In 1891 Washington pioneer George Gaches and his wife, Louisa Wiggin Gaches, built a splendid 22-room home on a rocky ridge above the town of LaConner in Skagit County. It survives today as the Gaches Mansion after being restored by LaConner Landmarks, a group made up of residents and supporters who came together after the building was heavily damaged in a 1973 fire. The mansion is now listed as a national and state landmark, located within the LaConner National Historic District, and is home to the LaConner Quilt & Textile Museum, the only such museum in the state.
Early Days in LaConner
George Gaches (1846-1916) was a Washington pioneer who arrived in time to be counted in the 1871 territorial census. Born in Peterborough, Northamptonshire, England, he had traveled by ship from London to Sydney, Australia, arriving there in the fall of 1868. He likely arrived in San Francisco in 1869, then came north, arriving in LaConner in 1871 or 1872. Gaches recognized the area's potential as a place to do business and asked his older brother, James Gaches (1842-1908), to join him there.
LaConner was the first town in what would, in 1883, become Skagit County. Located a little over a mile north of Skagit Bay on the east side of the Swinomish Slough (now called the Swinomish Channel), the site offered a swath of high ground north of the entrance to the North Fork of the Skagit River and shelter on both sides of the channel for waterborne traffic. In 1863, Samuel Calhoun (1830-1924) and Michael H. Sullivan (ca. 1840–1912) started diking and draining the lowland area north and east of town for farming. A trading post on the high ground was established in the 1860s and was later purchased by John S. Conner (d. 1885) and his wife, Louisa A. (Siegfreid) Conner (1843–1932), who arrived late in 1869. In March 1870 the post office was renamed LaConner after Louisa Conner.
The Gaches brothers bought the Conners' store in 1873 and renamed it J. & G. Gaches Mercantile. The store prospered at its location on the northeast corner of First and Commercial streets. James Gaches also bought a 120-acre farm in the lowlands and had it diked against flooding by 1876. The brothers soon took up the brokerage business, exporting produce and importing a wide variety of products for their mercantile establishment. As early as 1876, a newspaper story in The Northern Star tells of the Gaches brothers ordering a steam thresher from San Francisco by telegraph, which arrived by steamship and was working in the fields within seven days. The brothers also invested in property for resale.
Joseph Dwelley, Builder
Joseph Franklin Dwelley (1839-1933) arrived in the Puget Sound area in late 1870 and was joined by his wife, Angeline E. Wells Dwelley (1849–1919), and their two small daughters a year later. Dwelley worked as a carpenter and house builder, initially on Fidalgo Island and in Port Townsend, where he "put up two buildings for Tom Hancock, built a house for Al Lemar and finished another for Tom Calhoun" (Dwelley, 27). In 1873 the Dwelleys moved to LaConner, and Joseph built a small house, only 18 by 24 feet, at 3rd and Commercial streets on land he acquired from John Conner. Dwelley sold that home to James Gaches in May 1883 and built a larger home on the corner of 3rd and Benton streets in 1885. Both homes are still in use and the latter house was tastefully restored in 1972 and 1973 after undergoing an unfortunate attempt at modernization.
Dwelley had worked for the Gaches brothers nearly a decade before the mansion was built. In 1880, George Gaches built an addition to his new residence opposite the old City Hall, across the street from the Catholic Church at 404 Douglas Street. It is likely that Dwelley actually did the construction, and it is certain that he, with a Mr. Seigfred (or possibly "Siegfreid") constructed the brick Gaches warehouse at the southwest corner of 1st and Commercial streets in 1882.
Dwelley was also busy in other endeavors. He became a justice of the peace shortly after he arrived in LaConner, and in 1886 became postmaster, locating the post office in the furniture store he opened on the waterfront in 1885. While the records are not clear, it seems likely that Dwelley built the Gaches' mansion in 1891. He continued manufacturing furniture and constructing buildings until about 1893, when he built a floating shop moored to the downtown dock and focused his efforts on building boats.
