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In the late 1940s, an automobile dealership on the south side of First Street collapsed toward the Snohomish River, its foundation compromised by continued flooding. A block-long row of connected, one-story storefront buildings, built of local brick, was condemned and sat empty for nearly twenty years.
During this time, Snohomish’s main drag moved to Second Street, which was extended to reach the new U.S. Route 2, north of town — splitting the old cemetery in two. By the 1960s, however, the question on business leader’s minds was how to bring people back into our empty downtown? Urban renewal funds supported a study that recommended tearing down all of the old buildings on the river side of First Street, along with those condemned two decades before, then update the remaining buildings to give Snohomish the look of a riverside shopping mall.
“Snohomish hasn’t sunk that low, yet.” Summed up an editorial on October 28, 1965.
Two of White’s buildings would have been lost with that scheme: the A. M. Blackman Store and Lot Wilbur’s Drugstore Building. Gone, too, would have been at least two stories about the flourishing of frontier Snohomish.
Arthur Blackman, who opened the first grocery store in Snohomish, was a cousin to the Blackman Brothers, lumber men from Maine, who were building the first mill on the Snohomish River when J. S. White arrived with his wife and three daughters in 1884.
Lot Wilbur and his wife Jennie arrived in ten years earlier. Only 29 years old, Lot was a travelling insurance salesman who ended up being sold on the newly named Snohomish and opened a drug store. A dozen years later, Wilbur commissioned White to build a two-story brick building — world headquarters for Wilbur’s Remedies. It’s a building that still stands as the oldest brick structure in Snohomish County.
The purpose of telling the J.S. White Story is to gather and preserve the history of White’s buildings as documented by the local press and contemporaneous historians; and along the way, tell the story of Snohomish’s political, cultural and economic roots in the 19th century.
I also want to tell the story of a man who arrived in town as a carpenter, as recorded in census records; yet, 66 years later his body was escorted out of this world by six of Snohomish’s who’s who of business leaders acting as pallbearers – a certain tribute to his graduated title of architect by the local press.
One of my inspirations for this project is the book “Shaping Seattle Architecture” by Jeffrey Ochsner who has agreed to read early drafts and has been invited to contribute the foreword.
This project will be the first account of White, a man who left nothing behind except his buildings. And this is where my collaborator, Otto Greule, enters the picture with his presentation of ten color portraits of White’s surviving structures. His notes of how he captured the images are intended to interest both professional and amateur photographers — while celebrating historic preservation.
Expanding on an illuminating lecture by architectural historian, Michael Herschensohn (who has agreed to read the manuscript), titled “The Stories Old Buildings Tell” — imagine how richer the stories will be when we know the architect.
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