Old Brick Heart
Story by Alissa VandenBerghe // Photo by J.W. Sandison courtesy of the Whatcom Museum
Five name changes and 109 years later, New Whatcom Normal School is now known as Western Washington University and the Main building is Old Main. Additions and renovations may have changed its structure and layout, but the heart of Western remains inside the school's oldest and most recognizable building.
"[Old Main] is the great mother to the rest of school," says Jeff Jewell, photo archivist at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, and a 1984 Western graduate.
Construction of New Whatcom's first building finished in 1896 and the building sat empty for three years before enough money was raised to furnish and start the school, Jewell says.
Alfred Lee, the building's well-known architect, also designed Whatcom's old city hall -- now the Whatcom Museum.
Today, thousands of students traverse Western's campus and tuition is drastically more expensive, but keeping Old Main in top condition is very important to the university, says Tim Wynn, Western's Director of Facilities Management.
Until 2002, Old Main was covered in non-native and highly -invasive English Ivy that was deteriorating the concrete of the building, Wynn says. In some areas the ivy was four feet deep and had squirrels and other animals living in it.
To preserve the building, Wynn says the ivy had to be removed -- much to the dismay of many alumni who feared it would detract from the collegiate look. But after pulling the ivy off the building, Wynn and the alumni were surprised at what they found under more than 100 years of ivy growth.
"The details of the building won them over," Wynn says. "It has a wonderful presence."
Wynn says the building's age presents difficult challenges to improvements and remodels, due to old pipes and missing blue prints from earlier remodels.
Even though the maintenance can be difficult and many times expensive (the ivy removal and repairs alone cost more than $1 million), Wynn says it's important to maintain Old Main's look for many generations to come.
Jerry Flora, Western's seventh president who served from 1968 to 1975, understands the significance of keeping the building looking the same way it has always looked.
"There has never been a student at Western that hasn't seen Old Main, or been inside," Flora says. "And, I don't know about other people, but I get chills walking by that building."
Back in the 1950s when Flora started teaching science at Western, he had an office on the fourth floor, before Old Main had an elevator.
At that time, the only place faculty could smoke on campus was in the basement of Old Main, which was referred to as "Old Mange," due to the smell. Flora fondly remembers the many trips he made up and down the four flights of stairs to smoke his pipe.
Even though the times have changed and campus has grown since Flora sat in the president's office, Old Main is still the hub of Western's administrative process.
Since 1899, Western's presidents have come and gone, new buildings have been built, and each year more and more students come to Western's campus, but Western supporters, such as Flora, believe it is Old Main which has held the campus together, acting as a sense of stability to all who pass around her.