscaping could be added to ensure that the connections would not be missed. The pragmatic use of poured concrete for Ibsen Nelsen and Associates’ Environmental Studies building in the early 1970s, on the one hand, established a motif for a cluster of large Brutalist concrete buildings constructed in Haskell Plaza on the south end of campus. Nelsen himself was hired to oversee a plan for a character area south of the central campus, which eventually included a science complex surrounding the plaza. Arntzen Hall, completed in 1974 and also designed by Nelsen, was one of the earliest of this group and is used primarily by the social sciences. Several massive buildings were built to surround the plaza in the next two decades, including a group of specialized science buildings to replace the outdated science facilities of Haggard Hall. Canadian architect Arthur Erickson was selected to design a new science building—the Chemistry Building (1993)—before he was ultimately fired by a university president who asked for yet more brick buildings. Loschky, Marquardt and Nesholm (LMN) finished the project, which was renamed Karen W. Morse Hall to honor a recently retired WWU president and chemistry professor. The building was not ultimately brick, however: concrete and glass provided the most dominant effect. The Biology building by ZGF, also completed in 1993, is another concrete building in this science cluster.

Regardless of the austerity of their exteriors, the group of concrete buildings was designed with built-in technology for safe and effective science teaching, and their large bands of windows and upholstered benches inside provided a softening contrast to the outside. The open space of the plaza was further softened with paving, rocks, and earthen mounds intended to suggest the San Juan Islands of the Puget Sound, which exist offshore beyond Bellingham Bay to the west. The Campbell and Campbell-designed plaza, named for major donors F. Murray and Betty Haskell, won an award from the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The geographical progression from traditional to modern styles and materials in campus architecture breaks down as one traverses further to the south, where current development largely follows plans originally laid down by Bartholick and other planners in the 1960s. This plan suggested shifting the main campus entrance to the southernmost edge of campus, to be accessed from Bill McDonald Parkway, which had been constructed in the late 1960s to connect the campus to the newly completed I-5. The plan included playing fields, new trees, and a parking and information office. The plan apparently angered residents of the nearby Happy Valley neighborhood, who accused WWU of a secret plan to buy up vast tracks of property for further expansion. Some family properties were eventually taken by eminent domain and a school was moved, but it was private investors and not the university who ultimately hemmed in the campus by filling the area with high-density student apartment buildings.

As campus expansion continued to develop to the south, new university buildings departed from the previous use of concrete and returned to the use of brick in some cases—but occasionally with accents of wood siding. The Communications Facility is a 3-story, 131,365-square-foot, brick-clad building by ZGF (2004), which features horizontal bands of windows and a glass skybridge. The nearby Wade King Student Recreation Center, designed by BJSS Duarte Bryant and Opsis Architecture in 2003, features a main facade with wood and brick paneling to complement glass and concrete. Large windows on the second floor allow patrons to look out towards the surrounding environment. Still, the academic buildings in this area of campus, surrounded by large amounts of open space and athletic fields, tend to be quite large and sprawling. Some critics have likened them to those in a corporate office park.

A more recent environmental building trend reflects recent systems-thinking and evidence-based studies that particular materials and orientation can reduce energy and provide cost savings. Several early-twenty-first-century buildings at WWU reflect these efforts. In addition to the Wade King Student Recreation Center, which was designed to maximize daylight, incorporate environment-enhancing landscape features, and provide highly efficient mechanical and electrical systems, the 120,000-square-foot Academic Instructional Center, designed by Mark Gifford with the Northwest Architectural Company (2008), was designed with an external woven metal mesh system intended to provide shade while maintaining ventilation and views. These buildings, and others, achieved varying levels of LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

WWU’s campus has evolved from a modest, period revival style normal school of the late nineteenth century to a sprawling, architecturally diverse, environmentally conscious state university with significant contributions from some of the most celebrated architects of the Pacific Northwest. Expanding in a succession of character areas, the campus tells its architectural story of incremental building, over time, with the impact of individual architects, evolving stylistic preferences, and trends in energy-efficient building. The early historic buildings designed by Skilling and Corner and Bebb and Gould have, for the most part, been well preserved. The Greek Revival Edens Hall was saved from demolition and renovated in the 1990s after campus leaders battled with trustees. Some architects’ contributions have been obscured by additions or new construction, and only a few intact examples of midcentury modern architecture remain. Taken as a whole, however, the plan of the campus and its buildings have complemented and enhanced an exceptional natural setting for more than a century.


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Writing Credits

Lynette Felber
J. Philip Gruen
Robert R. Franklin

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