Burns Block Greule 2012

10. Burns Block, 1890

Color Plate 10: Burns Block Photographed by Otto Greule ©2011. (See Otto’s Notes Below)

“S.J. Burns has several teams at work this week hauling brick for the erection of a fine brick block on Front street immediately east of Otten & Mohering’s boot and shoe store. The building will be 60×100 feet in size and two stories high, the lower story to be used for stores and upper part to be made into offices. The work on the excavation for this building is partially done and work on the brickwork is expected to be commenced in a very short time.”
The Eye, May 24, 1890

“About 150,000 brick are now on the ground for the new Burns’ block and the work of laying them will commence in a very short time.” The Eye, June 7, 1890

“Work on the Burns block has been somewhat delayed during the past week, owing to water in the excavation, but all further trouble in that respect has been overcome by the putting in of a drain which carried the water across Front street and into the river. Work will be resumed at once and ere long the masons will be laying brick on the best building yet put up in Snohomish.” The Eye, June 21, 1890

Thursday, June 26, 1890, was a special election day in the Village of Snohomish. When the day was done, it was a City. Incorporating as a city of the third class passed, 360 votes to 21. Even bigger news–the town had gone Democratic! Founder and Republican player in territorial politics, E. C. Ferguson lost the mayoral seat to Hycranus Blackman, who “will make an excellent officer,” wrote The Sun on July 4, 1890, “it regrets that the father of Snohomish could not have had the honor of being her first mayor.”

Indeed, what a blow to the man who was mayor from when he platted his claim in 1871, and then, at the first go at incorporation in 1883 as the Village of Snohomish. His opposition to the expanded boundaries of the city, that included his undeveloped lots, tagged him with the implied label of “tax-dogger.” Heading its report, The Sun claimed in a sub-subhead: “Democrats Took Advantage of the Petty Spites Against the Hon. E. C. Ferguson and Come Within a few Votes of Electing a Solid Democratic Council.”

In fact, only two Republicans made it, and one of them was J. S. White, representing the west end of town, who won with 222 votes. At a mass meeting held in the Odd Fellows Hall, he won the nomination over two other candidates by a wide margin. Mr. Clay, from whom White purchased his two lots, received only two votes. H. Blackman was put forward in opposition to Ferguson, and won the nomination by five votes. “After the result was announced there was an exodus of Ferguson boomers,” The Eye reported on June 28, 1890. “The open caucus held by the people at Odd Fellows’ hall nominated the successful ticket, and not the convention ‘held last week’ –in the saloons.”

Reporting on the first meeting of new council, held in the county clerk’s office in the Odd Fellows Hall, The Sun proclaimed in the July 4 issue: “Snohomish should be exceeding glad and celebrate the day of Independence with great rejoicing for it marks the end of the chaos that for the last four long months has been a millstone about her neck.”

The Eye, on the streets the following day, July 5, 1890, emphasized of the city’s need for fire protection: “A good engine is the safest, best and cheapest protection that can be secured, and is what the city needs and by all means should have.”

The Sun on July 12, 1890, picked up the argument: “Should there be a fire call tonight there would no doubt be fifty men run for the hose cart. Now four or six men is all that are required […] the other forty-five men would only be wasting precious time.” Most worrisome was the report that insurance companies were cancelling policies and instructing agents “to take no more risks on the property on Front street,” reported The Sun.

Fire prevention is the theme for 1890 in the new city. The wind in the sails, of course, is the memory of the Blackman Mill burning to the ground in September of the previous year, and of our hoseteam travelling to Seattle to fight the losing battle against the great fire there in June. Then too, a frontier entrepreneur with the Dickensian name of Burns commissioned White to create a three-story building of fireproof brick–which one day will stop a fire.

js white story image
Bird’s Eye-view, 1891.

On July 13, 1890, J.S. White turned 45, his golden birthday, matching the year he was born, most likely celebrated by only this writer–but what a year he was having. He was a newly elected council member of his adopted city, which had graduated to Third Class status in the new state of Washington, and was on a building boom.

At the corner of Front and Avenue B, the furniture maker and undertaker Charles Bakeman was building a majestic three-story building, but of wood. Six blocks north of Front Street, up Avenue D, on land donated by E.C. Ferguson and his brother Clark, ground was broken for a new county courthouse, designed by a Portland architect with several handsome courthouse structures to his name. In September, the council approved the purchase of a lot on Avenue A for the city’s first engine house, which assumes they also approved the purchase of our first fire engine, as recommended by both newspapers. In its October 11, 1890, issue, The Eye reported that, “a little over $85,000 awarded by this city in contracts for street improvements this season.” Then the writer asked, “Can any city on the sound, of 2000 people, beat it?”

“The Burns block is fast nearing completion and the storeroom will be ready for occupancy in a very short time. Horton Bros. will remove their stock of notions and stationery into it as soon as completed.” The Eye, October 18, 1890

js white story image
Palace Floating Gallery at Snohomish by Gilbert Horton c.1885.

Gilbert D. Horton was once the imaginative owner of the Palace Floating Gallery that he built in Tacoma in 1884. “It was sixteen feet wide and sixty feet long and contained a skylight operation room, dark room, two state rooms, kitchen and dinning room,” he reminisced for a Tribune story published November 8, 1928. In addition to a robust portrait business, Horton documented the development of many places around the Sound, none more so than our riverside settlement in its first bloom of wooden wharfs and early streetscapes of dirt paths and white picket fences.

