In this People's History, Steilacoom resident Nancy Covert outlines the life and works of Tacoma's Emanuel J. Bresemann, one of Washington state's first 20 licensed architects and the designer of more than two-dozen schools in Pierce County. "E. J.," as he was known throughout his life, learned the furniture-making trade from his pioneer father. He then went into architecture, and during his long career he designed, in addition to schools, more than 30 private homes and numerous commercial buildings. In compiling this People's History, the author interviewed E. J.'s daughter-in-law and granddaughter and reviewed contemporary news accounts of the prolific architect's accomplishments.
Learning His Father's Trade
E. J. Bresemann's father, Gustav Frederick Christian, emigrated from Germany to Chicago in the 1860s, then made his way to the Pacific Northwest in 1869. He settled in the Steilacoom-Spanaway area and opened the Tacoma Furniture Factory, where he operated a small water-powered sawmill and made furniture. According to an informal memoir written by E. J. later in his life, his father taught him and each of his two brothers, Paul and Gustav, different aspects of furniture making. E. J. became an expert at wood turning, shaping, and band-saw work.
After learning the furniture trade, E. J. moved to Everett in 1903, where he worked first for the Robinson Manufacturing Company and then for the Everett Sash and Company, turning columns for that city’s new Masonic temple. While there he began architectural studies via correspondence and then enrolled in correspondence classes conducted by early Tacoma architect Ambrose J. Russell. Russell, the son of a Scottish minister, was born in India. Before moving to Tacoma in the late 1890s, he studied architecture at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, where he absorbed lessons that influenced his professional style.
Mastering a Profession
In 1905, E. J. Bresemann moved to San Francisco, where he worked at his woodturning trade by day and took night courses in architecture at the Humboldt Evening School, run by a well-known architect, John McHenry. E. J. graduated in 1908 and soon became partners with a fellow student, Eugene Durfee.
Bresemann’s understanding of the importance of structural stability may have been reinforced during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. As he wrote in his informal memoir:
"Several incidents occurred during the period of adjustment … at the time of the second quake. At that time I had gone downtown to the Flood Building, a large steel frame building with a basement containing two safe deposit vaults, of which I had a box containing a few gold pieces. I was unable to get in as the wide stairway was packed solid, extending from the basement to the Market Street level. Then came the second shock ..."
That second tremor caused everyone to run out into the street, Bresemann recalled, and he was able to retrieve his money. “It was truly a case of the first shall be last, and the last shall be first,” he added. Bresemann’s granddaughter, Linda Silver, remembers that her mother, Bertha, wore a necklace fashioned from one of those $5 gold pieces.
Starting a Career
After forming a partnership under the firm name of Bresemann and Durfee, the two men opened an architecture office in the Central Building on 4th Avenue in Seattle. During their time there, the architects designed several large structures, including the five-story Westlake Hotel and a three-story factory for the Washington Interior Finish Company. A sketch of a Seattle apartment block they designed was featured in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on January 31, 1909. While still based in Seattle, Bresemann and Durfee were architects for St. John’s English Lutheran Church, located at 424 S I Street in Tacoma (1910), which later was renamed Luther Memorial Church and is now is used as a child-care center.
Bresemann and Durfee next operated an office in British Columbia, and while there they designed the First Congregational Church (later the First Baptist Church), located at 1600 Quadra Street, Victoria B.C. (1913), which has been placed on that city's Heritage Registry.
Settling Down and Building Schools
After about four years, Bresemann and Durfee dissolved their partnership, and Bresemann moved to Tacoma where he set up shop in the Russell-designed Perkins Building, also home to the Tacoma Daily Ledger newspaper. For the remainder of his career, he worked from his third-floor office in that building (No. 326). Linda Silver recalls that it was sometimes a family affair, with her mother working at the office with E. J.
Early in his Tacoma career, in 1915, Bresemann designed the Steilacoom Grade School, which opened the following year. It was one of the first of the many schools he was to design over the following years, and a bold-face, three-line headline published in the September 20, 1916, issue of the Tacoma Daily Ledger publicized the big news from Steilacoom (the state’s oldest incorporated community): "Steilacoom’s $15,000 Modern School Plant.”
