In 1968, the late British actor Richard Harris recorded an LP album, the hit song from which was “MacArthur Park.” The lyrics were absurd, and it was derided at the time — albeit with some reserve on the part of those poking fun at its silliness in case they were perhaps missing a “groovy message, man, real heavy.” Indeed, some consider it the worst song ever written. The lyrics included the following:
MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark,
all the sweet green icing flowing down.
Someone left the cake out in the rain,
I don’t think that I can take it
‘cause it took so long to bake it
and I’ll never have that recipe again,
What does this ballad have to do with the history of a building in Walla Walla? On the northeast corner of North Second Avenue and East Main Street, known as the Jones Building since 1951, but as the Rees-Winans Block when completed in 1890, is an edifice that brings to mind the nonsensical lyrics of that song, at least insofar as the image of a cake having been left out in the rain with its icing flowing off can be related to a building. For, in fact, the Rees-Winans Block was indeed the wedding-cake piece of architecture par excellence in Walla Walla — an unapologetic ragbag of ornamentation — from its completion in 1890 until the forfeiture of all its “icing” following a misguided 1951 remodel.
The Jones Building, christened the Rees-Winans Block and later known as the Farmers Exchange, is the third building to occupy this corner of downtown Walla Walla. It could legitimately be thought of as the fourth building due to its draconian facelift of 1951 in which it was divested of all semblance of its original appearance.
The town of Walla Walla was originally laid out by County Surveyor H.H. Case in 1859, prior to its formal incorporation as a city in 1862, as a one-quarter mile square with its eastern side centered on the point where Main Street crossed Mill Creek at roughly the point where it does now. The Rees-Winans Block, or Jones Building to use the current name, occupies the largest (western) portion of Lot 9 in Block 1 of the original plat of the city of Walla Walla, filed July 5, 1867.
In 1861, Alpheus Kyger and I.T. Reese built the first brick building in Walla Walla, a one-story structure, on the northeast corner of Second and Main streets, as they were then called. Kyger & Reese General Merchandise was considered the Valley’s primary outfitters to men afflicted with “gold fever” and headed to the mines in Idaho. T. C. Elliott, in an article for the April 1915 edition of The Washington Historical Quarterly, wrote, the term general merchandise in those days covered a multitude of sins including whiskey, rum, etc.; and the “wet goods” of this firm were kept in a wooden warehouse upon this lot, which was in the rear of their store, across [Mill] creek, accessible first by foot log and later by foot bridge.
Both Kyger and Reese were additionally involved, with Dorsey Baker, in the establishment of the Walla Walla and Columbia River Railway. Kyger, born in Indiana in 1831, was a city councilman in 1864, but by 1872 he was bankrupt. He moved to Arizona where the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson reported his death on April 6, 1904. I. T. Reese arrived in Walla Walla in 1858. He was the first county auditor before entering the mercantile business with Alpheus Kyger. He also operated a mill on Mill Creek near the west end of the city.
The first transaction that involved Lot 9 of Block 1 exclusively was a deed filed April 20, 1872 assigning the property to Herbert E. Johnson, Raymond R. Rees and William Parkhurst Winans; two weeks later, Johnson deeded the lot to Rees and Winans for $3,000.
Raymond Ringold Rees (no relation to I.T. Reese; note the different spelling) was born in Ohio in 1833. At the age of 21 he moved to Oregon. A printer by trade, he ventured on to Walla Walla in 1864 and was one of the founders of the Washington Statesman, the first newspaper in eastern Washington Territory. However, the following year he left the newspaper and entered the mercantile business, forming a partnership with Herbert Johnson. Two years later they were joined by W.P. Winans, and began operating their business as Johnson, Rees & Winans. Rees was a prominent Democrat, and served twice in the state legislature. He was also county treasurer for a number of years.
William Parkhurst Winans was born in New Jersey in 1836. At age 18, along with two friends, he set out in a prairie schooner for Colorado. En route, they encountered far more disillusioned miners headed back east than westbound settlers. One morning, upon waking, he discovered his companions had turned their wagon toward the east. They informed Winans that they were going back home, and when he declined to join them they unhitched his two oxen and abandoned him on the prairie.
