EDITOR'S COLUMN: Island’s building blocks threatened

Tours of Victorian houses, farm houses and quaint bed and breakfasts have their place on Whidbey Island, but some of us who appreciate history fear that the basic building block of island life is being overlooked. Of course, we’re talking about the cement block.

Without the cement block, Whidbey Island as we know it would not exist. For decades, the cement block has been the basis for the island’s public buildings. It’s the one thing that truly unites the island. Someone from South Whidbey, with its six cement block fire houses. feels right at home driving up the island, past the old cement block firehouse in Greenbank and the cement block headquarters of Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue in Coupeville.

Aficionados of our simply cement block structures find nirvana in Oak Harbor where, some decades ago, a cement block salesman hit it big on Barrington Drive. The city of Oak Harbor built its main firehouse out of cement blocks, and its police station and its city hall. Just down the road, the Oddfellows and American Legion halls added to the cement block theme. Not wanting to be outdone, the Whidbey News-Times built a cement block newspaper office and printing plant. In the hinterlands, Fire District 2 added several cement block fire halls.

The city is always searching for a theme to attract tourists. How about, “Cement block capital of the world!” We can give tours, and sell tiny replicas of our cement block buildings.

The love for cement blocks still secretly resides in the heart of Oak Harborites, and it could well be the reason ballot measures for fancy new buildings keep failing miserably at the polling places made, by the way, of cement blocks. How about proposing a spacious new three-story cement block high school and a fashionable cement block library? Frugal voters, knowing these new buildings will last a millennium, will likely vote “yes” with enthusiasm.

Years ago, Whidbey Island’s local governments shared one thing: poverty. Tourism was nil, the Navy wasn’t around, and you couldn’t make much money raising chickens and strawberries. And yet they didn’t want to do without the basic public buildings, so cement blocks were the answer. Just stack’em up, paint’em white or green, and you had yourself a building that would last forever.

Alas, the island has grown richer and our cement block buildings are being replaced. Freeland’s old cement block fire station has been abandoned, but hopes are the sheriff will take over the old station as a precinct office. South Whidbey’s Saratoga station sits forlornly unused, a quarter mile away from the new metal station. And in Coupeville, we worry about the classical cement block fire station on Main Street. It will soon be replaced by a new fire hall made no doubt of metal and glass, and it may be torn down.

Cement blocks have been the backbone of civic life in Island County for half a century or more. It would be a shame to abandon them now just because we’re richer than before.

Save Coupeville Fire Station, and the rest of our cement block buildings.

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