Ellensburg’s most iconic building is celebrating a birthday this month.

Central Washington University’s Barge Hall is turning 125 in September. Until 1908, the building served as the university’s only building on campus, housing classrooms, administrative offices, a library in the basement consisting of books donated from Benjamin Franklin Barge, the school’s first principal and namesake, and even included an auditorium and gymnasium.

EARLY ROOTS

According to a history provided by the CWU Department of Public Affairs, the roots of the building begin in 1893, when Senator C.I. Helm, a Kittitas County resident introduced legislation that appropriated $60,000 to build the first building on new campus that was then known as the Washington State Normal School. The school began two years before and was housed in the local high school until Barge was built.

The building was designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, a blend of Spanish, French and Italian Romanesque characteristics. Examples of the architecture style in the building include the arched and recessed entryway and the cylindrical turret-like towers with conical caps. The building was constructed by H.A. Van Fossen and Company of Tacoma and used over 300,000 bricks sourced from the A.O. Fowler Brickyard in Ellensburg.

By summer of 1893, construction was in full swing. The Ellensburg Capital wrote a description of the work of progress on Aug.24.

“Quite a change has taken place in the appearance of block No. 8, First Railroad Addition since it was selected as the site,” the article said. “The sagebrush has all been cleared off and the size of the block is easily discernible. It extends east and west 400 feet and runs back from Eighth to Ninth Street a depth of 300 feet. The survey has been made, the grade stakes are driven, and grading is under way. Over 50,000 bricks are piled on the ground and everything about the site presents a businesslike appearance.”

The structure took approximately one year to build, with the main tower being completed by January 1894. Fall classes began in the new building in September of that year. Although the school came in $3.31 under budget, no funding was allocated for furnishings within the building. Senator Helm stepped up and advocated for additional funding from the state for that cause. The fight for extra funding was not easy, however and a legislative investigation ended up clearing the school of any wrongdoing.

Two earthquakes struck Barge, with one occurring in the 1920s and the other in 1949. The main cupola was eventually removed due to the damage incurred by the earthquake.

“Following the structural inspection of 1954, in which it was found to be improperly anchored, the four-sided domical vault of the main tower was removed,” A 1993 history piece on the building prepared by the Facilities Management Department said. “This was an unfortunate event, because with its four ornate dormers, its crowning lantern and flagpole, the vault was an extremely distinctive feature of Barge Hall.”

RESTORATION

In 1974, the building was nominated for the National Register of Historic places, which was granted in 1976.

“Because it has remained in uninterrupted service over the years, Barge Hall has figured prominently in the changing campus,” The nomination form from 1974 stated. “As the institution’s original structure, the hall has participated in an historical sense in the conversion from a Normal School to a full-fledged college, offering advanced degrees in the liberal arts and sciences. Barge Hall remains the oldest state-operated edifice in the town of Ellensburg. Its architectural treatment in terms of style, manipulation of massing and materials, and careful execution of detail is one which entirely benefits the monumentality of the structure. Although it is not an uncommon version of the Richardsonian Romanesque style within the state, it is the only extant example of such proportions in the town of Ellensburg. As such it represents a key element in the community’s architectural heritage.”

Restoration of the building finally became possible in 1991, when the state appropriated $6.3 million in the 1991-1993 biennium legislative budget. The project included restoring the iconic cupola, as well as seismically stabilizing the structure. The restoration was complete in time for the university’s 100th anniversary celebration in 1993.

MODERN-DAY BARGE

Today, Barge Hall serves as the administrative center of the university, housing the executive staff, public affairs department and student support services. As with the exterior, the interior of the building is steeped in historic elements retained during the 1993 renovation.

When prospective students come to visit the university, CWU Capital Planning and Projects Manager Delano A. Palmer said Barge Hall is often the building they see first. He said it is also one of the most common backgrounds for students when they take their graduation photos.

“This is the major attraction of Ellensburg,” he said. “It’s what you see in the brochures, the websites, all those things.”

Prior to the renovation, Palmer said the primary focus was keeping the building in operational shape, the main exception being the removal of the cupola in the 1950s.

“From there, it was typical preventative maintenance of academic facilities,” he said. “At one point, they decided they needed to make an overhaul of this building to serve more student needs, hence why we had the renovation in 1992-93.”

Palmer said the renovation focused on preserving and restoring the historic elements present within the building. Examples within the interior are the woodwork, floors and architectural style of the original construction. On the exterior, he said renovation crews were concerned with maintaining some of the original sandstone, which was sourced from a quarry in Tenino. Window and door structures were also focused on with the intent of making sure the structural integrity was upheld. Palmer said during the renovation, nothing was added to the original structure in terms of square footage.

“Nothing has ever been expanded for this facility,” he said. “It has always been maintaining the historic nature of this facility.”

Palmer said new construction on campus focuses on providing the best academic environment for students and as a result tends not to follow in the Richardsonian Romanesque style of Barge. As a result, the building continues to stand as a unique example of this type of period architecture.

“It’s a reflection on what the academic environment was originally,” he said. “We don’t want to lose it. We want it to be a reflection of what the history of the university was, but at the same time we want to make sure that our new facilities are of the times.”

Having worked in the private sector before coming to CWU, Palmer said he has worked on historic buildings in the past, but that Barge Hall is the oldest building he has been placed in charge of. Twenty-five years after the renovation, he said the building is holding up, but it certainly has its quirks.

“It’s an old building,” he said. “It has a lot of character. The floors are obviously holding up pretty well. The structure itself is holding up pretty well. Just like any facility on our campus, it requires preventative maintenance.”

Palmer said his department is charged with ensuring that the building continues to be structurally safe, maintaining systems like HVAC and electrical to best suit the occupants of the building and making sure the overall feel of the building matches its intended purpose. With regular preventative maintenance, he said a massive overhaul of a building like Barge Hall is negligible compared to constructing a new building on campus.

“The most important thing is keeping up with our preventative maintenance to ensure that it’s solid,” he said. “If you do not, it can be more expensive.”

Being able to stand the test of time as regularly used facility is what stands out most about Barge for Palmer. He said 125 years is a long lifespan for a building that has not been converted for uses like housing a museum.

“It is a highly used, highly necessary facility,” he said. “The fact that it’s been used this long is in part to the dedication of the campus community and the preventative maintenance of the university.”

When asked if he had any knowledge of if the building is haunted, Palmer said he has not heard any rumors of the sort.

“No one has ever told me that,” he said. “I think that I would have thought secondly if they had told me this place was haunted before taking a job at CWU.”

Comments

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.