As luck would have it, Winans was picked up by a wagon heading west and got as far as Denver, a town consisting of but six or seven houses at that time. After a short stay in Denver, he was able to hitch a ride on to Oregon, selling his oxen and buying two horses and a saddle. He briefly taught school in Umatilla before moving on to Fort Colville, W.T., thence on to Spokane County, where he was appointed deputy auditor, later serving as auditor.
Winans moved to Walla Walla in 1871, in time forming Johnson, Rees & Winans General Merchandise, the largest such establishment in the city. They occupied premises on the northeast corner of Main and Second in the one-story brick structure that formerly housed the Kyger & Reese establishment.
In 1876, the partners determined to erect a new building on the same premises. The Walla Walla Union carried the following article on March 4, 1876, titled “New Brick Building.”
Johnson, Rees & Winans, and William Stephens have concluded to build two story brick buildings. F. P. Allen, Esq. is busy drawing the plans. The new structure will occupy the ground from the corner of second and Main streets, easterly 66½ feet, with a depth of 70 feet. A new front and an additional story will be added to the store now occupied by Johnson, Rees & Winans, who will also occupy when finished, twenty feet more in width adjoining. The next store will be owned by Mr. Stephens and will be for rent. The partitions for the second story, entrance on Main street, have not been decided upon.
William Stephens previously had owned both lots 9 and 10 of Block 1. He retained ownership of all of Block 10 and a small (eastern) portion of Lot 9. The building he constructed is the current location of Pioneer Title and Inland Octopus.
Architect F.P. Allen was born in New Hampshire in 1828. He arrived in Walla Walla in 1861 via San Francisco, and was considered the most prominent architect practicing in Walla Walla a decade or so before George Babcock and Henry Osterman were operating here. Following the Paine Building’s completion in 1879, Allen had his office in Room 24 of the structure, directly across Main Street from the Rees-Winans Building. In an article in the Walla Walla Statesman on March 31, 1880, Allen was described as “a gentleman and accomplished mechanic, under whose direction and after whose plans nearly all the best structures in this city have been built.”
The existing one-story building was extended eastward; the second story was built atop the expanded structure. It had two large shop fronts on the first floor and an arch opening onto stairs accessing the second floor. Seven aligned segmented arch windows embellished the second floor of the Main Street façade. Above the second-floor windows, a wooden eave supported by ornamental brackets and a band of dentils above the street level shop fronts dignified the simple but pleasant façade.
Born in Indiana in 1851, Daniel T. Kyger arrived in Walla Walla in 1869, working first for Dorsey Baker, and in 1873 assuming the position of clerk with Paine Brothers & Moore. In 1876, aged 25, Kyger opened a tobacco store in Walla Walla. Two years later he entered into employment at Johnson, Rees & Winans where he proved to be a most industrious employee.
By the late 1880s, Johnson had taken himself out of the partnership with Rees and Winans, and the store became Rees & Winans General Merchandise. By 1889, Rees and Winans were primed to build a larger building. However, early in that year they decided to sell their business to Daniel Kyger, who, as a penny-wise employee of some 11 years, had saved enough to buy the store. Winans went on to form the Farmers Savings Bank, where he served as president until his death in 1917. Within a year Kyger sold a half interest in his store to Frank Foster, and Kyger & Foster became a highly successful store dealing in dry goods, clothing and women’s furnishings until closing around 1911.
Frank Foster arrived in Walla Walla as a child, having been born in The Dalles, Ore., in 1860. The success of Kyger & Foster enabled him to acquire considerable land, including 400 acres north of Walla Walla, 40 acres of timberland in the mountains and a quarter section of land in Umatilla County. He died at the age of 40.
Researchers have not identified a relationship between Alpheus Kyger and Daniel Kyger other than to establish that Daniel was not progeny of Alpheus and his wife, Lucinda. However, Walla Walla was a small town of but several hundred residents during the time the men arrived, so it seems unlikely two people with this unusual surname were not related.
Both men were born in Indiana. Alpheus arrived in Walla Walla, eventually bankrupted and moved to Arizona. Daniel went first to Arizona, later moving on to Walla Walla. Alpheus operated a general merchandise establishment at Second and Main. Daniel clerked in a general merchandise establishment at Second and Main, later buying that store.
Coincidence? Probably not, leading to speculation that they may well have been siblings. Although their ages were 20 years apart, this would not have been unusual of brothers at a time when families often consisted of many children. As reported in the Morning Oregonian on March 7, 1921, Daniel Kyger “dropped dead in John Kelley’s Cigar Store” the previous night, having lived in Walla Walla for 52 years.