Originally planned for only two stories, but on September 20, 1890, The Eye reported on the Burns Block: “This handsome, three-story structure will be occupied by an Olympia firm as soon as completed.” The owner, John Burns, was building a three-story brick building on “spec” in the nineteenth century. But less than two years later, a subhead in The Eye on March 3, 1892, read: “A Man Who Loves Money More than Comfort.” “John Burns, the long-haired old fellow, with unkempt beard and a small dog, who has been a familiar figure about Snohomish for a longer time than most people remember, is at last off the streets,” the story began. He surrendered himself to the care of others with symptoms similar to those of paralysis. “Messrs. Getchell and English have taken him in hand,” the compelling details unfold, “provided him with what is probably the first decent suit of clothes he ever possessed, and given him, for once in his life, sanitary treatment and clean linen.”

Burns was on the ground in the early years of Snohomish, earning money in the logging camps that he either loaned at high interest rates or invested in real estate. “He never spent it for personal comfort or adornment,” The Eye’s account continues, “Clothing that a poor man would throw away has always been good enough for Burns.” He owned buildings on both sides of Front Street, and was known to have blocks of business buildings in Olympia, “and how many elsewhere no one but his agents can tell.”

js white story image

Ad for Horton Bros. 1897

Both newspapers mentioned Horton’s move into the Burns Block–first was The Eye on December 6, 1890; then on December 12, The Sun reported: “Horton Bros. have moved into their fine new store in the new brick Burns’ block. They have now one of the finest book and stationery stores on the Sound.”

Only 28 feet wide, the facade has graceful proportions, repeated in each of the gently arched windows like eighth notes playing the top two floors, while supported by the bass clef of full-height storefront windows and double glass doors. This first-floor space is remembered by long-time residents as the popular Schott’s Meat Market.

The upper floors are just under 2,000 square feet each, while the first floor is a little larger to accommodate a rear entrance and staircase. Between the first and second floor is a 1,500- square-foot mezzanine overlooking the main floor with a staircase running along the west wall. This is a graceful, light-filled space, which we assume is original, and we enjoy imagining how it looked when stocked with the Horton Bros.’ goods and filled with over-dressed shoppers–as nineteenth-century fashion appears to us.

js white story image

#7 Primary Building Historic District Nomination, 1973

Today, the second floor is still divided into two front offices a large rear office, and a central space, windowless except for a skylight over the staircase. The Eye reported in February 22, 1894, that “Miss Gilbert, an employe at the Penobscot hotel, while washing windows of the building, fell through the skylight of Crossman’s store last Thursday, breaking one of her arms. The third floor was gutted in the 1990s by the then [?] owner, who also renovated the first two floors by exposing the red brick walls and giving the original molding a thick coat of white paint.

As fall turned to winter in 1890, Snohomish residents were once again called to vote. First for county office holders, then on December 2, a regular municipal election (as opposed to the special election held five months earlier for incorporation) was held. Ferguson regained the mayor’s chair, and White went home–now, at least, there was sidewalk planking along Second Street, no longer a muddy path of humiliation.

Speaking of planking, Front Street was finally being graded, then covered with thick wooden planks. “The work of planking First street goes bravely on,” reported The Eye, November 11, 1890, “and in a very short time we will have at least one good thoroughfare in Snohomish.” It seems that with incorporation, the village term of “Front” street is being phased out and replaced with the proper name for a city: “First”–as it is called today.

Before the final adjournment for the year the council came to an agreement on the assessment of property owners on First Street for the costs of grading and planking. It was a struggle, judging by the amount of ink given to the issue by both newspapers, but most interesting for us who are looking backward for clues, is that White’s assessment was increased from $6.70 to $10.00, reported in the November 22, 1890, issue of The Eye. We didn’t know that White still owned property on First Street–where, and what was on it?

js white story image
Looking East on First Street, Snohomish, by William Douglas, 1911

“DISASTROUS FIRE VISITED SNOHOMISH TUESDAY,” read the headline in Friday’s issue of the Tribune on June 2, 1911. Every great city has a “great fire” to mark its initiation into cityhood, and this is the story of ours.

The fire broke out in the basement of a restaurant on the south side of First, referred to as “Block 2,” where the wooden buildings were constructed on poles–some 20 feet long–to bring the structures up to street grade from the riverbank below. “In thirty minutes after the fire was discovered,” the June 2, 1911, Tribune account read, “it had leaped across the street to the old Blackman building in which were located the Post Office, the Penobscot Hotel and other business places, which burst into flames….” The detailed account continued: “Heroic efforts on the part of our splendid volunteer fire department kept the flames confined, that it was hot where they were working may be judged from the fact that part of the fire hose was burned in two while in use.”

Fortunately, there was “not a breath of wind was stirring,” and the westward movement of the fire on the north side was easily stopped by the three-story Burns brick block. Unfortunately, the excellent work of the volunteer fire department soaked much of the Horton Bros. inventory on the ground floor, which “cleaned me out,” as Gilbert Horton told the Tribune 40 years later.

. . . .

NOTES: “Field Guide to American Houses,” Virginia and Lee McAlester, p263

Edited by Susan Geib

. . . .

I timed this photograph so that oblique sunlight would grace the south facing elevation of the Burns Block building, emphasizing the handsomely crafted brickwork. The perspective view relates the building’s dimensions, and shows the faded remnants of a mural on its east side.

By positioning the camera about ten feet above ground, the street was slightly de-emphasized, imparting a more stately feel to the building. The camera’s carefully chosen viewpoint also aligned the hanging lamppost plant against the darkened stairway door, and kept the streetlight from merging into the transom window.

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Lens: Canon 45mm Tilt/Shift, Exposure: 1/40 second @ ƒ11, iso 100.

. . . .