You are here

Leavenworth

-A A +A
Village of Leavenworth
1965–present. Front St.
  • (Photograph by Caroline T. Swope)
  • Edelweiss Hotel, 2001 (Photograph by Caroline T. Swope)
  • Alpenhaus, 2001 (Photograph by Caroline T. Swope)
  • (Photograph by Robert R. Franklin)
  • (Photograph by Robert R. Franklin)
  • (Photograph by Robert R. Franklin)
  • (Photograph by J. Philip Gruen)
  • (Photograph by J. Philip Gruen)
  • (Photograph by J. Philip Gruen)
  • (Photograph by J. Philip Gruen)
  • (Photograph by J. Philip Gruen)
  • (Photograph by J. Philip Gruen)

Leavenworth is a themed town that actively flaunts a connection to “Bavarian” architecture despite lacking any ties to early Germanic settlers. Located on the east side of the North Cascades mountain range, Leavenworth was converted from a forgotten railroad and logging town into a successful tourist destination beginning in the 1960s. The city’s transformation was the brainchild of Seattle-based entrepreneurs Ted Price and Bob Rodgers, who capitalized on the town’s spectacular setting high in the North Cascades and, largely through design, reversed its economic fortunes. The faux-Bavarian architecture that lines much of Front Street, the town’s main commercial thoroughfare, is a striking mix of half-timbering, gabled roofs, deep overhangs, scrollwork balconies, and ornamental wall paintings. The town was selected as an “All American City” by the National Civic League and Look Magazine in 1967, and while its Bavarian transformation was not wholly adopted by the community, by 1978 more than 10,000 visitors were flocking there on peak weekends.

Leavenworth was platted originally by the Okanogan Investment Company in 1893 shortly after the Great Northern Railroad Company laid tracks in the area. The railroad was the region’s primary employer but the large Iowa-based lumber company of Lamb-Davis also had a substantial presence. Around 1913, the town boasted nearly 6,000 residents and included a number of one- and two-story late Victorian brick commercial structures with ornamental cornices and large plate glass storefronts along its main street. Yet the rerouting of the Great Northern tracks and the depletion of local timber supplies, coupled with the Great Depression, plunged Leavenworth into economic ruin. Entire blocks of the commercial district were sold for unpaid taxes and many businesses closed. Leavenworth’s downtown core essentially remained frozen in time until Price and Rodgers, who spent considerable vacation time skiing near Leavenworth, initiated its architectural transformation.

Price and Rodgers first turned their attention to a site some 15 miles away from Leavenworth, when they acquired Cole’s Corner Cafe in 1957 and considered the alteration of the building’s design as part of a new business venture. After some debate, they chose to remodel the building in a German-Bavarian style, for Rodgers had been stationed briefly in Munich following World War II and retained favorable memories of the Alps and the architecture of the Bavarian countryside. He also believed that the topographic similarity between the North Cascades region in Washington and the Bavarian Alps supported the inclusion of Germanic architectural detailing, and that additional ties between the great Alpine ski resorts and the skiing in the North Cascades would boost the appeal of the newly reconstituted cafe. Their intuition was correct: the cafe, which they renamed the “Squirrel Tree,” was such a success that Price and Rodgers built a Bavarian-themed motel next door and considered expanding the Bavarian theme to an entire village.

Lacking the resources to build a village from scratch, Price and Rodgers began to evaluate the feasibility of creating a Bavarian village in nearby Leavenworth, which featured an Alpine-like location, existing infrastructure, and numerous vacant buildings that could be repurposed. They developed extensive plans for converting Leavenworth into a Bavarian village, recommending half-timbered facades with large roof overhangs, a bell tower, parks, and a walkable downtown core like those found in small European towns. To support the illusion of Bavaria, the plans even called for the broadcasting of Bavarian music and suggested that townspeople wear Bavarian folk costumes.

Yet the plans also required the support of the city’s residents. Leavenworth community leaders were not, at first, interested in the Bavarian theme and instead turned to the University of Washington’s Bureau of Community Development, a program that helped cities and small towns evaluate their needs and create redevelopment action plans. Leavenworth instead formed a self-study program called L.I.F.E. (Leavenworth Improvement for Everyone) in the fall of 1962. Initially tourism was not addressed, but Price asked that a tourism committee be added. He also volunteered to serve as the co-chair of that committee.

