Ellensburg, a historic college town

Architecture, arts and chimpanzees in the heart of Washington state

John Gottberg Anderson / For The Bulletin /

Published Apr 11, 2010 at 05:00AM / Updated Mar 13, 2014 at 01:08PM

ELLENSBURG, Wash. —

There is probably no more distinctive structure in central Washington than the Davidson Building in the heart of Ellensburg.

Though just two stories tall, not counting the tower than crowns its corner turret, the elaborate building dominates the corner of Fourth Avenue and Pearl Street. Built in 1889, some might say it's a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll, much like the charming college town in which it stands.

The Davidson Building is a grand edifice in the classic Italianate style of architecture that was popular in the last half of the 19th century. Commissioned by attorney (later judge) John B. Davidson, it features ornate window arches, recessed entryways and pressed-tin embellishments that imitate more expensive stone work. But its most distinctive element is a 3-foot sculpture of a phoenix that rises atop a pediment on its south façade.

The Davidson, you see, emerged from the ashes of Ellensburg's Great Fire of 1889. Under construction when the Fourth of July conflagration erupted and destroyed 10 square blocks of wooden buildings, the edifice became a symbol of resilience to Ellensburg's citizens as they reinvented their town.

The stone phoenix oversaw the work from its perch high above Fourth Avenue.

Before 1889 was over, dozens of new brick commercial buildings had been completed. Eighteen of them today form the core of downtown Ellensburg's National Historic District, which also includes numerous other buildings erected before the First World War.

A capital idea

Had it not been for the Great Fire, Ellensburg — and not Olympia — may have been chosen as the capital of the new state of Washington.

Known as Robber's Roost when John Shoudy built a trading post here in the early 1870s, the town was platted in 1875 and named by Shoudy for his wife, Mary Ellen. It was incorporated in 1883, and when the Northern Pacific Railroad came through town in 1886, fueled by a major coal find in the Cascade foothills just 25 miles to the northwest, economic prognosticators saw Ellensburg's potential as almost limitless. Its central location — 110 miles from Seattle, 174 from Spokane — made it an appealing place to become Washington's capital when statehood was granted in November 1889.

The fire shattered that dream. But it didn't stop Ellensburg's growth. Within two years, the city had established a teacher's college, Washington State Normal School. Today, that institution is Central Washington University, whose more than 10,000 students are visible everywhere in a town, where the official population is less than 18,000.

The story of Ellensburg's pioneer tenacity is well told at the Kittitas County Historical Museum. Its exhibit rooms meander through the 1889 Cadwell Building and a series of adjacent structures at the corner of Third Avenue and Pine Street. Collections of antique automobiles, porcelain dolls, pioneer medical equipment and historical photographs are among the exhibition highlights, along with such other assorted items as a larger-than-life RCA Victor dog, his ear cocked to hear absent 1950s-era music.

Four miles east of Ellensburg, Olmstead Place State Park encompasses a 217-acre working farm that dates from the earliest years of pioneer settlement in the area. The original 1875 log cabin still stands on the property, not far from the 1908 farmhouse furnished with the belongings of the Olmstead family. The family donated the farm to Washington State Parks in 1968. Antique farm equipment surrounds the big red barn that stands a half-mile south of the homestead.

The pioneer farm continues to be worked today, often with original machinery. Free public tours are offered weekend afternoons from Memorial Day to Labor Day; during the school year, students may enjoy field trips that include demonstrations of butter churning and rides aboard a covered wagon. Year-round, visitors may hike a ¾-mile trail from the barn, past restored historic gardens, to an old schoolhouse.

Chimps on campus

The center of life in Ellensburg is the university. It sprawls across 380 acres just north of downtown. Barge Hall, built in 1893 as the original CWU building, remains a landmark facing University Avenue on the south side of campus. It contrasts sharply with the school's new (in 2006) $58 million student union and recreation center.

In the center of the CWU campus is a small but handsome Japanese garden, designed by famed landscape architect Masa Muzano. Other sights of note include the Leah Polacek Butterfly Garden, which features an interpretive walk through native foliage that describes the life cycle of a butterfly; and the Sarah Spurgeon Gallery in Randall Hall, displaying contemporary art, including graduate students' thesis projects.

A favorite venue for animal lovers is the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. Established by psychology professors Roger and Deborah Fouts, CHCI is the home of three middle-age chimps: Tatu, 34; Dar, 33; and Loulis, 31. Visitors are welcome (by reservation) to attend one-hour educational workshops known as Chimposiums, held on weekends from March through November.

I knew little or nothing about chimp communication before visiting the institute. By the time I left, I had learned nonaggressive body language, and I could sign a half-dozen words with the resident chimps.

Full-time staff and graduate students explained that CHCI owes its existence to one female chimpanzee: Washoe, who died in 2007 at the age of 42. Washoe was the first nonhuman known to have acquired a human language. Born in west Africa, kidnapped as an infant in 1965, she was rejected for NASA astronaut training but was rescued by University of Nevada-Reno professors Allen and Beatrix Gardner.

They “cross-fostered” the young ape from the age of 10 months in the same manner as a human child, teaching her human behavior and American sign language. Eventually she developed a vocabulary of about 250 words.

In 1970, Washoe went to the University of Oklahoma to live with the Foutses. They relocated to Ellensburg in 1980, taking with them Washoe; her adopted son, Loulis; and Moja, since deceased. A year later, they were joined by Tatu and Dar. Initially, the animals lived on the third floor of CWU's psychology building; the new complex in which they now live was completed in 1993.

