On June 29, 1906, officials and residents of San Juan County gather to celebrate a cornerstone laying for a new county courthouse in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. A larger building with proper vaults and office space has been needed for years, as official documents are not being adequately secured and county offices have overflowed the present building to rented quarters around town. Construction is supposed to be completed by October 15, but a building mistake sends the second floor crashing into the lower level and county commissioners don't accept possession of the building until December. Even years after completion, construction problems will be revealed, but the building will remain in use into the 1980s when the first of several additions provides expanded space. By 1983 the old building will be declared unsafe and possible demolition considered, but citizens will rally to have the building preserved and, in 1984, it will be added to the National Register of Historic Places and subsequently restored. The original 1906 section of the courthouse will continue to be used, although generally no longer open for public viewing.
Campaign for a New San Juan County Courthouse
In the far Pacific Northwest, the San Juan Islands, an archipelago in the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and the United States mainland, became the newest and smallest county in Washington Territory in October 1873. The county's first auditor, Edward Warbass (1825-1906), registered a homestead for a county seat on San Juan Island; the site was on the eastern shore of the island on a deepwater bay known as Friday's (or Friday) Harbor for the local Kanaka (Hawaiian) sheepherder who had grazed flocks on the nearby prairie. On the shoreline, Warbass erected a roughly constructed 16-by-24-foot building that served as the auditor's office and home, and the county's first courthouse.
By 1883, however, the county population had almost doubled to about 950, the town of Friday Harbor was finally beginning to grow, and a larger county facility was needed. A second, two-story courthouse with a tall flagpole in front was built a few blocks west of the first at the corner of Spring Street, the main artery through town from the harbor, and First Street. The white-painted, plank-sided courthouse, which cost the county $900 to construct, had four rooms: an auditor's office, treasurer's office, and clerk's office on the first floor, and a courtroom on the second floor. There were no provisions, however, for fireproof or secure storage of official government documents, nor were there offices for the county sheriff, attorney, assessor, or school superintendent.
Less than 20 years later, San Juan County's population was approaching 3,000 and the accumulation of county documents needing secure, fireproof storage was growing alarmingly. County officials were in rented quarters around the town and a limited number of important records were in rented vault space in the local bank. In October 1902 the three county commissioners, chairman Isaac Sandwith (1852-1923), M. S. Donohue (1842-?), and William Graham (1840-?), who had also been a commissioner in 1883 when the second courthouse was built, passed a resolution to bring to public vote the question whether to fund a new courthouse. Their statement of need was unequivocal:
"It is the unanimous opinion of the commissioners that the present court house facilities are TOTALLY INADEQUATE for the use of the county and that it is NECESSARY for the expeditious and convenient transaction of the County's business and for the SAFE KEEPING OF THE COUNTY RECORDS that a new court house be built" ("Court House Proposition").
The expected cost was $10,000. Few people actively disputed the need. When put to public vote, however, the prospect of even a small tax increase and complaints about the cost by influential political factions in the county was enough to convince many to reject the proposal; the vote was 267 in favor but 296 against.
By October 1905 judges often refused to use the deteriorating courtroom, and space and record-storage problems were acute, prompting four prominent businessmen to present a petition to the commissioners. They emphasized that what was requested was "a modest, well-built building ... sufficiently large to give ample room for the needs of the county for the next 20 years," but not "built for a lavish display or larger than the size and assessed value of the county justifies" ("Petition ..."). The committee offered a drawing, an exterior elevation, prepared by William P. White (1863-1932), a Seattle architect, to show what could be built, using a small sum, that would provide adequate accommodation for county offices and secure storage for county records. The building would be approximately 45 by 60 feet, two stories high, and, if constructed of wood with a stone foundation, would cost $6,000 to $7,000 and even include a "commodious brick or concrete vault" ("Perspective View ... "). Constructing with brick or stone, of course, would be considerably more expensive. The drawing was prominently featured on the front page of the local newspaper, the San Juan Islander, with a description of the proposal and costs. Readers were invited to contribute comments and recommendations. The commissioners postponed consideration of the petition until the next quarterly meeting in January 1906 to give time for community input.
San Juan County residents have never hesitated to express their strong views on almost any subject. Between the October 1905 and January 1906 commissioners meetings, the county buzzed with discussion and the newspaper was flooded with letters from businessmen, farmers, a U.S. mail carrier, orchardists, stockmen, merchants, a lime-company superintendent, a fish-trap owner, a poultry man, and many others. Robert Moran (1857-1943), a prominent shipbuilder and former mayor of Seattle, had purchased a large estate on Orcas Island in 1904. He was for the proposal in general but had some very specific recommendations, stating firmly, for example, that there should be no solid partitions inside the building but instead wire railings should separate county officers "so the taxpayer can get at them to transact his business, see what they are doing, and know how to vote on the re-election proposition"("Wants Officials ... ").
