Historic Whidbey

Historic Whidbey

Like the ghost of a great square-rigger emerging from a thick fog, Coupeville’s 1866 Haller House is suddenly revealed in its urban forest setting for the first time in half a century. If you strolled along Front Street during Musselfest, you may have been surprised to find that the dense green space that has always marked the end of the shopping district has thinned to expose the town’s best kept historic secret – a home that was the grandest on Whidbey Island at the end of the Civil War.

A handsome new site sign proclaims its return to prominence, thanks to a generous grant from the Coupeville Festival Association. It was CFA’s willingness to support a new preservation nonprofit that made the sign possible, and presented our architectural debutante to the public. That new nonprofit, Historic Whidbey, was formed by passionate local historians and preservationists who saw danger in a For Sale sign on the Haller House in 2012.

When I visited Coupeville for the very first time not so many years ago, I was enchanted with the short but sweet historic run of downtown Front Street. It does the heart good to step off the grid and into another time and place – especially one that isn’t artificially contrived like a theme park. Stepping onto the stage on Alexander Street and loitering on the corner, one admires the evocative blockhouse and canoes… savors the hollow clunking of the wharf planks… antagonizes the seagulls without malice… and rationalizes a ridiculous number of calories in the luxurious snackeries of the west end.

The road lures us eastward to contemplate the days of yesteryear, while we browse the charming shops and burn off what we got at Kapaws or Coupe’s Last Stand. As we lumber along the sidewalks, we consider where to feast on a splendor of mussels when we finally succeed in clearing gastronomic space. Front Street is far too short for this purpose, and in fact, peters to a disappointing and premature halt at the fire hydrant at Main Street.

I have been, all my life, something of a house whisperer; houses are always speaking to me. When I first heard the Ferry House call me, I nearly drove off Ebey Road. Old as it is, it is still a great puppy of a house, flagging everyone down, tail wagging, begging passers-by to stop and throw a stick. Sure, it sounds crazy, but in Coupeville there are many who know exactly what I mean.

On my first traverse of Front Street, I continued eastward past the fire hydrant, and was stopped by a subtle, “Pssst…. yes, you… where’ve you been?… what took you so long?” The Col. Granville and Henrietta Haller House, sequestered in its great vegetation bunker, was letting me know it was finally ready to reclaim its prominent place on the highest point on Front Street – after a refreshing 140-year nap. It has been waiting a long time to provide the eastern anchor to the village, to balance the historic gravity of the Island County Historical Museum and the Coupeville Wharf – and to tell its stories that no other place can tell. This was the moment of conception for Historic Whidbey.

I can also trace this as the moment I dropped anchor in Penn Cove – the set-up by the Ferry House and the right cross by the Haller House delivered a knockout one-two punch. How many in this community can trace their love for our area to a single moment like this? It seems to have a customized hook for everyone – like a village made of Velcro.

As a result, Coupeville is not a good town for disengagement; we are all passionate about one aspect of life here or another, and we show it. As we all know, there are probably more nonprofit organizations per capita on Whidbey Island than a more prudent town would attempt to sustain. But thanks to that Velcro, we persist in striving to bring our dreams to fruition.

The problem, of course, is how to keep all these causes alive and thriving in an environment of finite resources. The most promising model is collaboration rather than competition. So when the Coupeville Festival Association awards grants to other nonprofits, which in turn support the preservation and promotion of our community and its most highly valued assets, the rising tide floats all boats.

As a lucky grantee of the 2014 Festival Association, Historic Whidbey plans to create a public venue that will complement existing heritage organizations, and thus increase visitation to and appreciation of the entire community. The new site sign funded by CFA is a bit of a tease in this early stage of the Haller House’s transformation, but it sends a signal to Coupeville visitors that this is a town on the rise, an under-discovered place to watch and return to. The momentum of this attraction will build, feeding the businesses and other nonprofits that make Coupeville such an enduring and special place.

The immediate goal of Historic Whidbey is not just to purchase and rehabilitate a rare, intact architectural artifact, but also to share the dramatic stories of life on Penn Cove in the days of earliest white settlement. As a public heritage site, the house holds the controversial legacy of Col. Granville Haller – an active participant in the military, commercial, and social history of the Pacific Northwest. Through this one site, we can demonstrate the ways that the Washington Territory affected and was affected by the juggernaut of westward expansion (or “Manifest Destiny”) and the Civil War – not just a local narrative, but a national one – not just a white narrative, but a Native American and British narrative as well.

Few people realize that Coupeville is home to a stunning inventory of homes and commercial buildings – over two dozen – that date back to the early 1850s and 1860s. These bear witness to American settlement a full generation before the historic buildings of Port Townsend, and represent a concentration of such structures unmatched in the Pacific Northwest. Most of these dwellings are privately owned and still occupied, which accounts for their longevity. The Haller House, which is really a coupling of two houses (the 1859 Raphael Brunn House is incorporated as an ell or wing to the Haller House), gives us a rare opportunity to educate the public about the grand legacy of all these “witness houses.”

Currently, Historic Whidbey is seeking investors/donors to purchase the Haller House from private owners and to return it to its post-bellum grandeur for the benefit of the American people as a public educational site. Our website, www.historicwhidbey.org, gives an overview of the history of the house and efforts to purchase and restore/rehabilitate it. Here you can find a short video produced when the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation listed the property on its “Most Endangered Properties for 2013”.

You can also find our Historic Structures Report, an indispensible resource in assessing the current conditions of the house as well as the prescriptive steps required to bring it to its best possible use. By summer’s end, the website will also boast a sustainable business plan, produced by graduate students at the UW Foster School of Business, and a Historic Landscape Report, produced by the UW’s School of Landscape Architecture. These studies are laying the foundation needed establish a stable and professional heritage site that will fulfill its mission for generations to come. Please explore the site to see what’s been done and still needs to be done.

We, the great crowd of nonprofit and for-profit organizations in Central Whidbey must see ourselves as a dogsled team – all individual dogs, but all pulling together with greater efficiency and mutual support towards a common goal: fruitful stewardship of our shared and beloved home. We hope you will agree and join us as we pull the sled into the future.

By Lynn Hyde

Haller House – Historic Whidbey