The Gaches Families
James Gaches left home at age 14 and went to Australia, where he worked his way up to management of a cattle ranch. George grew up with his sisters and other brothers, and at the age of 15 was living with his maternal grandparents, William and Lucy Sharman. (It is interesting that the household listed in the 1861 England census also included John Wiggin, age 79 -- perhaps Louisa Wiggin's grandfather. Her father, also named John Wiggin, was born in Peterborough, Northamptonshire, England, as were the Gaches brothers.) James and George Gaches apparently reunited in Australia in 1868, then again in LaConner in 1873.
James, who was an experienced "rancher" -- the LaConner newspapers of the time often referred to farms as "ranches" -- farmed near the town. He married Rhoda Francis Summers (1849-1925), widow of Samuel Summers, who had died in 1876 on their farm near the mouth of the North Fork of the Skagit River. James and Rhoda were married at Trinity Church in Seattle in November 1877.
Rhoda Gaches was baptized in the Baptist Church in the early 1870s and in 1883 was reported in the newspapers as serving as church treasurer. She was also an early and longtime member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She and James Gaches raised four children -- Eva, Samuel, George, and Charles -- and have descendants living in Skagit County to this day (2011).
In 1904 or 1905, James, likely accompanied by Rhoda and Eva, traveled to England, returning in July 1905. In their absence, Charles minded the store, now called James Gaches Mercantile. Both James and Rhoda Gaches are buried in Pleasant Ridge Cemetery in LaConner. Rhoda Gaches' gravestone reads "Pioneer of 1871, born in Trowbridge, England" (FindaGrave.com).
George Gaches married Louisa Wiggin (ca1850–1917) from Ipswich, Surrey, England, on October 3, 1880, also at Trinity Church in Seattle. Louisa’s father, John Wiggin, was a highly regarded druggist in Ipswich. Her mother died when Louisa and her older sister, Elinor Mary Louisa Wiggin (b. 1846), were young. Her father remarried, and Louisa was raised with her younger stepbrothers and stepsisters. Her older sister, Elinor, attended boarding school and it is likely that Louisa did as well. Elinor later married Frederic Gage, and in 1881 the Gages followed Louisa to the LaConner area, where they became successful farmers.
George and Louisa appear to have enjoyed traveling. Both the local newspaper, the Puget Sound Mail, and The Seattle Times frequently mention trips taken by the couple. One source notes that "George and Louisa were among the party in July of 1881 that accompanied President Hayes when he toured the area by sternwheeler" (Gage, 8).
The Gaches Mansion
In 1891, George and Louisa Gaches began building their home at 703 2nd Street in LaConner. The house was completed sometime in late 1891 or early 1892. Two-and-a-half stories tall, with an octagonal tower in the northwest corner and a widow’s walk on the roof, the wood house was constructed over a full, granite-block, daylight basement. In front a wide porch faced the Swinomish Channel with views beyond to the west. Large windows throughout the home, including even the stairwells, provided abundant light, and four coal-burning fireplaces, strategically placed, provided heat. Twelve-foot ceilings on the first two floors made grand spaces of even the smallest rooms.
George and Louisa had seven children; sadly, by 1900 only three had survived. But the family home must have been a bustling place nonetheless. The house is oriented on its lot in a roughly east-to-west direction. As restored, the first floor has a large, long hallway with sliding pocket doors to the left and right leading to the parlor and sitting room. The dining room is to the northeast, with entrances from both the sitting room and the hall. The kitchen is at the end of the hall to the east.
The staircase, which is divided by a wall as far as the second story, is located between the parlor wall and the kitchen. Upstairs were bedrooms and most likely a nursery. George Gaches seems to have been the chief buyer for the brothers' store, and the home's original furnishings and decorations undoubtedly came from the Gaches' travels.
