White, Aubrey Lee (1869-1948)

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 3/21/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9366

Long before "environmentalism" became a common term, Aubrey Lee White of Spokane worked to ensure the enduring quality of the environment of his adopted city and its surroundings. The Maine native arrived in Spokane in 1889 at the age of 20. While doing odd jobs to support himself, he hiked or drove a buggy all over Spokane and the nearby countryside noting and mapping its scenic features and viewpoints. These expeditions would bear fruit when White became an affluent and influential businessman able to persuade city leaders to establish one of the best park systems in the United States. For its design, he instigated the hiring of the Olmsted Brothers, renowned landscape architects of Brookline, Massachusetts.  The firm’s founder, Frederick Law Olmsted, was best known for designing New York’s Central Park. White was for 15 years the president of the Spokane Board of Park Commissioners and came to be called the “father of Spokane parks.” Under his leadership, the city adopted the goal (not entirely realized today with Spokane’s present urban sprawl) of a park within a 10 or 15 minute walk of every resident. Other goals and eventual achievements were playgrounds, swimming pools, and municipal golf courses. White’s efforts to create scenic and recreational enclaves extended well beyond the city limits, with his promotion of parkways along the Spokane River, as well as county and state parks.

Early Influences

Aubrey Lee White was born in Houlton, Maine, on February 17, 1896, one of 10 children of a farmer. He was educated in the public schools except for one term at a preparatory school, Ricker Classical Institute. He was essentially self-taught in the field of urban improvement and planning to which he devoted most of his life. Several influences were important in White’s vision for Spokane parks. The nation-wide City Beautiful movement was dedicated to enhancing the livability of American cities by means of parks and playgrounds. Another influence was the revival of the romantic movement, in reaction to the recent neoclassicism with its formal gardens laid out in geometric patterns on level terrain. Romanticism, by contrast, advocated that landscape design should follow the natural curves of the terrain and even leave much of it in a wild, undeveloped state. Romanticism fit not only White’s own aesthetic sense, but that of the Olmsted firm. It was perfect for Spokane, with its hills, basalt outcroppings, and the tumultuous river that bisected the city.

Finally, White’s six-year sojourn in the East selling mining stocks and railroad bonds for Spokane tycoon Jay P. Graves (1859-1948) provided insights that he could apply directly to Spokane. His territory included such cities as Montreal, New York, and Philadelphia. He was alarmed to see that, except for Central Park, most large Eastern cities had allowed urban development to surge forward with little thought to preserving swaths of land for parks. These cities then had to buy bits of remaining land at inflated prices. He realized that Spokane was still in a position to acquire such land cheaply.

Spokane's Parks and the Powerhouse Group

When White returned in 1906, he was determined to see that Spokane did not make the mistakes of the Eastern cities. He had acquired a considerable fortune and was vice president of two of Graves’s enterprises. Furthermore, in 1905 he had married Ethelyn Binkley, daughter of a socially prominent Spokane family. One of his companions on his earlier scenic jaunts had been William H. Cowles (1866-1946), owner and publisher of the Spokesman-Review, and this friendship continued. Thus White was well positioned with his social and business connections to influence Spokane leaders, whom he dubbed his “powerhouse” group. White, Jay P. Graves and other investors owned a great deal of land through their Spokane-Washington Improvement Company, some of which they donated to form Manito Park, which remains Spokane’s crown jewel.   

At the time of White’s return, Spokane had only 173 acres of parkland, and that had been acquired by donation with no regard for location for the public good. Most of it was undeveloped. The largest actual park was Coeur d’Alene Park in Browne’s Addition, the elegant neighborhood of Spokane’s earliest entrepreneurs, most of whom had made their fortunes in mining. Some owners of surrounding mansions had donated the land for the park. This meager park system was governed by the mayor, president of the city council, and the city engineer, whose edicts were often mutually exclusive. By 1907 Spokane had nearly doubled its area by annexation, and the population was booming as well, with an estimated 73,852 in the 1905 Polk directory. White realized that time would soon run out to implement his vision. Portland and Seattle were already ahead of Spokane, Seattle having engaged the Olmsted firm in 1903 to plan parks and had recently passed bond issues for land acquisition.

Building a Better City

White tried unsuccessfully to interest the Spokane City Council in park development. He soon found help through the 150,000 Club, a booster organization seeking to increase Spokane’s population to 150,000 within 10 years, a goal not realized until decades later. At a meeting shortly after his return, “With missionary fervor, White told the gathering that instead of working for a bigger city they should bend their efforts toward creating a better city” (Dyar, 259). At his suggestion, the club established a City Beautiful committee and promptly appointed White the chairman. Its initial project was to sponsor tree plantings, which White continued to advocate throughout his life. Soon White and several other influential men formed the Spokane Playground Association, but their first little park, a downtown playground, proved to be a night hangout for hoodlums and had to be abandoned.   

