The old Morgan Block building in Bellingham’s historic Fairhaven section has been undergoing a facelift lately. Scaffolding now rises up the old brick wall on it’s exposed west side and workers daily painstakingly and carefully replace the crumbling old bricks with new ones. And as they go up, the faded, painted advertisement for the once Washington-made Rainier Beer is vanishing entirely. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainier_Brewing_Company
This changing appearance of the aging wall will overall be a good thing for the building as it was in badly need of repair. In fact, one of the building’s owners, Terry Nelson, alerted me last year the wall would be replaced. I was grateful for the advance notice because that wall has become a local landmark over the years. It’s a favorite location among my senior portrait clients for staging their photo sessions. (More of my ‘Special’ senior portraits are posted on my blog’s Portfolio page.)
Through the years, I have photographed many seniors with that charming wall and its simple message of “Special” as the background. It seemed a perfect expression of the feeling each of them had about their senior year, the community they live in and, in particular, historic Fairhaven.
Now, it will be no longer. At least not in reality. But in the virtual world of digital photography, I have salvaged the wall in my image files in case someone comes along and wishes that they too could have had their turn beside the ‘Special’ sign.
The three-story building occupies a busy corner of Fairhaven’s business and shopping district. Completed in 1890 by Phillip and Mary Ann Morgan, it first housed a saloon and a men’s clothing store on the ground level. Windows on the upper levels of the building reportedly sported the advertisement: “private rooms for ladies.” But a “proper lady” never dared go below 11th Street in those early days, according to local historical accounts. However when co-authors Brian Griffith and NeelieNelson asked local historian Gorden Tweit if a brothel had operated in the Morgan Building during Fairhaven’s early history, he replied matter-of-factly: “It had a bar with rooms upstairs, didn’t it?”
Whether or not illicit sex was served up in those rented upstairs rooms, the building had another, rather unsavory distinction. During the 1890s, it was the viewing area for the “unclaimed dead” for the transients who came to build the “New City of Fairhaven” and died of exposure, accidents or suicides. When their identities were unknown, they were loaded into a wagon and put on display in hopes that someone could identify them. A small inscribed stone that sits in front of the building notes this fact for tourists.
The building itself is architecturally an example of the High Victorian Italianate Style. A long staircase inside the heavy green entry door with the words: “Morgan Block” above it, leads up to the second and third stories. Light streams through a light well open on the top floor and trickles down to the landing below. On the upstairs floors, tall doors, many with transom windows open into 18 large studio rooms now occupied by artists who are part of the Morgan Block Studio Collective. The artists often host open houses so you can visit their studios and view their artwork and the building interior for yourself.
The symmetrical facade on the street level have wood-framed shop fronts on either side of a narrow central entry door to the upper stories. One side is the home of the Good Earth pottery store showcasing the work of many fine potters from the region. The other ground level space is taken by Artwood, a shop selling beautiful, high quality work by local woodworkers. Both are well worth a stop if you’re in town.
The building has its own Facebook page if you want to learn more https://www.facebook.com/MorganBlockBuilding?ref=nf. You can also soon read about it on Griffith and Nelson’s forthcoming website: www.fairhavenhistory.com More details about the building’s architecture can be found at the City of Bellingham’s page: http://www.cob.org/services/planning/historic/fairhaven-district.aspx.
And that’s what has made the Morgan Block so ‘special.’