George and Louisa were obviously sociable. In her book about the mansion, Janna Gage mentions New Year's Eve parties, and The Seattle Sunday Times of March 30, 1902 reported a "Y" social attended by 50 guests. Several news articles tell of large social occasions, often noting that the entertainment was contemporary parlor games like progressive Flinch, Crokinole, and "42."
One Gaches Family Moves to Seattle
By 1905 James had returned from his trip to England, and George and Louisa had children of college age. In the late summer or early fall of that year George, Louisa, and their children moved to Seattle’s University District. Once in Seattle, George bought and sold residential property, while the family lived at 4131 14th Avenue NE (now University Way).
In 1910, he and Louisa moved into a new house at 5023 15th Avenue NE in the exclusive University Heights addition. George participated in activities of the State Pioneer Society, actively supported the mayoral campaign of Republican William Pitt Trimble in 1908, and continued, with Louisa and one or another of their children, to frequently visit friends and family in LaConner. They were often guests of Wilford C. Wiggin, Louisa’s half brother, and his wife, Jessie. Louisa was active in, and hostess for, the Coterie Club, an early women’s literary society in Seattle.
George Gaches died June 21, 1916, and Louisa almost exactly one year later, on June 20, 1917. They are buried in Seattle’s Washelli Cemetery. Their three children -- Hilda, Henry, and William -- survived them. Only William returned to Skagit County, settling in Mount Vernon. The Gaches house in University Heights was demolished in 1965.
The Mansion and Its Uses
After the Gaches family left LaConner for Seattle, their former home became a hospital, the first in Skagit County. It was purchased by Dr. Gadsden E. Howe (ca. 1854–1936), a physician and surgeon who hailed from Charleston, South Carolina, and completed medical school there. He had been practicing in LaConner since at least as early as June 1890, when he was listed in the Puget Sound Mail as working out of the office of Dr. George V. Calhoun. Dr. Calhoun and his family were next-door neighbors to the George Gaches family until the Calhouns moved back to Seattle in 1896. The Calhoun house in LaConner was built in 1878 and remains today as part of the LaConner Historic District.
The Gaches mansion was one of many large homes in the Puget Sound region that were converted to private hospitals. But apparently Dr. Howe could not make the project work, or perhaps he had a better offer elsewhere. He sold the house in 1909 and appears to have left LaConner.
After Dr. Howe's departure, L. W. and Julia B. Vaughn made their home in the mansion from 1909 to 1927. The big house then stood vacant until 1940, when Louise Hultman Bettner bought it and made it the Castle Apartments. And so it remained, through three more owners, until April 8, 1973, when it was severely damaged by fire. The owners at that time, Art and Mary Herrold, could not afford to rebuild, so the roofless remains of the old mansion were left to the elements. There were rumors that the town would have it torn down.
Rescue and Restoration
Several talented newcomers to LaConner valued the mansion and began to explore what it would take to restore it. Glen and Kay Bartlett had just moved to the town when the fire happened and were beginning to restore another old building. Dick Fallis, who bought the Puget Sound Mail in June of 1973, just before that weekly’s 100th birthday, published a clarion call to save the Gaches mansion on December 27, 1973. Art Hupy, a professional photographer based in Seattle who had been photographing the town, joined in. Encouraged by famed LaConner artists Morris Graves (1910-2001) and Guy Anderson (1906-1998) and their friends, Fallis and Hupy held a public meeting on February 11, 1974, to see if there was enough interest to further explore what could be done to restore the building. Twenty-three people came to that first meeting, and an organization that came to be known as "LaConner Landmarks" was born.
By this time the old mansion was a mess. LaConner Landmarks became a non-profit organization and hired L. A. Bailey Associates (architects Larry A. Bailey and Detlev Kroll) to do a thorough assessment and draft guidelines for restoration. The group applied for both state and national landmark status for the building, and was granted both. Fundraisers of all kinds were held, LaConner Landmarks bought the mansion, and in December 1974 the critical work of restoring the roof began, supported by a grant from the National Park Service obtained through the Washington State Office of Archeological and Historical Preservation.
