Nothing New — Frank Becker’s building: Aberdeen’s skyscraper

The northeast corner of Wishkah and I streets, where the Becker Building looms, has been a center of Aberdeen history for 130 years. In 1883, when the property was at the edge of the forest and the town had yet to be platted, Captain J.M. Weatherwax chose it as the site to build his home. The Weatherwax house was a rather boxy structure but notable for having one of the town’s first running water systems. The house was destroyed in the Black Friday Fire that leveled the central district in 1903.

The lot remained vacant until the summer of 1918, when a patriotic show of support for the war effort resulted in construction of the Liberty Temple; a 1,500 seat auditorium built in one day by a massive crew of volunteer labor. That fall a second structure known as the Red Cross building was erected next to the auditorium. In 1925, Frank Becker purchased the property for $25,000 and both buildings were moved to the corner of Wishkah and Jefferson Streets where they housed Veldkamp’s Bakery until they were destroyed by a massive late-night fire in 1951.

Frank Becker was still a teenager in 1890 when his family moved to Aberdeen from Wisconsin. His first job was as a clerk at Kount Zelasko’s store. When the Yukon gold rush hit, Becker left to try his hand, returning two years later with a tidy sum from his diggings. Becker used the grubstake to open a bicycle shop and found himself to be a deft businessman. Around 1903 Becker brought the first automobile to town; a one-cylinder Oldsmobile steered with a tiller. Despite the ribbing he took from others, he purchased seven more and can be considered Aberdeen’s first car dealer.

By the mid-twenties Becker had built a small fortune and announced plans to construct a $150,000, seven-story “Medico-Dentist” building. It would be the tallest building in Aberdeen; two floors higher than the 1910 Finch building and newly-opened Morck Hotel. The plans called for a professional office building with the ground floor anchored by Hayes & Hayes Bank fronting on Wishkah Street and a pharmacy on the I Street side.

In January 1926, pile-driving began and 410 fifty-foot logs were driven into the muddy earth by Aberdeen’s Creech & Walker construction company. Another local firm, Greene Engineering, won the construction contract and by February the foundation was being poured. Locals were awed by the skyscraper’s rapid growth as concrete molds were constructed and 24 steel girders, each 29-feet long and weighing nine tons, were placed into position. By Independence Day, the seventh floor was completed and masons began laying exterior brick and terra cotta. Meanwhile, the interior plastering and partitioning was underway. Mahogany trim work accented the halls, and door and window frames, and soundproof walls were finished with Duco paint that gave the private surgery rooms a smooth, easily cleanable finish similar to that of automobiles.

Construction continued at a steady, uneventful pace through the summer. And then disaster struck.

On Monday, September 13, four plasterers perched on a wooden scaffold slung from the roof were applying a final layer of terra cotta to the east exterior wall. It was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon when, with a sudden crack, the rope stirrup on the alley end of the scaffold snapped, and the four were sent plummeting five stories onto the roof of the adjoining Long building. Lou Bockover and Walter Johnson, the men working on each end, were able to clutch the stirrup ropes, slowing their fall and saving their lives, but the two working in the center, Ernest Stabbert and Draydon Hoss, had nothing but air to take hold of. Ernest Stabbert fell through a skylight, landing on and shattering a glass showcase in Handell’s confectionary store. He was killed on impact. Draydon Hoss crashed onto the roof of the Long building, suffering a fractured skull, brain concussion, punctured lung and a crushed chest. Despite being rushed by police car to Aberdeen General Hospital, the damage was too great and he died five hours later without gaining consciousness. A coroner’s inquest later determined that the deaths were due to faulty equipment.

The last phase of construction work was the penthouse apartment. It was of Spanish hacienda-style and was comprised of a large living room with a fireplace and library annex, two good sized bedrooms, a dining room, built-in kitchen, and bathroom featuring “the latest designs in lavatory equipment”. The roof top was completed with gardens and a lawn with tile walkways. It was readied in time for the Beckers to celebrate the Christmas holidays.

As the year 1927 dawned, the Becker Building was Aberdeen’s bustling center of business, law and medicine. The mezzanine level to the fourth floor held a mix of attorneys, realtors and insurance peddlers. The fifth and sixth floors were largely for the dental trade. The top floor, with a grand view of the city, was where one found the offices and the private surgery rooms of 10 of Aberdeen’s leading physicians. Meanwhile, the Prescription Drug Company on the ground floor facing I street was doing brisk business. (Today it is home of Anne Marie’s Café.) As for the anchor tenant, it was announced that the Hayes & Hayes Bank would move into its new home by summer. Unfortunately, this was not to be.

In early February, bank inspectors performing an audit found questionable dealings and Hayes & Hayes Bank, the largest bank in Southwest Washington, was shuttered. The news sent shockwaves throughout Grays Harbor and the Becker Building was left minus its major tenant. Fortunately the hole was quickly filled when the American National Bank completed the interior work begun by Hayes & Hayes and opened for business that June. The open house drew hundreds of residents who passed through the wrought-iron gates and curving archway to admire the black walnut, marble and terra cotta interior highlighted by elaborate carpets, drapes and furnishings.

Since its construction, the Becker Building has seen tenants come and go. One of the most enduring was Failor’s Sporting Goods which was located in the former bank from 1951 to 1963 before moving to the Electric Building. Following Failor’s departure, the space remained vacant until 1968 when it became the home of Swaneze, a gay‘90s-style ice cream parlor that still holds a fond place in the hearts of those of us who grew up here in the 1970s. Since then the grand structure has seen some rough times but there is hope that the Becker Building’s best days are yet to come.

Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants and extends best wishes to all of his classmates from the Weatherwax High School Class of ’83 as they gather together this weekend for their 30th class reunion.