Fairhaven as we know it, may not have existed at all without Preservationist Ken Imus
Taimi Dunn Gorman
As we enjoy current Fairhaven at its most successful, it’s important to take time to remember how it became that way. It wasn’t by accident, and our little historic area could have very well not existed at all. It was the dream of Ken Imus to save and restore the many 100 year-old buildings we now take for granted, and Fairhaven went from boarded up to booming.
I met Ken in the 1980’s when Ray Dunn and I were working with Chuck and Dee Robinson to open a restaurant next door to Village Books, which had opened 5 years earlier. Ken and Brad Imus couldn’t have been more helpful in creating the space. Ken offered antique touches. The Black Cat sold us their old wood chairs and round tables. Our espresso machine came from Dos Padres, and Gordy at the Pharmacy loaned us an antique brass cash register and a beautiful old display case for nuts. We filled it with bagels from The Bagelry.
The Colophon Cafe opened in spring of 1985 to long lines and great success. We were the third restaurant in town to offer espresso, the first to have outdoor seating and the first to be non-smoking. As it turned out, people were waiting for such a place, and Fairhaven was waiting to take off in a growth period not seen since the 1890’s.
Ken was born in Bellingham in 1926. From his beginnings, it wasn’t obvious he would end up tinkering with buildings. He graduated from Bellingham High and served in WWII on a Naval Ship. He loved hot rods and auto racing and owned a body shop. He and wife, Barbara moved to California and then Texas, owning several successful Ford dealerships. In creating those facilities, he discovered a passion for building and architecture. On a trip back home in the 1970’s, they drove past the old “Marketplace” building, now known as Sycamore Square. It was derelict and up for sale. He bought it.
What followed was at times controversial, as the current residents of the buildings were “hippies” and the district was a counterculture center. I came to WWU in 1973 and remember the state of those old buildings. Although they were being loved and used by the locals, they weren’t being restored and were in many cases, falling down around them. As he bought the structures and evicted the tenants, locals felt he was being “mean”, but in truth the hippie era was ending all over the country and it was time for everyone to move on.
Brad Imus has many stories about each of these places, what it took to make them useable, and how very long it took. Ken wasn’t in a hurry. He wanted it done his own way, without a lot of help, and each building was a beloved project.
Had anyone else bought Fairhaven, they would have immediately discovered just how many problems were involved in its renovation and would have found it much cheaper to raze all of it and build ugly modern messes. There was a lot of building going on in Bellingham the 1970’s, and most of it was cheap and fast. Ken was the opposite. He brought in antiques from all over the world, adding distinctive architectural touches everywhere. They weren’t always authentic to Fairhaven’s “period”, but they created a charm all of its own… the faux cobblestone walkway, English phone booths and the double decker bus, wrought iron railings, and tin ceilings.
Most of the wood buildings had either burned or been torn down over the years, leaving weed filled vacant lots that usually held dumpsters or employee parking. The brick buildings were more solid, but many still had structural issues. Ken built new buildings on the old lots, in styles that mixed well with what already existed.
As we enjoyed the success of the Colophon Cafe, there were still many empty buildings around us. Mill Ave was a gravel street. The lot that later became the Village Green was all weeds, and when Ken suggested we expand into the basement of the Pythias building, our seating looked out at a vacant lot. Rats overran most of the dumpster lots and wild cats lived in “Kitty Condo’s” built by the Fairhaven Kitty Committee.
Gradually, the district took shape, and people took notice. Articles were written. Catalogs did their photo shoots here. I coaxed the Beyond Greenways campaign to add the Village Green to their park purchase list. Ken and Brad quiet and constantly worked. Ken’s son Tim joined them buying and building. Businesses came and went constantly, but each brought a new flavor to the district. Ken often didn’t ask for rent when they got behind because he liked having them there. For him, it never seemed to be about the money as much as his beloved Fairhaven.
Ken was a gentleman. The worst he ever said about people was “he’s a character”, even when fighting with the city over permits. He wrote checks for every district event and ad. He was usually seen in his overalls picking up litter or stomping down garbage in a dumpster. People thought he was a janitor.
Brad joined the board. Others came to Fairhaven with money and built even more buildings, buying properties from Ken and continuing the work.
Ken died on March 19th at the age of 90. Barb had died last year. An era is ending, but a new one is emerging.
When tourists are asked what their main destinations are, the majority say “historical sites”. Every area that holds on to its history maintains a special niche that can’t be filled anywhere else. Locals and tourists come to Fairhaven to shop, eat, visit health professionals, and a whole lot more. But the big part of Fairhaven’s success is the charm it has from past eras, when carriages and bustles, brothels and saloons were the thing, and wood planks served as roads. They are gone, but the brick buildings that housed them remain, observing a new generation of admirers.
Ken should always be remembered for making this all happen. It was his hard work and vision that created the Fairhaven we now know and love.
Memorials in Ken’s name may be made to Whatcom Hospice. A celebration of Ken’s life will be held Monday, March 27th at 11:00 am, at Westford Funeral Home, with a reception across the street at Broadway Hall.
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