In the late 1800s local entrepreneurs looked upon a partially filled peat
bog on top of Sehome hill and decided it would be the perfect place to start
the Normal School in Bellingham. The school was founded by a legislative act
of 1883. Construction of Old Main began in 1895, its four distinct yet
adjoining sections were built in three stages between 1896-1914. Old Main
contained the whole of academic life when the Normal School began, until
1928 when the Main Library was built.
Messrs Skillings won the competition for the building's design with his
classic Second Renaissance revival style, patterned after the Boston Public
Library he also designed. The Board chose its functional plainness over the
alternative design, which was much more ornate. Excavation for the building
exposed a formation of Chuckanut sandstone that was used along with brick in
Old Main's construction.
In 1901 the South annex was added on to the original structure and the
science annex was added in 1907; the two wings created a more or less
symmetrical villa of Palladian style. In 1914 Old Main was modified to its
final form with the addition of the training school annex to the rear of the
original structure. Although Ivy vines obscure most of Old Main's
embellishments, the different styles of each development stage blend through
the use of facade details.
In 1964, Armadillo's used for research purposes accidentally knocked over
one of the heating lamps in their cages, starting a fire that almost
destroyed Old Main. Instead of exactly reconstructing the interior, in the
name of efficiency a greater number of office spaces were added. Although
the 1971 rebuilding of Old Main did not duplicate the original structure,
the architect, George Bartholeck, insisted on retaining the old stair
Since its inception the Normal School has grown almost exponentially over
time changing to Western Washington State College and again to its present
status of Western Washington University. The majority of the rooms in Old
Main are now used for administrative purposes, although some classrooms are
still in use and it continues to be the pivot building in campus life.
Through the effort of a student, Old Main was placed on the National
Historic Registry list in 1976.
For more information see the
Main (WWU) National Register of Historic Places Nomination.