By Bob Lawrence
Above, the legendary Davenport Hotel, in Spokane, Washington. Although generally credited to the architect Kirtland Cutter, the hotel’s design may owe significant credit to Gustav Pehrson. Photo courtesy of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.
My outspoken grandmother, Bess Pehrson, often gave her opinion on various topics. Growing up in early 1960s Spokane, I remember hearing her spout disgustedly, “your grandfather was the real architect of the Davenport Hotel, not Cutter!”
My grandfather was Swedish born architect Gustav Albin Pehrson, who designed an impressive array of buildings in the western United States, including Spokane’s Paulsen Center, Roosevelt Apartments, Eldridge Building, Missoula’s Florence Hotel, as well as the town of Richland, Washington as it was built up in 1943 for the Hanford Project. According to newspaper clippings and family archives, other notable Pehrson projects include the Chronicle Building, Western Union Life Building, Schade Brewery, and many residences including the Hebert House, Priess House, Kirk Thompson House, Victor Dessert House and Louie Davenport’s summer home “Flowerfield” along the Little Spokane River (now the campus of St. George’s School).
Of course, the Cutter to whom my grandmother referred was Kirtland K. Cutter, whose firm, Cutter and Malmgren, built the Davenport Hotel.
According to biographies I’ve read, Cutter’s training was in art. For instance, Spokane author Blythe Thimsen writes in her book, Spokane’s Stories: 28 Stories of the People, Places and Events That Have Shaped Spokane, “Cutter’s lack of formal training as an architect may actually have given him more creative freedom because he was not held to a certain style.” Statements like that are consistently repeated in each Cutter biography, either in print or online.
It is true that Cutter contributed greatly to the architectural aesthetic that built the city of Spokane. However, his genius was likely in the concept, not the creation, of such architectural masterpieces as the Davenport Hotel, the Chronicle building, the Glover mansion and the Clark mansion, to name but a few of the commissions to which the providence of history subscribes his name.
To his credit, Cutter did design the Hall of the Doges in the original Pennington Hotel, which was later saved and placed in the Davenport Hotel. Cutter’s genius was also in surrounding himself with people who were solidly competent in the areas he was not, whose hands rubbed and caressed sheets of vellum until masterpieces were born. One pair of hands that did this belonged to Pehrson.
Pehrson’s own architectural works, such as the Paulsen Center, show that he had his own impressive architectural chops. Pehrson had worked for Cutter and Malmgren before opening his own architectural firm. I knew Pehrson, not as a revered architect, but as my doting “Baba” who used to love spending time at home with his family. So, remembering what I’d heard in my childhood, I wondered what truth there might be in my grandmother’s words. With my friends Tom McArthur and Teresa Smick, I looked into it.
This past June, I attended a public tour of the Chronicle Building. Tour guide John Feathers stated that Cutter’s firm had taken on the Chronicle Building project in 1926, and immediately turned it over to G. A. Pehrson, who did the designing, planning and engineering. A January 1927 news clipping shows a perspective view of the building which was drawn by Pehrson. Blueprints of the building were on display during the tour, all bearing Pehrson’s signature. Feathers made a point of saying that although Cutter’s firm created the Chronicle Building, someone other than Cutter (Pehrson) needs to be credited as being the architect.
A few years ago, I met Teresa Smick, whose father was hired straight out of college by Pehrson. The two men worked side by side from 1955 to 1964. During those years Pehrson had spoken to Teresa’s dad about having been the Davenport Hotel’s principal architect. My family has design drawings of the hotel, so Teresa and I compared notes to see if we could find any proof of my grandparents’ claim.
Pehrson came from Chicago to Spokane in 1906 when Cutter and Malmgren hired him to work on the Davenport. Teresa and I have a photo of an original design drawing for the hotel which has the handwritten words “Revised Jan. 7, 1913 By G.A.P.” There are also shop drawings of the hotel from Minneapolis Steel and Machinery Company. These are the plans for the framing which had been submitted for approval. Each drawing is signed and dated by Pehrson. I showed these documents to Spokane architect Ron Wendle, and after viewing them, he said, “While Kirtland Cutter is the Davenport Hotel’s architect of record, a close look at the original drawings also reveals G. A. Pehrson’s role as the project architect. His name and initials found on the architectural title blocks and shop drawing approvals show a high level of involvement and responsibility throughout the project.”