In early 1889, architect George Washington Babcock was retained to design the new building for Rees & Winans, but Rees died in July just before construction began. His widow, Augusta, took up the cause and worked with Winans to see that the building was put up as planned. In 1896, Augusta Rees built the mansion that survives at 260 E. Birch St., with its four two-story Roman Ionic columns at the entrance. According to W D. Lyman, Augusta designed the house largely by herself. She lived there until her death in 1920.
George Babcock was born in Providence, R.I., in 1832. At the age of 14 he moved to the then-frontier of Illinois where he followed various trades, learning the art of carpentry. In 1850, he caught “gold rush fever” and moved to California where he had considerable success panning gold over the next 10 years. He settled in San Francisco in 1860 and took up the trades of builder and architect. His architectural training is unknown, but it is reported that he designed a number of prominent buildings in that city.
In 1884, he moved to Spokane, and the following year settled in Walla Walla, a move that resulted from his having been commissioned to design and supervise construction of the new Washington Territorial Penitentiary. Babcock’s plans called for of a modest collection of grim buildings, befitting a penal institution of the period, and in no way redolent of the florid architecture in which he had been immersed in San Francisco. Later he served as a trustee of the Farmers Bank, was on the City Council in 1899 and served as mayor in 1901. Upon completion of the Rees-Winans Block in 1890, Babcock located his architectural practice in the building, at least through 1893.
Babcock designed the courthouses in Pendleton, Colfax, Lewiston, McMinnville and Oakland, as well as buildings for the State University at Moscow. In Walla Walla, he found a number of commissions following the 1887 fire, designing the old Paine School (1893), the old Baker Boyer Bank Building (1890) and the Stencel Building (1889) that bore some similarity to the Rees-Winans Building of the same year. The first three buildings have been demolished, and for all practical purposes the Rees-Winans Building in its 1951 rebirth as the Jones Building is beyond recognition as a work from Babcock’s drafting table. Thankfully, his most impressive work, the Whitman Memorial Building of 1899, is extant on the Whitman campus. Babcock died in Walla Walla in 1907.
It is fascinating, probably more than prescient of the unknown artist, to observe that in an 1889 birds-eye view of Walla Walla one can see the as yet unbuilt new Rees-Winans Block prominently placed where it was to be built. This practice of exaggeration was a form of civic boosterism that was rampant in western towns in an effort to encourage people to move west. In fact, the Sanborn Fire Map released in September 1890 noted that Lot 9, Block 1 was still “under construction.”
Likely Winans’ interest in the new building was to create an imposing space for his new bank. During construction of the Rees-Winans Block, the Farmers Bank was housed temporarily across Main Street in the 1879 Paine Building. Upon completion, the bank occupied the corner portion of the new building, with Kyger & Foster taking up residence in the larger “L” shape portion of the ground floor that had entrances on both Main and Second. In an article titled “An Elegant Establishment,” the Daily Statesman of Oct. 31, 1890, reported the following.
Kyger & Foster, the popular merchants, have established themselves in their new and elegant quarters in the Rees-Winans building. The store is roomy and well-fitted and furnished, making it one of the neatest merchandizing establishments in the city. The main entrance is on Main street, one door east of the Farmers Savings Bank. The first room, opening on Main street is devoted exclusively to dry and fancy goods, of which a large new stock has just been placed upon the shelves. In the rear of this room, with an entrance from Second street, is a large grocery and canned goods department, stocked from ceiling to floor with everything to be found in a well-appointed grocery store. The rooms are heated by steam and have all the latest appointments for the accommodation of customers.
As reported in newspapers at the time of the Rees-Winans Block’s construction, Babcock’s design emulated buildings he had either designed or of which he had been aware in San Francisco; that was probably an apt appraisal. In point of fact, several buildings in Washington can be seen to bear a resemblance to the Rees-Winans Block, including the Yesler-Leary Building in Seattle, designed by W.E. Boone in 1883 and destroyed in the Seattle fire of June 6, 1889, and the Hastings Building in Port Townsend, designed by Elmer H. Fisher in 1889, extant but missing its conical roof over the corner oriel or tower, a loss also inflicted on the Rees-Winans Block in later years.
