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Tuesday, February 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Architect’s work seen all over the state

Second of two parts

In February 1923, a woman named Mattie Morrison was struck in the head with a pipe by a would-be robber as she walked near her home. She never recovered, dying about a year later.

Soon after, her son, Earl Morrison – a prolific, locally famous architect who was designing homes all over the South Hill before he finished college – closed his Spokane office and opened one in Seattle.

At that point, Morrison was 36. He had already designed majestic homes for the city’s wealthy families, up and down Rockwood Boulevard and spread across the lower South Hill. As Spokane’s economy tanked, he had migrated his practice and life largely to Wenatchee and had begun expanding his range. He designed technically sophisticated plants for the booming fruit industry, along with schools, a fire department and an Elks lodge.

Morrison’s range and output were remarkable. He was not so much a distinct stylist with an obvious visual signature as he was someone who could adapt his skills to different circumstances, who relied on innovative and efficient construction methods, and who was savvy about looking for new opportunities when old ones vanished, according to Glenn Davis, a Spokane architect who is working to revive Morrison’s legacy.

“It’s not like Frank Lloyd Wright, where you look at a building and say that’s a Frank Lloyd Wright,” Davis said. “Throughout his entire career he was trying to develop an architecture that responded to its time but did not turn its back on the past.”

Broadly speaking, Morrison was influenced by Prairie style and the Chicago school – especially in terms of high-rises and concrete construction – but he was particularly gifted at deploying accents and architectural flourishes from all over the world, Davis said. In particular, this hallmark emerged as Morrison began building many more schools and apartment houses all across the state.

The more Davis learned about Morrison, the more fascinated he became. Using the tools of the Internet – and especially Google newspaper archives – and old-fashioned library research, he was piecing together an amazing story, each chapter of which was followed by a surprising new one.

But the story always ended the same way: with Morrison having been more or less forgotten, even within architectural circles.

When Morrison set up office in Seattle, he almost immediately started in a dramatic new direction: designing huge apartment towers. Some of the largest of the time. He also continued to design a wide variety of buildings: schools, businesses, a hospital, a gymnasium.

In 1928, Pacific Builder and Engineer magazine profiled Morrison, describing him as one of the best-known architects in the state. In it, Morrison described his aggressive approach to securing business: “A man must pound, pound, pound all the time, and when the ball is rolling good, the more jobs he has, the more he seems to get.”

But by the time the architectural history “Shaping Seattle” was published in 1994, Morrison’s star had dimmed. He was already often overlooked in Spokane’s architectural histories, Davis said, and “Shaping Seattle” only gave him a brief mention.

“In that brief space, (the author) misspells his name, misattributes one of his most important buildings and makes about six factual errors,” Davis said.

In the mid-1920s, Morrison designed a host of schools, fire stations and other public buildings in Everett, Burlington and Chelan. He designed a spectacularly beautiful home for the Bellingham Herald. He designed the Canterbury Building in Seattle, a kind of clearinghouse for the film industry. And he began building apartment buildings in Seattle, high-rises that would come to define his later career. He designed apartment buildings all over Seattle, including the Marlborough House, the Gainsborough, the Le Sourd Apartments and Twelve Twenty-Three Spring Apartments.

Some of his most fascinating projects are no longer standing. He designed a spectacular mountain lodge at the foot of Mount Baker. Built in 1927, the lodge was the home for the filming of “Call of the Wild.” Co-stars Clark Gable and Loretta Young famously had a tryst there. It burned to the ground in 1931.

In 1935, Morrison collaborated with an artist on designs for a statue in the Puget Sound, in honor of “pioneering mothers.” Envisioned as the West Coast equivalent, in size and symbolic stature, of the Statue of Liberty, the tower was part of the Works Progress Administration. It was never built.

Morrison continued designing schools, apartment buildings – both luxury high-rises and modest “bungalow” apartments – and a huge range of other buildings. At the time of his death in 1955, the final design of his career – one of the first high-rise apartments on Waikiki Beach – was under construction.

Davis’ research into Morrison grew and grew. It grows still. He has compiled an exhaustive list of Morrison projects, complete with many buildings that are believed, but not confirmed, as Morrison’s work.

He’s drawn information from newspapers, architectural magazines and histories, and libraries around the state. He’s talked to Morrison’s one descendant. He’s contacted historians and preservation advocates.

“It’s kind of like opening the door to a closet and all this stuff comes tumbling out,” he said. “The more I learned … the more intriguing it became.”

Davis has compiled a book-length manuscript about Morrison’s life and work, complete with scores of photographs, architectural drawings and other material. It’s titled “Earl Morrison, Architect: Toward a Rediscovery,” and Davis considers it a work in progress. He’s given slideshow presentations to preservation advocates in Seattle and Everett and intends to make his work available to historians and others who might keep Morrison’s legacy alive.

What drove him? Davis said he was motivated by the opportunity to really provide a substantial record for the community about an important and forgotten piece of its history and that he found affinities between his own architectural interests and Morrison’s career.

Plus, “I wouldn’t discount the intrigue of the detective work – it’s just fascinating to me,” Davis said. “It’s been really, really fun for me to do.”

In 1910, when Morrison was a senior at Spokane’s South Central High, he designed the class project for the school: a $600 concrete granite and bronze fountain.

It was a big, expensive project for a high school senior, though perhaps not for one who was already designing big homes for the city’s prosperous families. A month after his graduation, the school burned down.

“One of the few things that survived was this fountain,” Davis said.

The fountain survived and has been preserved through the years at what is now Lewis and Clark High, on the west side of the school.

“It’s still there,” Davis said. “And I’m sure nobody has a clue what it once was or who was responsible for it.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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