Early meetings of the committee were tumultuous, and initially there was more interest in a western-themed community—perhaps more fitting for Leavenworth than a purely fabricated foreign-based theme. Price was nonplused, and chose to bypass the committee and approach a number of individual property owners, instead, to see if they would be willing to consider an Alpine-themed alteration of their properties. Financial backing for the extensive cosmetic work required to successfully change the buildings’ appearances nonetheless remained slim.

In 1961, a fire at the Chickamin Hotel on the corner of Front and Ninth streets proved ironically fortuitous to the city’s transformation because the exterior damage was extensive enough that substantial remodeling was required. Property owner LaVerne Peterson and shop owner Pauline Watson approached Price to see if he could offer design assistance in the remodel. Peterson agreed to adopt Price’s Swiss-Bavarian theme for her hotel’s remodel and renamed it “The Edelweiss.” Other downtown property owners soon followed suit. Hoping to inspire other property owners, Watson and Bob Rodgers made study sketches showing other possible building transformations as influenced by travel photos that Rodgers had taken during his time in Germany. Finally, in June 1965, the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce formally endorsed the plan and six additional building owners contributed financial resources to jumpstart what was called “Project Alpine.”

That same year, Price and Rodgers visited California and passed through the community of Solvang in the central part of the state, which—though it was settled by Danish immigrants in 1911—had capitalized on its Danish roots and converted many of its downtown buildings into the “Danish Provincial” style beginning in the mid-1940s (which, in turn, attracted tourists). Price and Rodgers apparently were captivated by Solvang’s half-timbered building facades and thatched roofs, and spent time talking to residents and shop owners alike about the town. They also met Earl Peterson, the man responsible for many of the initial Danish-inspired designs in the community. They enlisted his assistance, along with others, for Leavenworth’s transformation.

A number of other designers, the majority of whom were German, were brought in to provide designs for the early Germanic-themed buildings of Leavenworth. Heinz Ulbricht, who had helped design the Old English Inn in Victoria, Canada, and an “Old World”–themed shopping center in Federal Way, Washington, contributed designs for several Leavenworth structures: the Edelweiss, Der Markt Platz Building, Cascade Drug Store, the Public Utilities Building (PUD), the Barber Shop Building, Larsen Drug Store, Seattle First National Bank, and the Corner Supply Building. Herbert Schramel, a professional artist from Ansbach, Germany, was hired by Ulbricht to paint murals for the facades of several downtown buildings. Hans “Albert” Wierich, a German prisoner of war who remained in central Washington after World War II, worked on the Tannenbaum Building and also painted a number of buildings on Front Street.

Leavenworth, however, did not have a German ethnic base or any pre-existing buildings that drew upon German tradition to culturally support its architectural transformation, unlike the Danish heritage of Solvang or the Swiss heritage of New Glarus, Wisconsin. Yet Leavenworth’s purely manufactured “culture” represented a national movement to capitalize on heritage, tradition, or recreation in a response to economic decline. Other communities in Washington state, notably White Salmon and North Bend, became aware of Leavenworth’s successful conversion and began to adopt Germanic themes in the late 1970s and early 1980s, although the scale of their changes were much smaller and eventually discontinued. Outside of Washington, the town of Helen, Georgia, has a closely related Germanic themed-downtown, which was conceived of and built at about the same time as Leavenworth. And much like Leavenworth, Helen had no Germanic cultural ties and the main originator had spent time in Germany following World War II. The town of Kellogg, Idaho, also developed a piecemeal Bavarian theme for its downtown in an attempt to reverse its economic fortunes following the collapse of silver mining in the region, but with minimal success.