There were discussions not only about the cost and whether a new building should or shouldn't be erected, but also about the size, the materials used for construction, the interior design, and whether a special election was needed for a countywide vote. Many wanted the commissioners to just get on with the task and not wait for a vote. It seemed that the vast majority of county residents felt that the new building should be as fireproof as possible and therefore built of brick or stone rather than wood, even though the cost would be higher. There were debates about which was the best Island stone to potentially be used for the courthouse; quarry owners even left samples from several islands at the newspaper office for public inspection and comparison. No detail of the proposal escaped comment.
White spoke at the January commissioners meeting and presented revised plans, saying that a courthouse of brick with stone trimmings, a concrete basement including a heating apparatus, and an interior "handsomely finished in native woods [could] be built for $12,000" ("Definite ... "). After further discussion in February, commissioners decided to call for a special election on March 20 to ask voters to approve issuing bonds for $14,000.
This time support for moving forward with the project was strong. Days before the vote, on the center front page of the Islander, the editor admonished readers that voting "no" was tantamount to inviting the "censure of progressive people, of whom thousands are coming to the state in search of new homes, for not providing something better than a bat roost in which to transact public business" ("Court House Question ..."). The ballot measure was resoundingly approved; 644 votes were cast of which only 54 in the entire county were against the bonds.
Commissioners immediately directed the auditor to advertise for bids for the bonds and for construction of the building. They also authorized the sale of the site of the current courthouse with bids of more than $2,000 to be considered, a price that the San Juan County Bank had already offered to pay. In May it was announced that a contract had been approved for a building "of good merchantable brick" ("New Court House ...") with first-floor walls 17 inches thick, second-floor walls 13 inches thick, and fire walls 8 inches thick. The cement floor in the basement and steam-heating system were no longer in the plans, however, to reduce costs.
The winning bid of $13,950 was submitted by John S. Shockey (1858-?) of Bellingham, and the agreed-upon completion date was October 15. Every day the building was not completed after that date would cost the builder $10 in penalty. The commissioners appointed John T. Paine (1851-1927), the county treasurer, as superintendent of the project. To expedite the beginning of construction "Commissioner Sandwith was authorized to have all the stumps removed from the block upon which the building is to be erected" ("New Court House ... ").
The Cornerstone Is Laid
Hundreds of people gathered on June 29 to take part in a grand celebration for the laying of the cornerstone of the new courthouse. The site was county property specifically reserved for a courthouse, on a bluff just north of the commercial part of town and overlooking the harbor. Schoolhouse property (in 2018 largely a courthouse parking lot) lay just to the north, and the Odd Fellows Hall (later the Whale Museum) and the Methodist Church (later the Grange Hall) were across the street to the east at the edge of the bluff above the harbor. More than 200 people from Bellingham joined residents from all over the county for the gala occasion that included music, speeches, and ceremony. It was thought to be the largest crowd ever to have assembled in Friday Harbor.
Gene C. Gould (1879-1957), president of the San Juan County Bank, presided, and music was provided by a chorus of schoolchildren. The keynote speaker was Jacob N. Bowman (1875-?), professor of history and German at the Whatcom State Normal School in Bellingham, who took full advantage of his opportunity and spoke for an hour and 20 minutes, covering thousands of years of world history leading up to the eventful day being celebrated. When the festivities continued, esteemed pioneer Edward Warbass, reminding spectators, with his flowing white hair and beard, of "one of the patriarchs of old" ("The Laying ... "), spoke briefly on the county's early history.
And finally another pioneer, the county's first sheriff, Stephen Boyce (ca. 1827-1909), with help from the contractor and others, laid the cornerstone of Roche Harbor limestone. Under the cornerstone had been placed a small box containing a few coins, a list of Friday Harbor businesses and businessmen, a program of the day's activities, names of county officials, two copies of the San Juan Islander that included drawings of the proposed courthouse, and a copy of the document awarding the contract for the courthouse construction.