In an undated copy of an Architect’s Questionnaire submitted by Pehrson to Spokane School District 81, in the Professional History section, Pehrson writes “…it was suggested by the (Chicago) firm I was previously employed by that I go to Spokane to assist with the design and construction of the Davenport Hotel in February 1906 and was employed by the Architectural Firm of Cutter & Malmgren as Chief Draftsman. Due to delays…the actual work on plans and specifications for the Davenport Hotel was not started until 1910. During the three intervening years I was in charge of such work as Spokane Club Building… House for Mr. L. M. Davenport at 8th avenue, together with several other projects. My work on the Davenport Hotel for the Firm of Cutter & Malmgren consisted of being in charge of the planning and preparing specifications together with designing structural, mechanical and electrical installation.” Pehrson continues, “At the time the plans and specifications for the Davenport Hotel were about 90% completed, the firm of Cutter & Malmgren decided to discontinue their service and an arrangement was reached between this firm and the Davenport Hotel Company to have me take over the entire project. I served the Davenport Hotel Co. in connection with completing the plans, changing the plans and specifications to meet the requirements of the Financial Institution interested in its financing, awarding of contracts and supervising the construction until completion.”
Author and teacher Bill Hottell wrote a 1993 research project for Gonzaga University about the life and work of Pehrson. For his project, Hottell interviewed my parents, Dale and Betty Pehrson Lawrence who related the following story: “…Cutter selected Pehrson as the project architect for the Davenport. Here Pehrson contributed greatly to the design and construction of Spokane’s world-class hotel. About the time the drawings for the Davenport were completed, the relationship between Pehrson and Cutter grew strained. As a result, Pehrson quit his job and went to Chicago. Louis Davenport by now valued Pehrson’s work very highly, and he was so disturbed by Pehrson’s departure that he himself caught a train for Chicago and persuaded him to return to Spokane and complete the Davenport Hotel. ‘I’ll get you all the work you can use after you finish my hotel,’ he said. And, true to his word, Davenport hired Pehrson to design many additions and remodellings of the hotel for decades.”
Pehrson is actually credited for additions to the Davenport, including the Delicacy Shop (1917) and a later remodel, the Pompeian Baths (1923) and the thirteenth and fourteenth story additions (1929).
As proof that the two men had a close bond, L.M. Davenport is listed as “a person who will always know your address,” on Pehrson’s WWII draft registration card.
In the interview with Hottell, Dale Lawrence went on to say, “On the Davenport project, Pehrson worked so hard that he fell asleep at his drafting table.”
Pehrson was famous for being a task master on the job, and for having a short temper. Some of his contractors and workers dealt with Pehrson better than others. On that topic my father added, “In the early stages of the construction of the Davenport Hotel when there was nothing but framework, Pehrson was up on the third floor and he started shouting at one of the workers. The worker pushed him backwards and Pehrson fell down one floor. But he wasn’t hurt.”
So, was Kirtland Cutter the actual architect of the Davenport Hotel or was it G. A. Pehrson? In searching for the answer to that question, my colleagues and I have unearthed newspaper articles, personal testimonies and professional documents bearing Pehrson’s signature that could suggest that Pehrson was the actual architect. We’re interested in finding any further evidence, one way or the other, to help answer our question.
Kirtland Cutter once referred to architecture as “art incarnate.” Whenever I visit one of the buildings he and my grandfather created together, I stand with and within my grandfather’s spirit. I have deep respect for my grandfather and all he accomplished in his life. I also have deep respect for Kirtland Cutter, who enabled my grandfather to transcend starting with few social contacts and using English as a second language, to see his American dream come true. That heritage is mine, now, to share, and yours to know. Gustav Albin Pehrson is the undisputed architect of many beautiful and iconic buildings. According to my grandmother, one of those buildings is the Davenport Hotel.