F. Lewis Clark, a wealthy real estate investor, William H. Cowles of the Spokesman-Review, Jay P. Graves, and other influential men then joined White in promoting a park system with a board that would be independent of city government. In 1907 the voters approved their recommended city charter amendment establishing an unpaid 10-member Board of Park Commissioners, which took control on June 1. Not surprisingly, Aubrey White became its president and held that position until his move out of the city limits 15 years later. A park bond issue of $100,000 enabled the board to hire the Olmsted firm and to begin purchasing land. One of the wisest moves of the board was to hire as park superintendent Scottish-born Bostonian John W. Duncan, who held the position until 1942.

Land for Olmsted Parks

The Olmsted presence in Spokane dovetailed with other commissions in the Northwest, particularly the huge job of laying out the grounds for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, later the nucleus of the University of Washington campus. The firm did not stint Spokane, however. In 1908 John C. Olmsted and his associate J. Frederick Dawson submitted a comprehensive plan for parks, playgrounds, parkways, and boulevards that took full advantage of Spokane’s dramatic and scenic landscape features.  However, the Board of Park Commissioners intentionally delayed publication until 1913. On May 3, 1910, the voters approved a bond issue to raise a million dollars for land acquisition and park development. The delay of publication avoided alerting the owners of desired land, who would naturally inflate their prices. The 1913 document included not only the original Olmsted recommendations but progress achieved to that point in implementing them. By then, Spokane owned 1,480.58 acres for parks, and in his president’s report, White was able to boast:

“When this Board of Park Commissioners took over the operation and control of our public park system, Spokane ranked thirty-third in extent of park area as compared with other American cities, while at the present time Spokane is one of the leading cities in park and playground extension work, and is so recognized by other municipalities” (Report, 16).

White led the efforts to raise additional money for land purchase, as well as to acquire it by donation or trade. It was not lost on developers that the proximity of a park could raise the value of lots they were trying to sell. According to White, “William H. Cowles was again to the forefront ... we encountered his ownership in many places.” (Dyer, 263) Cowles did indeed donate parcels from land that was under his control, such as the Boulevard Land Company. However, according to a rival newspaper, the Spokane Press, the arrangements tended to be beneficial to his interests, with the park board apparently willing collaborators. In 1914 the Spokane Press, ran such headlines as “Cowles Had City at His Mercy in Deal with Park Board,” going on to assert that when Cowles and his Boulevard Land Company  “transferred to the city of Spokane through the park board a right of way for the Boulevard through the South Hill, [the provisions were such that] whenever the Boulevard Company and W. H. Cowles get ready to plat and sell the addition, the city is required to put a roadway through for the benefit of the land company. Whenever other companies plat acreage, they dedicate the necessary right of way for streets, and if grading is done, it is done at the expense of the promoting company, or is done under the method of assessing the abutting property for the cost of the improvement.” (Spokane Press)  

White was not averse to soliciting contributions from other members of his powerhouse group. One method was to go to one individual asking for half the purchase price of a plot, then to another, with the report that the original prospective donor would contribute half if the second one would come up with the other half. By the end of 1914, White could proudly report to the park board that, by one means or another, Spokane had more park land than Seattle.

In 1910 White was active in averting a scenic disaster in the wide and deep Hangman (Latah) Creek canyon where, with the approval of the city council, an unsightly dirt embankment was under construction to replace an old wooden bridge. Latah Creek is a tributary of the Spokane River that circles the west end of Browne’s Addition, the home of many of Spokane’s wealthiest, including William H. Cowles. The year before, a similar dirt fill had damaged the beauty of Indian Canyon along the Spokane River itself. White’s efforts promoted the construction of the beautiful concrete bridge, in the words of a Spokesman-Review editorial, “an esthetic endowment for Spokane that can challenge comparison with the world-famous Roman aqueduct near Nimes [France]” (SR editorial quoted in Dyer, 265). It was completed in 1914 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 under the name Sunset Boulevard Bridge.

Preserving the Primeval Forest

White was also active in preserving the natural environment beyond the city limits of Spokane. During a trip to British Columbia, where he had mining interests, he noticed along the Pend Oreille Highway between Spokane and Newport a timber operation beginning to log a strip of old-growth forest, 

“the only remaining stand of native timber left along any of the state highways east of the Cascade Mountains. The primeval forest with all of its lovely undergrowth came to the very edge of the road on both sides -- great trees 60 and 90 feet in height. Between the trunks of these monarchs of the forest, here and there, one could see a little rippling brook meandering through the woods” (Dyer, 266).  

White was able to convince his wealthy friends, especially William H. Cowles, to purchase the land from the timber company with the intent to preserve it as a natural park. It later became the Pend Oreille County Park with camping facilities and seven miles of trails meandering through the forest which Aubrey White’s efforts preserved.   

Moving to Gardening

In 1921 White moved to a small farm he named Montvale, located on the Little Spokane River north of the city, already the bucolic enclave of several other Spokane gentleman farmers including his former employer, Jay P. Graves. This move outside the city limits, according to a decision by the city council, disqualified White from serving on the Board of Park Commissioners. Thereupon, the park board passed a resolution declaring:

“In the removal of Mr. White, the Park Board not only has lost its most valued member, but the city has been deprived of the services of a man who has done more for the upbuilding of Spokane … to make it a better place in which to live, than any other individual or set of individuals” (Fahey, 178).   

