Discovering the Early Architecture of Snohomish

A Look at J. S. White: Our First Architect; His Surviving Structures from 19th-Century Snohomish

By Jeffrey Karl Ochsner

Bird’s-eye view of Snohomish, Washington, 1890.  From Library of Congress: (Accessed Oct. 20, 2016)

The conflict lasted about three years. When it was over in 1897, Everett had become the seat of Snohomish County. The upstart city had taken the title from the older town, Snohomish, which had been home to the county’s government for more than three decades. Snohomish would go on, prospering as a railroad stop and mill town, but the county’s center of investment, railroad activity, and population growth would thereafter be Everett. We need not mourn Snohomish’s loss, however; stability and slow growth meant preservation. In the late 1960s, residents formed a historical society, and in 1973 the town protected a 26-block historic district. The area was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, Snohomish is celebrated for its collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings.

Walking around Snohomish is enjoyable and educational. Because so much of its historical fabric remains, it is a place where one can experience (at least in moments of reverie) what our region’s towns were like more than a century ago. Although there are other places that offer similar experiences, Snohomish is conveniently close to Seattle.

A photograph of the Oscar E. Crossman House
Oscar E. Crossman House, 1890. Photo by Otto Greule, 2011

Researching the history of the architecture in small towns like Snohomish is often an impossible task. Early cities and towns had little or no requirements for building permits, early architects’ records are typically nonexistent, and other information, if it exists, can be extremely difficult to dig up. Thus it is quite unusual that we have a new book that documents and illustrates the work of pioneer Snohomish architect and builder John S. White (1845–1920). Published in 2017, local historian Warner S. Blake’s book, J. S. White: Our First Architect; His Surviving Structures from 19th-Century Snohomish, is an illustrated guide (with photography by Otto Greule) that tells the story of White’s Snohomish career.

As Blake writes, little is known of J. S. White’s early life and training. He was born in New Hampshire, but in 1884 he came to Snohomish from Kansas, with his wife and three children, to design and build a new Methodist church. At the time Snohomish was a growing community with about 700 residents. As the site of the county courthouse and a large sawmill, Snohomish was prospering—a good location for an architect and builder.

The facade of the A. M. Blackman Store
A. M. Blackman Store, 1889. Photo by Otto Greule, 2009

The Methodist church, a wood structure with simplified Gothic Revival details, was completed in 1885; it survives today with an altered entrance. Thereafter, White designed a series of wood buildings with Italianate details: the Odd Fellows Hall (1885–86), the Getchell House (1887), the Ewell House (1888, later separated into two houses), and his own house (1888). Next came several two-story business blocks, the first in wood and then two in brick. Additional houses followed, and by 1890 White had become a respected citizen. That June he was elected to city council, serving through November.

In 1888 White invested in a corner lot on First Street, the site for his White Building (1891–93), a two-story brick business block. For a time, he continued to do well; he was elected to council again in 1892, 1895, and 1896. However, Snohomish was hit hard by the Panic of 1893, and the county seat moved to Everett in 1897. In 1898, White lost his business block to foreclosure. Little is known of White’s career thereafter. The only later project that Blake identifies is a cabin on Whidbey Island. White died in Snohomish in 1920.

The facade of the Burns Block
Burns Block, 1890. Photo by Otto Greule, 2009

Blake provides much more detail about J. S. White’s Snohomish career and many tales of life in late 19th-century Snohomish. In turn, White’s story reminds us of the vicissitudes of architectural practice during that period. Like White, most architects in the 19th-century American West emerged from the building trades. Many who moved to larger cities like Seattle made a full transition from builder to architect; those who remained in smaller towns often continued to practice both as designer and builder. But as architecture professionalized and as means of travel and communication improved, the older builder-architects faced increasing competition from younger practitioners in nearby cities. J. S. White was thus not just the victim of the changing circumstances of Snohomish and the challenging economy of the 1890s—he also faced a changing profession.

What is truly remarkable is that so many of White’s buildings survive and that his story has now been told.

J. S. White: Our First Architect; His Surviving Structures from 19th-Century Snohomish by Warner Blake with photography by Otto Greule (Snohomish: People of Snohomish and Friends, 2017)

Jeffrey Karl Ochsner is a professor in the Department of Architecture who currently serves as associate dean in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington.

Research regarding J. S. White and Snohomish is found in J. S. White: Our First Architect; His Surviving Structures from 19th-Century Snohomish by Warner Blake, who provided assistance and illustrations for this article. The photographs accompanying this article, just a sample of those in the book, were taken by Otto Greule.