When the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks decided to conduct a design competition to select an architect for their new Tacoma Lodge Building they probably hoped for a world class designer with old world design sensibilities, world’s fair experience and a portfolio of world famous public buildings. When the fourteen competition entries arrived in early summer 1914, the Elks got everything they hoped for and then some.
While the various schemes for the new lodge offered an array of brick and stone buildings that looked like everything from a secular cathedral to a commercial office building, one set of drawings proposed an ensemble of Beaux Arts styling that included a striking ivory colored temple set into a refined landscape and accompanied by an elaborate, illuminated hillside stairway. The grouping invoked the high style decorations of the Gilded Age. Its crisp color and accommodation to passing pedestrians and streetcar boulevards borrowed from the grand strolling expositions and world fairs of the time. And its cutting edge fireproof construction, using cast marble (fancy concrete) imparted a permanence that matched Tacoma’s most important public buildings and architectural ambitions. The jury’s selection was unanimous and so enthusiastic that they increased the cost of the project from $85,000 to a hundred grand before the final construction drawings were even finished.
The architect who created the design was Edouard Frere Champney, a 39 year old cosmopolitan with a degree from Harvard and full certificates in art and architecture
from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Champney was a character from another era, an aesthetic from the Victorian age, born to a travel writer mother and artist father who were living as American expats in an artists commune in Paris. In 1876 James Wells Champney and his wife Elizabeth returned to her pre-revolutionary family home, Elmstead Manor in Deerfield, Massachusetts where Edouard and his younger sister Marie grew up. In 1900 Champney completed his studies and joined the architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings in Buffalo, New York just as they were beginning work as principal designers for the Pan American Exposition. The young architect’s emersion in the planning of a world’s fair would shape his approach to design and the physical world he could create. Instead of drawing free standing buildings as single objects, Champney seemed to imagine pieces of the world, elements of a larger composition that seemed to work and belong together.
During the first decade of the new century Champney became a specialist in designing world expositions and grand layouts. By 1903 he was in Washington D.C. working for Hornblower and Marshall on the design of the Smithsonian Buildings (he drafted the blueprints for the the National Museum of the Natural History). The next year he became Assistant Chief Architect for the Louisiana Purchase St. Louis Exposition, in St. Louis, Missouri where he was responsible for the transportation and agriculture buildings as well as the overall landscape and grounds. From there he moved west, working on the master planning for the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland and then on to Seattle for the Alaskan Yukon Pacific Exposition (AYP held in 1909) where he was designated Chief Architect in 1907.
Edouard Champney lived in the era and style of grand hotels, elegant ocean crossing steamships and first class railway passage. When his mother came to live with him in Seattle they occupied a suite of rooms in the old world charm of the Sorento Hotel on Capitol Hill. For the next 15 years it would be their base as Elizabeth traveled the world in summers and wrote books about romantic and distant places while her son (who she called Frere) practiced architecture and illustrated her books.
After an ill fated business partnership with Augustus Warren Gould, which led to the triumph of the landmark 10 story Rogers Building in Vancouver B.C. and an embarrassing faux pas trying to design the Seattle Municipal Building, Campney returned to designing expositions. In November 1912, he was selected as the principal designer and Chief Architect of the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. It was while working between Seattle and the bay area on the Panama Pacific Exposition in celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal, that Champney drew his plans for the Tacoma Elks Lodge. His entry in the Tacoma competition caught many by surprise since work on the San Francisco fair seemed all consuming of his time and presence. He was a celebrity in both California and Seattle and his winning entry in the Elks competition was widely published in newspapers and magazine internationally. He may have understood that the ensemble of public architecture and boulevards imagined by Frederick Law Olmsted in his 1873 plan for Tacoma was missing a piece.
The era of world fairs and international expositions was coming to an end as the First World War spread across Europe and the United States flirted with involvement. The “City Beautiful” movement, that was launched with the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893 and which inspired the Italian Renaissance design of Tacoma’s City Hall, was becoming overshadowed by skyscrapers and densely packed city skylines. (Ironically Edouard’s father James Wells Champney was killed in a high rise elevator accident) Elegant prominades and boulevards were being run over by double tracked streetcars and automobiles. The great white cities of dreams imagined by Frederick Law Olmsted, Daniel Burnham, John Wellborn Root and Edouard Frere Champney were proving to be temporary illusions, fragmentary in their realization and endurance.
Edouard Champney’s last exposition and the completion of the Tacoma Elks project happened about the same time and for the next few years he traveled and worked with Elizabeth on three gilt edged, illustrated books about the romance of Old Japan, Russia and Belgium. She passed away in Seattle in October 1922. At 48 years of age Edouard married Mary Alice Robbins and they left Seattle for a home in Berkeley, California. When the San Francisco architectural firm of Bakewell and Brown was selected to design the new Episcopal cathedral in Seattle they hired Edouard Champney as their managing architect. Champney returned to Seattle for the ground-breaking of Saint Mark’s Cathedral in 1928 but did not live to see its completion. Champney died at 54 on April 6, 1929.
Thanks to Russell Holter and Jeffrey Ochsner for research and background on Edouard Frere Champney