The Rees-Winans Block was surely Babcock’s least constrained creation in Walla Walla, a veritable jumble of styles of mid- to late-19th century architecture, best described as picturesque eclecticism or simply High Victorian. This is not to disparage it; indeed, it must be viewed in the context in which it was commissioned. Walla Walla was still very much a small frontier town in 1889 compared with larger eastern cities and even the nearby sizable cities of Spokane, Portland and Seattle. Rees and Winans had gambled at risk to themselves in settling here, had succeeded against great odds, and it is only natural that they wanted a splendid building as testament to their prosperity — and perhaps to parade Walla Walla to the rest of the country as an up-and-coming town in which to settle and prosper.
The completed building stood three stories in height, its greatest expanse facing Second Street. Six bays or, more correctly, oriels lined the Second Street façade, while the narrower Main Street façade had but two. The crown of the building was a rounded oriel at the corner of Second and Main that appears to have extended the building’s height approximately 25 feet above the roof. This towerlike projection displayed a band of three oiel de Bouf (bulls eye) windows encircling it, and was capped by a tall convex cone roof that in turn was surmounted by an onion dome cupola containing a band of swirls encircling its roof from its base to its top. The base of the onion dome repeated the oiel de Bouf motif, but solely as ornament, lacking windows. Visually, this was a stunning creation, certainly the eye-catching feature of the building.
Each of the nine oriels had pairs of double-hung windows facing outward at the second and third floors with a single double-hung window on each side, an arrangement that allowed increased natural light to penetrate the interior of the building. Rather than a simple cornice at the roof level, a faux mansard roof supported by machine-sawn brackets topped each oriel. An ornamental wrought-iron railing traversed the roof along both street exposures. This area is heavily ornamented, but from existing photographs it is difficult to tell whether it is based on any classical forms or simply late 19th-century reverie. Fenestration of the projecting oriels was elaborate, including a fairly ornamented type of stringcourse with a small triangle or pediment at the middle of each of the oriels.
The street level was less complicated. A round arch entrance to the bank was placed diagonally at Second and Main. Entrances to Kyger & Foster can be seen at the far right of the Main Street façade and the far left of the Second Street façade. Some of the supporting columns at this level may have been cast iron, but it is not possible to determine with certainty from photographs. Likewise the surface of the two upper floors appears to be stucco cement plaster over brick substructure, with the projecting oriels most likely of wood. The entrance to offices on the upper floors may be seen at the left third of the Second Street façade. In the photo of the building from the early 1930s, the oval in the stepped triangular crown at roof level above this entrance read Farmers Exchange in raised block letters; it likely read Rees-Winans Block originally.
On June 25, 1890, 50 citizens (as described by W.D. Lyman, but they were most assuredly all male) gathered in the council chambers to organize a club for the purpose of promoting sociability and fellowship among its members. These were influential citizens of the time, including Frank Foster of Kyger & Foster. From this meeting, the Walla Walla Club was born, with rooms on the third floor of the Rees-Winans Block, consisting of billiard, pool and card tables and a reading room. The Union-Bulletin on June 4, 1973, noted in the caption to a photo of the Rees-Winans Block that was featured in their “Remember When?” series that at one point there were apartments on the second and third floors.
William Winans died in 1917, and in 1919 the Pacific Building & Engineer reported that the “Walla Walla Farmers Union has purchased the Rees-Winans bldg. and will remodel same into a bus bldg. (illeg.) and farmers agency qrs.” The Farmers Bank relocated across Main Street to the Paine Building where it had begun in 1889 while awaiting completion of the Rees-Winans Block. On May 18, 1939, Permit 9077 was granted to the Farmers Agency to “remove cupola and finial” from the corner oriel. O.D. Keen, a prominent Walla Walla contractor, was given the contract for this job, estimated to cost $125. No reason was given for removal of the convex cone roof and onion dome, but from 1939 until the 1951 remodeling of the entire building, the corner round oriel sported a flat roof.
On Aug. 9, 1943, the Rees-Winans Block, or more correctly Farmers Exchange as it was then known, was sold to Verna Dwelley Jones who had been widowed the year before. Her late husband, Charles, had served as secretary of Baker Loan & Investment.