As Leavenworth’s pre-existing downtown facades slowly transformed under private initiative, one of the greatest challenges was developing a specific, city-ordained style for the remodels to follow. Community records reveal concern with the city’s “authenticity,” but there was considerable confusion over the meaning of that term. Eventual concern over the lack of clearly established design review guidelines led to the development of new guidelines. These have been adjusted in the past few decades to require that all remodeling efforts in Leavenworth’s downtown core—as well as new construction—feature a Bavarian Alpine theme. The city now has ordinance-approved lettering styles, paint colors, and even a portfolio of approved building forms—all based upon the broad gable-ended “Bauernhaus” (Bavarian farmhouse) form. To ensure the “Bavarianness” of new (or old) designs, all city review commissioners are required to have visited Bavaria.

As Leavenworth continues to expand and develop its downtown core, many original remodels from the first generation of “Project Alpine”—with their now comparatively smaller-scale half-timbering and minimal facade improvements superimposed over traditional turn-of-the-century brick commercial buildings—have been replaced by contemporary interpretations of Bavarian architecture. The early facade alterations date to the 1960s, and many of them already are more than 50 years old—the traditional cut-off age for listing eligibility on the National Register of Historic Places. Leavenworth thus raises an interesting predicament for preservationists. Can a building’s—or a town’s—redevelopment be considered historic, particularly if it was consciously done in an “inauthentic” manner? This question may be of some concern to architectural purists, but it is perhaps less relevant to tourism officials: Leavenworth’s transformation has been an unqualified economic success, and—though the tourist numbers have dropped somewhat in the 2010s—the town remains one of the premier tourist attractions in the state.

References

“Bad Luck Hasn’t Rained on Leavenworth’s Plans.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 5, 1996.

Bell, Eleanor. “Leavenworth: Washington’s State’s Little Bavaria.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 2, 1971.

Carter, Don. “Hollywood North.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 28, 1984.

“Chelan County Leavenworth File.” University of Washington Special Collections, Seattle.

Conklin, Ellis E. “Leavenworth Takes the Best with the Wurst.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 22, 1990.

Evans, Elizabeth Wright. “Cascade Alpine Village.” Seattle Times Sunday Supplement, September 11, 1966.

Evans, Elizabeth Wright. “It’s a Community-Wide Self-Analysis.” Seattle Times Sunday Supplement,July 21, 1963.

Ficken, Robert E., and Charles P. LeWarne. Washington: A Centennial History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989.

Hansen, Hazel. “Alpine Attire.” Bankoscope, November-December 1966.

Hinterberger, John. “The All-American Bavarian Town.” Seattle Times, July 22, 1978.

Jarvis, Jack. “Leavenworth Aims at Alpine Heights.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer,April 21, 1966.

Leavenworth Community Development Study. Proceedings. L.I.F.E.: Leavenworth improvement for everyone. Vol. 1-4. Leavenworth, Washington, 1963-1965.

“Leavenworth: Tourism and Prosperity for “Little Bavaria.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer NORTHWEST Magazine, October 28, 1973.

“Leavenworth Washington: All-American City.” Seattle Post-IntelligencerS pecial Insert, June 10, 1968.

“A Pictorial Look at Leavenworth.” Seattle Times Sunday Pictorial, May 20, 1973.

Price, Ted. Miracle Town. Vancouver, WA: Price and Rodgers, 1997.

Reiner, Cathy. “Taking Leave.” Seattle Times, September 27, 1966.

Stockley, Tom. “Leavenworth Turns on for Christmas.” Seattle Times Sunday Pictorial, December 4, 1977.

Swope, Caroline. “Designing Downtown: The Fabrication of German-themed Villages in Small-town America.” Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 2003.

Ted Price and Bob Rodgers Historical Collection. Accession Number 5249-001. Boxes 1-9. University of Washington Special Collections, Seattle.

Williams, Hill. “Marking Season’s Change in Bavaria.” Seattle Times,September 19, 1978.

“Willkommen zu Leavenworth.” The Goat, December 1969.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Caroline T. Swope
Coordinator: 
J. Philip Gruen
Robert R. Franklin
×

Data

Timeline

  • 1965

    Transformation of several existing buildings to Germanic themes, mostly along Leavenworth’s Front Street

Citation

Caroline T. Swope, "Leavenworth", [Leavenworth, Washington], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/WA-01-007-0026.

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.

, ,