In One Northwestern Town, a Fire-Ravaged Department Store Rises From the Ashes
A basket of shiny red Washington-grown apples on the front desk greets me as I step into the lobby of the Inn at Lynden on a cold, rainy afternoon. My eyes travel from the apples to the flickering fireplace, the thick timber beams, and the rough wooden floors, and I feel squarely in the Pacific Northwest. The tall, rain-splattered windows look out onto downtown Lynden, a small city (population 14,000) in northwestern Washington state.
The young woman at the front desk apologizes for the dreary day as she walks me to my room on the second floor. But as I get settled into my new home away from home, I start to thaw. Soon, I’m ready to explore the building. And there’s a lot to see.
The Inn at Lynden, a 35-room boutique hotel, is only one part of the recently rehabilitated Waples Mercantile Building. There are also several retail shops, a beer and wine bar, and a cafe called Avenue Bread, which is where I find a table next to the window and join architect Jeff McClure and his wife, Debra.
The McClures make up one half of ForeFront Ventures, the partnership that brought this two-story building in downtown Lynden back from the ashes after a 2008 fire nearly devastated the structure.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the space as anything but packed with shoppers and diners and hotel guests, with the smell of bread wafting from the cafe and the sound of glasses clinking in the bar. But it’s true: This stately, early-20th-century Commercial Style building, an anchor along Lynden’s four-block downtown retail district, sat burned-out, vacant, and deteriorating for seven years until it re-opened in late 2015.
“When we started, a lot of people thought, ‘Gee, are you going to rip the building down and start over?’” says Jeff McClure. “But because of the building’s history in the community, and the fact that a lot of the main structure was intact, we thought there was a lot of merit in saving what we could.”
I ask him if people in Lynden thought they were crazy for embarking on this project.
“Well,” he says, “they didn’t say it to our faces.”
W.H. “Billy” Waples built the Lynden Department Store (now called Waples Mercantile) on the corner of Front and Fifth streets in downtown Lynden in 1914. He had founded the company as a small general store in 1897, and it grew into a regionally known retail space that sold everything from horse bridles to gallons of milk to women’s hats and shoes.
But Waples was more than a businessman; he was a true civic booster. He helped bring passenger and freight rail to Lynden, as well as electricity. Waples worked to organize the precursor to the Northwest Washington Fair and threw legendary dinner parties at the store, once hosting 3,000 people to celebrate its 25th anniversary. And during the Great Depression, he extended millions of dollars in store credit to Lynden residents who needed a hand.
Waples retired in 1960 and died two years later. The store continued operating until 1979, when dwindling sales—due, in part, to the arrival of new shopping centers on the outskirts of town—led to its closure. In the 1980s, the building was renamed Delft Square in honor of the town’s wave of Dutch immigrants during the first half of the 20th century, and turned into a warren of offices, antiques stores, restaurants, and other businesses.
Then one afternoon in June of 2008, two local teenagers broke into the building and started a fire. Firefighters contained it to the second floor and battled the blaze into the night. By the time the last flames were extinguished, the roof had collapsed, windows were blown out, and the interior was ravaged by fire and water damage. Only the concrete walls, wood floor system, and timber support beams remained.
A few months later, local real estate broker Jeff Johnson and his wife, Suzanne, purchased the building with plans to redevelop it. Jeff McClure, a longtime friend, joined the couple as a partner on the project, as did contractor Pete Dawson. The group spent a couple of years considering options: a mix of retail and apartments, affordable housing, a YMCA. But nothing panned out. They began to lose steam.
Sensing this, Jeff McClure reached out to his longtime clients, hospitality-industry veterans Matt and Teri Treat. After a series of phone calls, he and Debra met the Treats for dinner in Lynden one evening in early 2013. Matt Treat recalls that night clearly when I speak with him and Teri later in my stay at the inn.
“Jeff invited us up here,” he says. “And we walk into this cavernous building with puddles on the ground, and the roof leaking. It smelled like smoke. There was char everywhere.”
But the Treats weren’t scared off.
“We didn’t immediately say, ‘Oh yeah, [redeveloping this] is a great idea,’” Matt Treat says. “But our wheels started turning. We looked at the thick timbers and the solid bones of the building.”
The Treats, who live in the nearby town of Ferndale, and the McClures envisioned the building as a hotel and retail combination. But they wouldn’t commit to anything without knowing that the numbers added up. They studied the hotel market for Whatcom County, and they studied the region’s economy. Lynden, they knew, is an agricultural hub, with massive farming operations and equipment manufacturers that bring in thousands of industry professionals from around the world each year. And the Jansen Art Center had opened downtown in 2012, attracting a steady stream of artists, musicians, and cultural tourists. The couples spoke with hundreds of businesses throughout the county and confirmed their hunch: Lynden needed a new hotel.
The Treats bought out the Johnsons’ and Dawson’s shares in the partnership and formed ForeFront Ventures with Jeff and Debra McClure. Each member brought something vital to the table: Jeff McClure and his firm, RMC Architects, brought design expertise; Debra McClure used her background in sales to research and purchase the hotel’s furniture and fixtures; Matt Treat called upon his experience as an insurance claims adjuster to navigate the logistics of working in the building; and Teri Treat brought her 30 years in hospitality to create a new travel destination. “We knew we would be great partners, but we didn’t realize just how simpatico we’d all be,” Matt Treat says.