Over the ensuing seven years, most legal filings included routine leases and renewals of leases. However, the building’s future was sealed on March 12, 1951, when Mrs. Jones was issued Permit 3090 to remodel the Rees-Winans Block/Farmers Exchange, at a cost projected to be $50,000. H.E. Gross was awarded the contract. Plans drawn by Williams & Myers, Designers, of College Place, dated Jan. 29, 1951, and June 4, 1951, would eradicate completely the exterior of this landmark building of 60 years and fashion a stark modern new look, which was probably felt would be more attractive to businesses and potential occupants of office space on the two upper floors.
The Union-Bulletin reported on Feb. 27, 1951:
Remodeling and “face lifting” operations of the former Farmers Exchange building at the northeast corner of Second and Main, earlier known as the Rees-Winans building, will remove a potent reminder of the flamboyant nineties in Walla Walla. It was in 1890 that the present three-story building was erected. G. W. Babcock, later to become mayor, was the architect. He patterned it after structures in the Mission district of San Francisco. The bay windows, which have remained to the present day, were installed to provide additional daylight for the doctors and dentists of that early day who used both the second and third floors. Mrs. Charles F. Jones purchased the building in more recent years. It is the Jones family that is remodeling the structure.
The decade of the 1950s, one must remember, opened the floodgates to “urban renewal,” a euphemistic term that in hindsight might better be referred to as “urban wreckage.” This movement took flight in cities across the country over a span of two decades, destroying many hundreds — probably thousands — of buildings of architectural merit simply because they were old and viewed as beyond usefulness. The irony is that many of those destroyed were replaced by asphalt parking lots in homage to America’s greatest and most prolific creation, the automobile. Regrettably, Walla Walla is not blameless in following this trend, as witnessed by the many gaps along Main, Alder and Poplar streets, some filled with for the most part ho-hum newer buildings, some still vacant.
The selection of Williams & Myers design team was unusual. Neither man appears to have been a licensed architect, nor were they listed as architects under professional services in city directories. Tom O. Williams owned Williams Lumber Company in College Place, and Richard B. Myers was a designer for the firm. The complete set of working plans for the 1951 remodel, however, certainly point to the fact that they possessed an advanced degree of architectural knowledge (if not inspiring design), and the plans surely were approved by city building inspectors of the time. All of the drawings for the remodel refer to the building as Exchange Building; however, at completion it was given its new name Jones Building.
As can be seen in a series of photographs taken by photographer Earl Roberge during the remodel, the two façades of the Rees-Winans Block/Farmers Exchange were divested of all nine oriels and all elaborate cornice work. The height of the windows of the upper two floors was significantly reduced and a horizontal flow was emphasized by stringcourses above and below the windows at both these levels. The new cornice was stark and lacking in interest. The entire façade was clad in smooth stucco plaster cement that remains to date.
The first floor was faced with marble on part of its Second and Main façades with show box windows for merchants to display their wares (only three on Second Avenue remain). Expansive areas of floor-to-ceiling glass were located at the building’s corner and at the north extremity of the Second Avenue façade, the latter having been occupied by Sporleder’s Men’s Wear prior to the 1951 “face lift.” Sporleder’s relocated to the important corner of the building and expanded considerably after the remodel was completed.
In May and June 1960, Walla Walla architect H. Brandt Gessel, AIA, designed further alterations for the Main Street façade of Sporleder’s that actually enhanced the appearance of this corner. Unfortunately, his alterations have been replaced by rather slapdash changes. (Gessel was architect for the two noncontributing 1949 south additions to Henry Osterman’s YMCA building on South Spokane Street, and he was also defendant in a lawsuit involving copyright infringement brought by a Portland architect, although the judgment against him was reversed in 1983 by the U. S. Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit.)
And so we of a later and arguably more enlightened generation are left to rue the loss of this once-flamboyant showpiece of Walla Walla. Verna Dwelley Jones, in 1951, probably did what she thought was best for the building’s future (and perhaps her family’s financial interests) in reconfiguring the Rees-Winans Block into the lackluster building that occupies a place of prominence on this anchor corner of downtown Walla Walla. One wonders if it might have been better to have razed the building entirely and replace it; however, the difference would be the same and the grand old building would not be there.
... all the sweet green icing flowing down. Someone left the cake out in the rain ...
Stephen Wilen served two terms on the Historic Preservation Commission and currently does historic property research for Walla Walla 2020. Contact him at email@example.com.