Though White was not a mountaineer himself, in 1925 he was made one of the four original life members of the Spokane Mountaineers. Montvale was a factor. A 1942 newspaper article stated that he was selected   

“because of his active promotion of knowledge concerning the scenic attractions of the Inland Empire, and for his hospitality in frequently opening his property on the Little Spokane River to the Mountaineers. His work as head of the civic development department of the Spokesman-Review, along the lines of parks and parkways development, has continued to make him a worthy holder of the honor” (Honorary).

During the 1920s, White’s business fortunes began to decline and, although far from destitute, he needed additional funds to live comfortably at Montvale, whose 15 acres gave extra scope for his passion for gardening. He spent the last 26 years of his career as garden editor for the Spokesman-Review, a position created for him by William H. Cowles. His garden columns and personal answers to inquiries of home gardeners were enormously popular. Under White’s guidance, Spokane residential gardens often won national competitions.

Down by the Riverside

Furthermore, this position enabled him to continue influencing the scenic and environmental quality of the city. White toured the Spokane area by automobile just as he had done by buggy in the old days. Of particular concern to him was the land along the river, both east and west of downtown. The Olmsted report had emphasized:   

“Wherever it is possible for the Park Commission to acquire control of the riverbed or the banks by gift, or by purchase at a reasonable price, it would be a good thing to do. ... A riverside drive is one of the most delightful of scenic parkways, therefore it would be a great waste of opportunity not to develop a pleasure drive along the river ...” (Dyer, 28).

To assist in this effort, Cowles created the Civic Development Department of the Spokesman-Review and put White in charge of it. White was able secure donations of land from many riverbank owners by convincing them of the enhanced value of their adjacent land if a scenic parkway would through it. Again, his powerhouse group came through with donations toward purchase of other plots. Also, some acquisition was achieved through land swaps and other complex transactions with individuals, corporations, and government entities. An obituary in the Spokesman-Review declared: “During the years he worked on the river parkways it wasn’t safe to meet Mr. White if you owned a parcel of land along the river. ... Either he would make you give it to him, sell it to him at a cheap price, or swap another piece of property for it. He combed the tax lists and bought in areas for next to nothing” (SR, “Taken By Death”). Eventually title was acquired to 31 miles of riverbank, with land in the city limits then deeded to the city, and land outside the city deeded to the state.

Upriver Drive was the parkway extending east along the north bank of the river. The western terminus of this parkway system, a portion of which is now the Aubrey L. White Parkway, is at Riverside State Park, 10,000 acres along the Spokane River and its tributaries Deep Creek and the Little Spokane River. This unique area, with its dramatic basalt geological features known as the Bowl and Pitcher, exemplifies White’s emphasis on preservation of the natural landscape. During the 1930s, at White’s instigation and without destroying any of its rugged beauty, the Civilian Conservation Corps developed the park for camping and hiking, making it the kind of haven that Aubrey White always sought for city dwellers. White was also instrumental in efforts to acquire the land that became Mt. Spokane State Park.

Spokane's Greatest One-Man Institution

A man of legendary energy and stamina, Aubrey White never really retired but continued in his job at the Spokesman-Review until within a few months of his death in 1948 at the age of 80. A Spokesman-Review article of June 28, 1948, announced that White intended to retire on December 1. However, he had become increasingly weak after eye surgery and died on September 18.

Aubrey White’s death occurred not at his beloved Montvale but at a home in the city to which he had moved as his health declined. A newspaper eulogy asserted: “Mr. White was Spokane’s greatest one-man institution and did more to make the city beautiful than any other man” (SR, “Taken By Death”). Though a vast amount was accomplished during Aubrey White’s lifetime, his vision for Spokane and its surroundings is still in the process of implementation.

Sources: Tony and Suzanne Bamonte, Manito Park, a Reflection on Spokane’s Past  (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 2004), 55, 83-85, 106, 109, 128; Nelson W. Durham, History of the City of Spokane and Spokane Country, Vol. 2 (Spokane: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1912), 140-146; Ralph E. Dyar, News for an Empire (Caldwell, Idaho, Caxton Printers, 1952), 257-276; John Fahey, “A. L. White, Champion of Urban Beauty,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 72, No. 4 (October, 1981), 170-179; “Honorary Mountaineers Form Notable Group of Members,” Spokesman-Review, February 1, 1942; Report of the Board of Park Commissioners, rev. ed., Spokane Parks Foundation and the Museum of Arts and Culture (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 2007); “Parks Eulogize Aubrey L. White,” Spokesman-Review, February 11, 1949; “Aubrey L. White Taken By Death,” Spokesman-Review, September 19, 1948; “Garden Column His 26-Year Job,” Spokesman-Review, June 28, 1948; A. L. White, “Scenic Drives Plan Suggested,” Spokesman-Review, February 18, 1945; “Cowles Had City at His Mercy in Deal with Park Board,” Spokane Press, February 19, 1914; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Olmsted Parks in Spokane” (by Jim Kershner), http://historylink.org/ (accessed March 11, 2010).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You