Even as the foundation was laid, indignation erupted when, instead of the concrete originally specified for the work, "ordinary -- very ordinary granite boulders, laid with coarse lime mortar" ("The Court House Foundation ... ") was used, and questions over who had approved the substitutions and Paine's supervision of the work threatened to mire the project before it was even fairly underway. Eventually it was decided to clad the foundation's exterior with concrete, score it to look like cut stone, and carry on. By August work was progressing well, and 80,000 bricks were being produced at a kiln on Orcas Island, transported by wheelbarrow to the dock, tossed one-by-one to men on a barge, shipped to the wharf in Friday Harbor, tossed one-by-one to workers on the dock and transported up the hill to the construction site.
The building might have been completed nearly on time, but in early October, as subcontractors were applying a 20-by-30-foot section of concrete to the roof, the entire mass collapsed, sending debris plunging through the second floor to the floor below. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, although Commissioner Donohue, who had taken over supervisory duties from Paine, suffered a slashed thumb from a tumbling concrete reinforcing rod. Rumors immediately flew around town that the concrete had been made with salt water, causing the collapse, but it was determined that careless workers had removed the supports from beneath a reinforced concrete girder before it had completely hardened, and it was therefore unable to sustain the weight of the new cement being poured above. Salt water was not being used anywhere in the concrete mix, it was firmly asserted in the newspaper, which published, nearby on the same page, a history of the cement industry and product in an effort, perhaps, to discourage further uninformed comment.
Finally, in mid-December, the county commissioners called a special meeting and voted to accept the building as substantially complete, deducting $180 from payment to the contractor for its late delivery. The auditor was authorized to purchase furniture and fittings for the new building, and details of completion continued: counters, partitions in the main vault, wall paper, directional and office signs, and a fence around the property were added. By the spring of 1907 all the offices were occupied. A well to provide water both for the courthouse and for the schoolhouse on the adjoining property was completed the following year, and a third of the bonds had already been retired by the end of 1908. The landscaping was enhanced by a handsome English black walnut tree contributed by local farmer Eric Erickson (ca. 1840-1922); it would still shade the building in the twenty-first century.
The year 1913 did not start well for the courthouse, and a San Juan Islander headline grumbled "Poor Work Will Not Withstand the Elements" (January 16, 1913). A loud crash one winter evening announced that water had seeped between the brickwork over time at the firewall level and the subsequent freezing and thawing eventually forced the wall so out of plumb that a three-to-four-foot section along the top of the building, primarily on the west side, fell outward off the building, taking a portion of the cornice work with it. It was found that sections of the firewall brick had been installed with little or no mortar. Local brick masons were appalled and declared "the work on the court house a disgrace to their profession" ("Court House Damaged"). By March repairs were almost complete, and it was thought that "the building looks better than it did originally and has a much more substantial appearance" ("Friday Harbor in a Nut-Shell," March 6, 1913).
A Community Landmark
For decades the San Juan County Courthouse was a hub of activity in Friday Harbor. By the 1980s, however, the building was no longer adequate for the county's business and the first of three additions was constructed. At the same time, it became clear that the 1906 structure was decaying and tests in 1982 revealed that it would not withstand an earthquake and, in fact, was largely unsound. The following year it was declared a "public nuisance" ("San Juan County Courthouse, 100 Years,") and ordered vacated. Options for what to do with the building, including demolition, were considered, but the community cherished the structure as a historic survivor worthy of restoration. It was suggested that it be turned into a museum. A drama group thought it would be a good theater. As a first step toward its preservation, a successful application was made in 1984 for the building to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Plans for restoration began. A former resident of San Juan Island, then living in Bellingham but with fond memories of Friday Harbor, arranged for the old courthouse to have a new coat of paint. The county received a $149,000 grant from the state to be used to restore the building and assure its structural stability for the future. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in 1991 to celebrate the official opening of the restored building; a local historian in attendance mused that the details of polished wood, decorative glass windows, doors with transoms, and an old iron staircase "imbue the visitor with a sense of the past, a sense of continuity in human affairs" (Larson).
With the renovations and additions the San Juan County Courthouse extended north and east from its original footprint, but the 1906 section of the building remained an integral part of the structure still very much in use. The first floor continued to be devoted to office space, with the original auditor's office vault and other details re-purposed in offices of the county prosecuting attorney and staff. As of late 2018 a large portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany (1797-1888), who had arbitrated the famous boundary dispute and declared the San Juan Islands as U.S. rather than British territory in 1872, hangs in the central hall across from the award banner won by San Juan County for its superior cherries at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909. Unfortunately, to assure the security of county offices and staff, this area of the building is not generally open for casual public visits, and access must be requested. Second-floor offices are also occupied, and the old courtroom, restored, is still used. The 1906 courthouse remains a venue for numerous San Juan County official activities and is one of Friday Harbor's most recognized landmarks.