History buff, photographer join to research 19th century architect

It all started in 2009 when Seattle architectural photographer Otto Greule was on a 150th anniversary walking tour in Snohomish led by history writer Warner Blake.

Blake asked him, “What brings you here?”

Greule said, “Well, I’m interested in photographing historic architecture for my portfolio.”

Before Greule could say more, Blake shot back: “Otto, I’ve got the project for you.”

And, boy, was it ever a project. It took five years.

The project explores the work of 19th century Snohomish architect J. S. White. The result is 10 color portraits by Greule on display at Snohomish Library through the end of October.

Greule will give a talk on “Making the Photographs” at 7 p.m. on Oct. 23 at the library. On Oct. 26, Blake will lead a guided walking tour of the homes and businesses in the photographs.

Before meeting Greule on that walking tour five years ago, Blake had planned to take the photos himself for his project to tell the story of Snohomish’s political, cultural and economic roots in the 19th century through the architect’s buildings.

It followed extensive research on White, whose legacy was all but lost until Blake revived him from old newspaper stories.

“His work is faultless, and speaks for itself,” is how one newspaper clipping described White. “He is the architect and builder of nearly every building of note in the city.”

White died in 1920 at age 75 at his modest two-story home on Avenue H.

“His pallbearers were the who’s who of early Snohomish business leaders,” Blake said.

Most of White’s structures were built from 1888 to 1890. It is unsure exactly how many there were because no building permits survived from that era.

“I found a 13th that is standing,” Blake said. “There are suspicions there are many more.”

As he put it: White left nothing behind except his buildings.

“We keep hoping to find the box full of his plans and diaries,” Blake said. “We tracked the granddaughter to California, and then the trail went cold.”

It was easy for him to get the Seattle photographer on board to help with the project.

“I was taken by what I saw,” said Greule, who hadn’t been to Snohomish before that walking tour five years ago.

He’s made numerous trips since, visiting each site several times before the final shoot.

“I’d go and scout and make scouting pictures using a Canon DSLR,” Greule said. “It is the nature of the beast with architectural photography. A lot goes into preproduction and visiting the site. Getting to know the environment and how the light moves, the shape the hedge is in and the grass is in. There are two big things: where the camera goes and when to take the picture. You go look at the structure and walk around it and see how it wants to be expressed.”

Greule used a Horseman Super Wide camera, a medium format camera designed for architectural shooting.

“A photo gives you a window that negates time. It’s like a time machine,” Greule said.

“There is beautiful symmetry to White’s work. I can imagine living in Snohomish at that time and having these structures.”

The photos are just the first chapter, so to speak. “This is what is going to turn it into something more,” Blake said.

He is working on a book. “My goal is a chapter a month,” he said.

Andrea Brown: 425- 339-3443; abrown@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @reporterbrown.

If you go

“Ten Surviving Structures by J. S. White” are on display for the month of October at Snohomish Library, 311 Maple Ave., Snohomish. Photographer Otto Greule will give a talk, “Making the Photographs,” at 7 p.m. Oct. 23 at the library. For more about Otto Greule, go to www.ottogreule.com.

On Oct. 26, writer Warner Blake will lead a guided walking tour from Snohomish Library at 2 p.m. The introduction is at 1:45 p.m. Prepare to walk about 2 miles, rain or shine, and allow at least 90 minutes. Donation $10. For more information about the walking tour, go to www.warnerblake.net/tour.

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