Like Washoe, Tatu and Dar learned sign language through human interaction. Loulis, however, was not cross-fostered. Adopted by Washoe as a son, he is considered the first chimp to learn human language from other chimpanzees. Although all the chimps gesture and vocalize as they would in the wild, they interact with humans and each other through American sign language, making requests, answering questions, and describing objects and activities.

Exploring the arts

Ellensburg is also a magnet for the arts. First Friday gallery walks are highly anticipated events at downtown art galleries, including the outstanding Gallery One Visual Arts Center. This nonprofit community arts center offers a wide range of classes and rotating exhibits, as well as a gift shop that sells the work of area artists while raising money for gallery programs.

Virtually next door is the Clymer Museum of Art, a tribute to Western painter John Ford “Junior” Clymer (1907-89). Born and raised in Ellensburg, he was best known for his magazine covers, including 80 that he did for the Saturday Evening Post in the 1940s and '50s. Several dozen Clymer originals are on permanent display in the spacious museum, along with changing exhibits of other artists specializing in Americana.

But Ellensburg's most intriguing location for art lovers has got to be Dick and Jane's Spot. The home (since the mid-1970s) of Jane Orleman and her late husband, Richard Elliot, this shrine of creative folk art at the corner of First Avenue and Pearl Street gives onlookers cause for reflection. Indeed, it's the reflectors that really make the work shine.

By day, before he retired to devote full time to his art, Dick Elliot was a public-works official. That gave him access to an endless supply of small, round traffic reflectors in multiple colors — red, orange, blue, green — as well as ceramic insulators and other seemingly artless objects. By geometrically arranging the explosive colors to directly reflect natural and artificial light, he developed an art form that today may be seen everywhere from Seattle-area light-rail stations and airport baggage claims to Times Square in New York City.

Elliot died in 2008. Today, Dick and Jane's Spot remains the home and studio of Orleman, who will sometimes invite visitors into the house to see more reflector art as well as her own wall-sized murals. Several of the oil paintings, I observed, wedded metaphysical philosophy with her continuing love affair with her late husband, including one titled “Navigating the Waves of the Space-Time Continuum.”

Outside, some three dozen artists have provided their own contributions to the house and its landscape, especially the surrounding fence. The full, fanciful picture inspires many passers-by to jot their own observations in a guest book that sits in a covered kiosk on the edge of the property, beneath a sign reading, “What Is This Place?”

Come next month, Dick and Jane's Spot will get plenty of attention during the annual Ellensburg National Western Art Show and Auction to be held May 21 to 23. Now in its 38th year, the show features more than 100 artists of national renown.

It's just one event that underscores a love of the Old West. Each February, the Spirit of the West Cowboy Gathering features original cowboy poetry and music. In September, the Ellensburg Rodeo will celebrate its 87th incarnation, drawing top riders from across the country.

The way West

Ellensburg may not be the capital of Washington, but it is the seat of Kittitas County, which stretches west from the Columbia River to Snoqualmie Pass, at the summit of the Cascade Range. Embracing the Upper Yakima River valley, it boasts several worthy attractions not far off Interstate 90, the main route between Central Washington and Puget Sound.

At the little community of Thorp, six miles west of Ellensburg, the Thorp Grist Mill recalls the region's early agricultural history. Built in 1883, powered by a millrace off the Yakima River, it provided flour for pioneer residents and feed for livestock. Today the mill, which operated until 1946, has been beautifully restored; interpretive signs lead visitors through a self-guided tour.

The county's second-largest town is Cle Elum, whose 2,000 citizens make their homes 23 miles northwest of Ellensburg. Like adjacent Roslyn, another two miles northwest, Cle Elum (pronounced “klee-EL-um”) was founded with the coming of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1886, after large deposits of soft coal were discovered underlying the region. But as coal-powered engines were replaced by diesel fuel, the coal market shriveled up and died.

In modern Cle Elum, the 1914 Carpenter House recalls the heyday of the coal mines. Once the home of banker Frank Carpenter, it was donated by his descendants in 1989, with its original furnishings, to the Northern Kittitas County Historical Society. Today, it is maintained by the High Country Artists, who also keep a gallery in the house.

The region's last mine closed in Roslyn in 1963, but this village of 1,000 people has changed very little in the past half century. It is perhaps best known today as the location where “Northern Exposure,” a Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning television series of the early 1990s, was filmed. For five CBS seasons, Roslyn's ramshackle wooden buildings became Cicely, Alaska; the cast featured Rob Morrow, Janine Turner and John Corbett.

Immigrants from more than two dozen countries came to this area to work the coal mines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A large number were from Eastern Europe. Their names can be read on plaques that surround the Roslyn Coal Miners Memorial in the heart of town.

Hundreds of miners died in dark subterranean passages. They were buried in the 26 adjacent ethnic cemeteries — Lithuanian, Croatian, Polish, Slovak, Serbian and many others — that spread across 15 acres of hillsides on the west side of the town. The intriguing Roslyn Museum tells many of their stories through photographs, mine diagrams and a variety of early coal-mining equipment.

The museum also provides a map of sites associated with “Northern Exposure” to any visiting fans. Among them is The Brick, a tavern that played a key role in the TV program. It has been operating continuously since 1889, longer than any other establishment in Washington, which, in the minds of some, may make it a more distinctive structure than Ellensburg's Davidson Building.