BY KIMBERLY MAYER
It was the only time I ever remember dreading going into town, Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island. County seat to San Juan County, and a major commercial center of the San Juan Island archipelago. Still, it’s a small town. Centered on Spring Street, steps up from the waterfront, the ferry terminal, the Marina, and Fairweather Park where carvings honor the island’s Northwest Coast Indian heritage. And where musicians play in summer.
There was no music now. On April 7th a fire blazed in the night, and although the fire had been extinguished for a couple of days, that block on Spring Street was still sectioned off with emergency vehicles and yellow tape. The fire had caused extensive damage to six iconic historic buildings—some a total loss–two buildings dating back to the 1880’s.
Standing across the street and up a block, I hated to look. It hurt to look then and it hurts to think about it now. The agony of seeing what isn’t there anymore. I hadn’t yet fathomed the interior loss and the loss of livelihoods: a popular tavern, a coffee shop, a real estate office, and a kayaking tour company. Furthermore all of these buildings had had other incarnations through the ages: hotels, grocers, saloon, barbershop, and a silent movie house among them.
Standing there, I was feeling it architecturally in that moment. My first thought was how can this ever be rebuilt without looking like Disneyland? Like Whistler? As Sandy Strehlou, Historic Preservation Coordinator for the town of Friday Harbor said, “The impact on the historical district is irreplaceable.”
Later I determined that the fire in Friday Harbor was causing something not unlike PTSD in me, triggering memories of the town where I had grown up. A small town in northern Connecticut, Suffield prided itself on its Historic District running the 2 ½ mile length through the center of town. 18th and 19th century homes lined North and South Main Street, with the town center and a village green. A Town Hall, Masonic Lodge, bank, fire station, a grocer, pharmacy, luncheonette, and various shops comprised the old town center. I always thought the center comfortable with itself. Everything much as you would expect if this were a predictable story, or a stage set for a play. Every bit as archetypal then as Friday Harbor, my western town now.
And then the most incongruous thing happened—entirely off-plot. These were going away to school years for me, so I wasn’t paying close attention. It seemed to me that on one visit home the town center was there, as always, and on the next visit it was not. It was almost like the center disappeared.
In Friday Harbor a rogue arsonist torched the town on April 7th. In Suffield Connecticut, the town center was demolished by committee in the 1960’s. Bulldozers and wrecking balls right through the heart of the town. I will never understand how it happened.
A suburban shopping center was then constructed in its stead, off the site–not in The Historical District. “Suffield Village” is how they refer to it. Some entries are from the outside, some inside, like a small mall. Initially it tried to hold the businesses from town, but now it’s mostly offices and a lot of empty spaces. As a friend in Suffield notes, “Businesses failed and the building went into some disrepair. It’s just not anything special.” All the parking in the world, and no one wants to go there. (Name a nice town that doesn’t have a parking problem).
The original Suffield Town Center had good bones and charm. It was nothing that fresh paint, new awnings, parking meters, and love wouldn’t fix.
Islanders know this with every ounce of their being. Love for Friday Harbor has been overwhelming. It’s been shared a lot lately but I cannot think of a better way to close than with this ode to Herb’s Tavern, lost in the fire. It was written by Greg Hertel, a retired science teacher on San Juan Island:
It was just an old tavern in an old building…
But it was where I had my first meal when I arrived on island on a late August afternoon to take a job teaching here in 1974
It was where my wife and I went to many dances and shared many a beer with friends
It was where we listened to The Ducks when they would come over here to play
It was the blue-collar meeting place for the construction crews, the boat crews
It was where many college papers were written by students who had rowed over from the (UW) Marine Labs. We met a woman in Zion Park one summer and when we said that we were from Friday Harbor she said that she wrote most of her master’s thesis at Herbs
It was the first place where many kids would have their first adult drink on their 21st birthday
It was where boaters who weren’t yacht club members would meet
It was never high class… and proud of it
It was my image of what a workingman’s bar should be like. The staff was down to earth, friendly
It was where the food was not gourmet but always OK and the portions were real
It was where the commercial fishermen would meet and eat before heading out to the Salmon Banks on those summers when drunken gill netters ruled the streets
It was the place that Realtors would rush by with their customers on their way to more upscale restaurants
It was the place where kids working multiple jobs could afford to meet and eat out
It was the location of many hookups, meetups and even some breakups
It was never on anyone’s 4-star list but always on everyone’s “meet you there” list
It was an old bar in an old building… and it was the heart of the town.