Pete Dawson, whom they hired as contractor, had his crew clean the building, clearing it of broken glass, debris, and pests. “Once we got it cleaned up, you could see the size of this place. It was just huge inside,” Debra McClure says. “You could see the wood and all the great pieces that were left intact.”
But finding the funds to turn the fire-ravaged building into a mixed-use complex was difficult. The McClures and Treats were searching for financing as the country was still digging its way out of the 2008 financial collapse, and retail activity in downtown Lynden had been in steady decline for years. “Banks were really skittish about anything that was out of the ordinary,” Jeff McClure says.
They learned about historic tax credits (HTC) from Stephen Day, a Seattle-based preservation consultant who worked with them on the project. But there had never been an HTC-funded project in Lynden before. Many local bankers were unfamiliar with the concept.
“We had to do quite the dog-and-pony show for the bankers,” Debra McClure says. “But eventually, we got our presentation down to a point where we really understood [HTCs] well, and then we were able to explain it to the banks.”
Adds Jeff McClure, “This project wouldn’t have been done if it weren’t for historic tax credits. It was such a strong part of our financial picture.”
Whatcom Educational Credit Union, a local financial institution, grasped both the couples’ vision and the benefits of using tax credits. They agreed to finance the project if the partners could secure one definite retail tenant. The group found a taker in Avenue Bread, which had been operating in nearby Bellingham since 1995 and was looking to expand. By February of 2015, the project was finally underway.
Much of the building had been gutted in the fire, leaving an opportunity for Dawson and his crew to install all new electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and fire sprinkler systems, plus a new elevator and code-compliant stairways. They repaired exterior plasterwork where needed, rebuilt window sashes, and reproduced the upper-level and storefront windows that had been destroyed in the fire. They also constructed new storefronts along Front Street, in keeping with the building’s historic details and proportions. Lynden-based Axiom Construction and Consulting re-created the original metal cornice, which was badly warped in the fire.
Inside, the construction team cleaned the heavy timber framing and floors by gently blasting them with dry ice. They preserved as much of the framing and wood floors as possible, and anything beyond saving was salvaged and re-purposed for items such asbenches and coat racks in the hotel rooms. The mezzanine level was built out with nine hotel rooms, a conference space, and additional seating for Avenue Bread customers.
Creating the right feel for the retail space was one of Jeff McClure’s biggest challenges. “We wanted [the ground floor] to function much the way the original department store functioned, where you could go from space to space without having to go outside,” he says. But building floor-to-ceiling walls inside to divide the stores, he feared, would obstruct the building’s thick timbers and impressive volume.
Instead, he designed a screen wall made of steel, wire mesh, and recycled fir to separate the space between Avenue Bread and a bookstore called Village Books and Paper Dreams. He preserved the original archways along the wall that now divides the bookstore from Drizzle, an olive oil and vinegar tasting room. In other areas he added steel-framed windows, metal grates, and wooden trellises.
On the main floor of the hotel, the McClures and the Treats kept the design sparse to emphasize the architectural details. The wood floorboards there today were once hidden underneath thick fir planks, which were destroyed by water damage during the fire. The partners liked the look of the exposed underlay, so they sanded it roughly and applied an oil base to it to give it a more polished appearance. Upstairs, they left the second level’s coarse concrete walls exposed. And in each room, they hung a different photograph that showed the building in various stages of reconstruction.
The first tenant, Village Books and Paper Dreams, opened its doors in November of 2015. And on December 28 of that year, the first guests checked into the hotel. “We were still putting the room numbers up on the hotel room doors as they were checking in downstairs,” Jeff McClure remembers.
By April of 2016, the remaining tenants, including Avenue Bread, a baby-clothing store called Bellingham Baby Company, and Overflow Taps (the beer and wine bar) had moved into the space. The Waples Mercantile Building was up and running.
Its effect on downtown Lynden was almost immediate. Prior to the building’s reopening, downtown’s street-level retail vacancy rate hovered above 15 percent. Today, it’s less than 5 percent. Parking is tighter along Front Street, as more people come downtown to shop. And the Downtown Business Association, which had about 30 members when Debra McClure and Teri Treat joined in early 2014, now has a membership of around 100 business owners.
“I think this underscores how difficult it is for a downtown of this size to have a big, boarded-up, burned-out hole in the middle of it,” Jeff McClure says. “It proves that even a building that looks like it’s beyond repair can be done in an economical way that stimulates the local economy.”
But beyond economic benefits, the re-opened building has returned a long-lost piece of Lynden’s history to its residents.
“People are always coming in and telling us about their connection to the building,” Matt Treat says. “They tell us about how they used to come here to buy shoes, or to look at toys for Christmas, or about how their uncle worked here. And they’re all grateful that the building’s been saved.”
From my seat at the window in Avenue Bread, I watch shoppers pop in and out of the Front Street stores, pulling their hoods low over their heads to stay dry in the rain. Three high-school-age girls scurry from their car to the cafe and unload their backpacks on an empty table, ready for a study session. I watch as one girl recognizes another customer and runs over to say hello, and I think about something Jeff McClure told me earlier: “We wanted to create a place where locals as well as tourists could mix.”
It seems in keeping with Billy Waples’ original intent for his building. His store was a destination for people all over northern Washington, as well as a place where the townspeople would gather on the mezzanine and drink coffee. His idea was no crazier than the one the McClures and Treats had a century later.