Schools became a Bresemann specialty. The Dieringer School, located at 1808 E Valley Highway, Sumner (1921), another of E. J.'s designs, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Captain Robert Gray School, located at 3109 S 60th Street, Tacoma (1926), also by Bresemann, is at the time of this writing (2009) being considered for inclusion on the city’s historic register.
And Not Just Schools
When he wasn't busy doing schools, E. J. found time to design many lovely homes in Tacoma, including the following: Ida Thorn residence, 1704 S I Street (1909); Hilda Chisholm residence, 1321 N 5th Street (1916); Thomas P. Hanson residence, 654 N Sprague Avenue (1919); O. H. Brasier residence, 3742 N 29th Street (1921); Ralph A. Younkin residence, 650 Sprague Avenue (1922); A. B. Howe residence, 615 N 6th (1924); Harry L. Brown (of Brown and Haley candy company fame) residence, 3521 N Washington (1925); Charles Hufford residence, 705 N C Street (1926).
An article published in the April 1, 1917, Tacoma Sunday News Ledger states that Bresemann received honorable mention for plans submitted in a contest sponsored by the National Americanization Committee for the best design for a workingman’s home. Bresemann won his honorable mention for a single-family house with rooms for four lodgers. More than 350 leading architects from around the country submitted designs, and seven of the awards went to East Coast architects.
Some of E. J.'s other projects during his long career were the Veteran’s Hospital at Retsil, school gymnasiums at Fall City and Carbonado, the Manley Thompson Ford Agency at 1302-06 Fawcett Avenue, Tacoma (1918), and the original Nalley’s Fine Foods Company headquarters at 409 Puyallup Avenue, Tacoma (1929).
During the Depression, in approximately 1930, E. J. designed a second public building in Steilacoom, a town hall that was built 14 years after the Bresemann-designed grade school had opened. The Federal-style structure was built of wood and included a main building with two side wings. The project was "an account of citizen drive and dedication ...” according to an article in Town on the Sound -- Stories of Steilacoom. The building’s interior was modernized in the late 1980s, and according to many who’ve been inside, it has one of the best designs of any government building in the area. Bresemann also designed renovation work on Stadium High School in the 1950s.
A Critical Eye, A Big Heart
Bresemann's daughter-in-law, Myrtle Bresemann, recalled that, E. J. always carried a ruler in his shirt pocket to inspect any aspect of a project: "If he said something had to be 3/4 inch thick, then it couldn’t be 1/2 inch. The contractors knew that they didn’t dare do the wrong thing. E. J. was very sharp-tongued and very strict. He had high expectations, but was kind and loving, especially to his family.”
E. J. held state architect’s license number 20, while Harold Whitehouse of Whitehouse & Price, who designed Spokane's St. John’s Cathedral and with whom Bresemann had "a life-long friendship," held “either license number 19 or 21,” according to Myrtle Bresemann. Presently there are 6,102 licensed architects in Washington state. There are another 1,264 whose licenses have expired, according to the state Office of Architect Licensing.
E. J. and Family Leave Their Mark
During his lifetime, E. J. designed more than 31 residences, 24 schools, and several businesses. His family name is renowned in the area for Bresemann Park in the Spanaway area, and the adjacent Bresemann Forest, where the remains of the dam that powered Gustav’s wood-working tools are located.
The property on which the family home was located was sold to the county and renamed Lake Spanaway Park in 1960. The family home is still there. A 1931 Tacoma Daily Ledger story tells about Gustav Bresemann’s (E. J.’s brother) dance hall in Spanaway, which was raided and shut down for holding dance marathons, which were considered immoral and exploitive.
Bresemann successfully followed his profession until 1961, when he closed his office and went into semi-retirement. He died on May 5, 1971, and is buried in the Old Tacoma Cemetery. The many schools, churches, homes, and public buildings he designed remain as silent testimony to his high standards.
Held In High Esteem
In his three-volume History of Pierce County, written while E. J. was still living, author W. P. Bonney wrote that Bresemann:
“is a Republican in his political views, and his religious connection is with St. John’s Lutheran Church. Fraternally he is a Mason and has taken the degrees of the council. He also belongs to Tacoma Lodge, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, and the Modern Woodmen of America. ...
"To a notable degree he possesses the elements of good citizenship, standing for the best things in community life and supporting all measures for the advancement of the public welfare, while in his social relations he is very cordial and friendly. Because of these traits, he is deservedly held in high esteem by his fellow men throughout this section of the state."