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The Main Building, or “Old Main,” a three-story, thirty-room, Romanesque Revival building, was the inaugural edifice of the normal school that later became Western Washington University (WWU). The building, designed by the Seattle firm of Skillings and Corner, was oriented to the west to capitalize on its hillside view of Bellingham Bay. Skillings had attracted attention after winning the design competition for the Washington State Pavilion built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and may have earned the commission for Old Main because of this experience.
The Bellingham Normal School, or New Whatcom State Normal School, was first authorized in 1893 by the state legislature and Governor John H. McGraw, but without an appropriation. In 1895, the state appropriated $40,000 to develop the school, but until an additional appropriation in 1899, Skillings and Corner’s design for the main building could not be completed. The school did eventually open in 1899, its construction supervised by Skillings and local architect Alfred Lee, and the school overseen by Principal Dr. Edward T. Mathes with a faculty of nine. The building, with a rusticated sandstone base, mostly brick facade, quoins, and row of arched windows for the upper story, looked upon a quadrangle. The quad, which was not completed until 1908, was planned by landscape architect S.G. Harris of Tarrytown, New York, who worked from a contour map sent to him by a Bellingham landscape engineer.
The building initially held all of the operations and functions for the normal school, including classrooms and administrative offices. But the institution quickly outgrew the original building. The library on the main floor contained over 3,000 volumes by 1901, and additional bookcases had to be constructed. A gymnasium was added to the rear of the central block, and classroom wings and two large annexes were added between 1901 and 1914, all designed by Lee. Eventually, entirely new buildings were constructed for the growing campus. The 1914 annex was built for the “Campus School,” which was later housed in its own purpose-built facility. The library moved into a separate building when it was completed in 1928, and a purpose-built Physical Education Building was constructed in 1938.
Old Main, the only WWU building on the National Register of Historic Places, has been remodeled several times to accommodate its shifting functions, including a major renovation in beginning in 1972 for structural reinforcement, fire safety, and updated mechanical and electrical systems. The building is used for administrative offices and campus services for WWU today, with its first floor dedicated to larger offices and upper floors and the South Annex containing smaller offices. Its external appearance, with its historic annexes, however, remains mostly unchanged since its early-twentieth-century construction.
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