On November 22, 2015, Village Books opens as the first tenant in Lynden's newly restored Waples Mercantile Building. Originally built in 1914, the building housed the renowned Lynden Department Store until 1979 and then hosted a number of smaller businesses under the name Delft Square. After being nearly destroyed in a June 2008 fire, the building languished for half a decade while proposals to restore it came and went. In 2015 it was finally restored and new businesses quickly began moving in, anchored by the Inn at Lynden, a 35-room hotel.
A Sad Afternoon
W. H. "Billy" Waples (1875-1962) built a new building for his department store on the northeast corner of 5th and Front streets in Lynden, located in northwest Whatcom County a few miles below the Canadian border, in 1914. It was the third home for the store, which had been at that same location when it first opened in 1897 in the Judson Building. In 1906 Waples had moved his retail operations down the block, but kept the Judson Building for storage until it was destroyed in a fire in 1913. He built a new and improved three-story structure (with a basement) on the site and moved his store back there the next year. It went on to huge success, and for much of the early and mid-twentieth century the Lynden Department Store was renowned throughout northwest Washington.
Business declined after Waples died in 1962, and the store closed in 1979. Three years later the Waples Building reopened as Delft Square, a small shopping center with a handful of businesses. In 2008 these businesses included Lars Clock and Antique Shoppe, Three Corners art shop, an Edward Jones financial-services office, a branch of the Whatcom Educational Credit Union, and The Loft, a Japanese restaurant.
It was chilly and rainy in Lynden on Monday afternoon, June 9, 2008. Shortly after 1 p.m. a blaze suddenly seemed to explode from the two easternmost windows on the building's third floor, which was used for storage. Dozens of firefighters from Lynden, Everson, Bellingham, and North Whatcom (also in Bellingham) responded to what rapidly grew to be a three-alarm fire, but as the blaze entered its second hour it began burning through the roof. At 2:25 p.m. part of the roof collapsed, raining burning debris onto the floors below.
Hundreds of onlookers gathered nearby in the showery, sad afternoon as the building continued to burn. Many knew its history and understood the magnitude of what they were seeing. As the fire grew along with the crowds, firefighters cordoned off the area and brought in at least four extended-ladder trucks to battle the blaze. After failing to put the fire out from the street, they directed their hoses to the building's partially collapsed roof, trying to drown the flames from above. The Lynden Tribune reported that a million gallons of water had been put on the fire by 5 p.m. Still it kept burning, so thoroughly that at 5:30 p.m. firefighters set up a perimeter on the 5th Street side of the building, fearing its west wall might be about to collapse. It didn't, but hot spots in the building burned into the next day.
Five Years of Frustration
It took little time to identify the cause of the fire. Several witnesses had seen a teenage boy trying to fight the flames when they first erupted, and the Loft restaurant's owners told Tribune reporters that they had previously seen teenagers on two separate occasions on the building's third floor. Two boys, ages 13 and 14, were arrested within 48 hours and confessed to starting the blaze. They said they'd been in the building to smoke marijuana and hang out and admitted they'd started a small fire that got out of control. They were convicted of burglary and reckless-burning charges later that summer and sentenced to juvenile detention (60 and 40 days, respectively) and 300 hours of community service.
Damages totaled more than $5.2 million, much of it to the building itself. Nearly 90 percent of the losses were covered by insurance. But there was soon another problem: the Great Recession. The economy was already ebbing when the fire occurred in June 2008, but by the end of the summer what had been just another recession was sliding into the world's worst financial crisis since the Great Depression more than 70 years earlier. Nevertheless, local developer Jeff Johnson and his wife, Suzanne, bought the structure's shell for $210,000 in November 2008. They partnered with Bellingham residents Jeff and Debbie McClure and Pete Dawson to make plans to redevelop the building, keeping the first floor a mix of retail businesses and office space and developing the third floor to accommodate approximately 15 apartments. In the summer of 2009 they were able to clean out much of the building, but then progress stalled. Johnson summed up the problem in a July 2009 interview with the Tribune: "Getting financing isn't as easy as it used to be" ("Delft Square Clean-up Ongoing").
It certainly wasn't. Financing remained hard to get, and as the recession ground on into the early 2010s the big boarded-up building sat silently on the street, inert and useless. Plans to save it came and went. In 2011 the City of Lynden considered buying the property and redeveloping it. Ideas included a public market, a rock-climbing wall, a six-lane bowling alley, a movie theater, retail kiosks, and a 42-room hotel. None of that happened. In 2012 a $9.5-million bond proposal to turn the structure into a YMCA was put on the ballot. Lynden residents voted it down, 59 to 41 percent. By the spring of 2013 the building had been vacant for nearly five years, and no one seemed able to save it. If there was one bright spot, it came in 2011 when the National Register of Historic Places added the building to its official list of the nation's historic places worthy of preservation.
The Waples Mercantile Building
But it wasn't over, and times had changed by 2013. The Great Recession was receding, and getting financing was easier than it had been during the dark days of 2009. Days before the fire's fifth anniversary the Tribune reported that a new partnership, ForeFront Ventures, consisting of previous owners Jeff and Debra McClure and new partners Matt and Teri Treat of Ferndale, would rebuild the structure. The work would be done by Dawson Construction, owned by former project partner Pete Dawson. The new building would be a mix of retail shops anchored by a 35-room hotel named the Inn at Lynden. Plans called for renovation to begin in 2014, the building's centennial, but as is sometimes the case when restoring an older structure, the planning process took a year longer than anticipated. Finally, by the end of 2014, everything was in place for the reincarnation of Delft Square.
Construction began on the $6-million project in February 2015, and though there were a few surprises (for example, the mezzanine had to be partially rebuilt), they didn't significantly delay the nine-month timetable for the project. On November 22, Village Books became the first tenant to open in the new building, even as some final work continued. Drizzle (Olive Oil and Vinegar) Lynden opened on December 14, followed by the Inn at Lynden on December 28. Other businesses followed in early 2016.
The new building, renamed the Waples Mercantile Building, showcases its history. Original wood beams (16 and 18 inches thick) can be seen throughout the main level on the first floor, and the floors there are made of reclaimed wood salvaged from the original building. In places, including in some of the hotel rooms, the building's original brick and concrete walls are (tastefully) left exposed. A new entry on 5th Street serves as the entrance to the Inn at Lynden, which occupies the mezzanine and third floor of the building, while another entrance on Front Street ushers you into Village Books. The building is bright, airy, and pleasant, and the effort to save it is a credit to Lynden's history.