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 railings.
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 Old Main (WWU) National Register of Historic Places Nomination.