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Descendants converge on Bozarth Mansion for family reunion

Sue Arnson, 72, spent every holiday and summer at her grandmother’s house. And what a house.

Now known as Bozarth Mansion, it’s owned by Gonzaga University and rented out for meetings, weddings and retreats. But its name was Waikiki when Arnson spent childhood vacations on the estate from the 1940s through the early 1960s.

This weekend, Arnson is nestled into her childhood Waikiki once again – along with three generations of family members.

“It is my roots,” said Arnson, who traveled from rural Maryland for the family reunion. “It is my history.”

Life then

The Waikiki mansion was completed in 1913, designed by the city’s most famous architect, Kirtland K. Cutter. The Spokane railroad and mining tycoon who commissioned it, Jay P. Graves, raised dairy cows on the estate’s 800 acres, named for the family’s love of Hawaii, according to Spokesman-Review archives. The family’s love of Hawaii didn’t translate to the design – the mansion is often compared to a stately English manor.

In 1936, Arnson’s grandparents, C.E. and Lorraine Marr, bought Waikiki. Grandfather Marr was in the grocery business; he once owned about 1,000 stores throughout the West and was eventually bought out by the Safeway chain. He then invested in mines. Grandmother Marr held lavish parties; invitations were coveted among Spokane’s elite.

In 1946, C.E. Marr died. His widow demanded her four grown children and their families – all living out of town – move back home. Three of the four grown children obeyed, including daughter Lillian Marr Berquist.

Lillian’s son, Peter Berquist, was 11 when his family relocated from the San Francisco Bay area to the Waikiki estate.

“My grandfather had a lot of power, and I think Grandma Marr followed suit,” said Berquist, now 77.

“The children admired them, but what they said was the gospel. So when he passed away, and she said ‘Come running,’ we just packed up and left. To this day, it blows me away.”

The three families lived together in the mansion – with Grandmother Marr – for about a year until moving into their own homes on the property. The Marr money did not shield the grandchildren from hard work.

“I was 12 or 13 when my uncle was trying to manage the grounds, which were huge,” Berquist said. “He hired my brother and me. We watered and pruned and hoed and weeded. He paid us 80 cents a day, and at the end of the week he’d (evaluate).

“My brother had a work ethic and always got a bonus. I never got a bonus. One of the (evaluations) said ‘Peter caught sailing bark boats in mud puddle.’ I was a dreamer.”

In Berquist’s early years at the estate, the family leased some of the land to a dairy farmer.

“After the dairy closed shop, my uncle and father took over running the farm, and we had 125 head of white-faced Hereford,” Berquist said. “I helped them haying and cleaning out barns. I don’t think I’ve ever worked that hard since.”

He also cleaned out chicken pens. “It was a horrendous job and would almost gag you to death. But then at night, with my Uncle Frank, who belonged to the (Spokane) country club, we would go to the club for filet mignon. Now if that wasn’t a contrast.”

The Marr grandchildren fished in the Little Spokane River in the valley below the mansion. They hiked surrounding hills, hunted for crows, swam in ponds, rode their bikes in the enormous driveway.

Only one family member didn’t obey the matriarch’s summon in 1946. Sue Arnson’s father, married to Kate Marr, refused to relocate from Seattle, saying he could not live under the same roof with his mother-in-law. But Arnson’s family visited often.

“We would take the train over from Seattle, and my oldest uncle would pick us up at the station,” Arnson remembered. “There was a long driveway, and I was terrified at the eyes of the deer, and then I would see the lights of the house and I would be ecstatic because in that house were my cousins. I adored them all.”

Life now

Grandmother Marr died in 1962. None of her children wished to keep the estate. The land was sold to developers who eventually built the residential and retail area known as Fairwood, popular then and now with families wanting to live in Mead School District.

In 1963, GU bought the mansion and surrounding 8 acres for a retreat center. Located about nine miles northwest of downtown Spokane, it was renamed Bozarth Mansion and Retreat Center in 1983 in honor of the donor family who helped pay for renovations.

The Marr siblings and their families moved off the land when Grandmother Marr died and back into their own lives, mostly away from Spokane.

“None of us had really been back, other than for a cursory drive-by, in 40 years,” Arnson said. “Then a friend of mine told me she had been at a wedding at ‘your grandmother’s house.’ ”

So the family looked into renting Bozarth, which GU does, more than 85 times a year, mostly for retreats and weddings. The cousins first booked it for a reunion in 2002. This weekend marks their fourth time coming together there.

Jane Archer of GU’s campus services department visits the reunion-goers each reunion, fascinated with the stories they tell of the mansion’s early days.

“It doesn’t feel like Bozarth anymore,” she said of the atmosphere during the reunions. “It feels like their Waikiki home.”

This weekend, three generations of the extended Marr family, about 30 in all, are hiking, barbecuing, walking and talking. They range in age from 8 to 77.

The seven Marr grandchildren are the elders now and grateful for the power of Grandmother Marr to summon her grown children home in 1946. She changed their lives forever, and the course of this family’s history.

Berquist, 77, lives in Shoreline, Wash. The retired sales manager said the lessons of Waikiki lasted his entire life.

“I garden. I paint my own house. I repair everything because I know how to. We learned all the basics.”

And Arnson, who considered her cousins her siblings, fights tears when she says: “Because of this house, I wasn’t an only child.”