On March 4, 1975, the new roof was on, and cleaning and restoration began in earnest, year round. By the summer of 1975, the exterior was mostly restored, and in August of that year the historic house was honored by the American Institute of Architects with its first-ever award recognizing excellence in remodeling and restoration.
Volunteers worked on and on -- every bit of internal plaster, wallpaper, trim, and hardware had to be removed and restored. No one really knew exactly how it had looked originally -- only one small photograph of a portion of the interior had survived -- but as the debris was cleared away and studied, it became possible to make educated guesses. On October 7, 1977, the original mortgage from the National Bank of Commerce in LaConner that was used to purchase the building was paid off, but work remained, and fundraising efforts continued.
The next question facing LaConner Landmarks was how to go about furnishing and decorating a restored Victorian mansion. Judi Reeves, co-owner of Palace Market Interiors in LaConner suggested a designers' showcase "where each of the rooms would be furnished by an interior design business" (Gage, 52). The event was planned to run from September 16 through October 1, 1978, and 17 decorators from Skagit, Whatcom, and Island counties answered the call. The showcase proved so popular that it was extended, and before it ended more than 7,000 people had attended. Volunteers, about 100 in all, were on hand to answer questions, and more than $20,000 was raised. Before the end of the year ownership of the house had been turned over to the town of LaConner. To this day (2011), the Gaches Mansion's first floor retains a designers' showcase and the interior decorating that was done as part of the original restoration.
Photography and Quilting
At first the Gaches Mansion was available for rental for special gatherings and open on weekends for tours at a nominal fee, led by volunteers. Art Hupy and his wife, Rita, moved to LaConner in 1977 and opened a photography studio and gallery, and in April 1980 he rented the second floor of the mansion and moved the operation to there, and the rental money paid for the utilities and maintenance. The Hupys' gallery specialized in his own work and the work of other Northwest artists and became known as the Valley Museum of Northwest Art. Over time, the museum expanded, and in 1995 it moved to another location in LaConner and became the Museum of Northwest Art.
While the Valley Museum occupied the second floor of the mansion, the first floor remained available for special occasions. Soon after Hupy moved his gallery in, a group of women set up a quilt frame on the third floor and began quilting there. Rita Hupy had been interested in quilting and textiles for some time, had donated quilts to the restoration effort, and in 1997, with the other quilters of LaConner, started to put together a quilt museum in the mansion. The LaConner Quilt and Textile Museum was born, and by 2005 it was able to purchase the building.
LaConner Quilt & Textile Museum
Quilting is a stitching technique for strengthening fabric for clothing, armor, and upholstery, and it has been around for centuries. Like many practical arts, it became a decorative art as well. Quilters embellished their work with appliqué, metallic threads, embroidery, buttons, layers of different fabrics, etc. During hard times, quilters stitched together repurposed fabrics and scraps, creating unique designs or adapting traditional ones to the materials at hand. Large quilted projects, such as bed coverings, were often made by several quilters working together, sometimes in "quilting bees."
Today, using a range of enhanced technologies from sewing machines to dyeing to photography, quilters are able to work alone or to collaborate with others to create works of art using an astonishing variety of textiles and techniques. Designs may be traditional or uniquely individual, and many are on display at the mansion museum.
The LaConner Quilt & Textile Museum, which now owns the Gaches Mansion, showcases both the work of today’s quilting and textile artists and of those of the past. A small but growing permanent collection is supplemented with four temporary exhibitions each year, making maximum use of limited space. While the museum does focus on accommodating Northwest artists, the scope of its interests is broader -- it is the only quilt museum in Washington state and one of only 13 in the United States.
The LaConner Quilt & Textile Museum also takes seriously its mission to maintain the Gaches Mansion. At the present time (2011) a major restoration projection is underway focused on the venerable building's exterior.