Cutter, Kirtland Kelsey (1860-1939)

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 3/23/2009
  • Essay 115

Kirtland Kelsey Cutter was primarily a Spokane architect with a significant practice in Spokane, Seattle, and Southern California, as well as commissions as far away as England. Of Spokane’s many prolific and successful architects, he is  the best known to the general public today. Spokane is where he first made his reputation, his buildings giving clues about the “economy, power structure, social life, and changing fortunes” of the growing city (Matthews, Spokane and the Inland Empire, 143). Cutter’s career spanned 50 years, from 1889 to his death in 1939. His legacy of large-scale houses and public buildings still standing in Spokane, Seattle, Southern California, and elsewhere is varied and impressive.

Early Days

Kirtland Cutter was born on August 20, 1860 in East Rockport, Ohio, near Cleveland. Until the age of 17, he lived there at Whippoorwill Farm, the estate of his mother’s grandfather, Jared Kirtland, a naturalist and physician. The love of nature that Cutter gained from his great grandfather was evident later in his architectural work. At age 14, he began attending Cleveland’s prestigious Brooks School, sometimes called Brooks Military Academy, where he did not especially distinguish himself in either academics or athletics. Perhaps the main influence of his education there was the building itself, a half-timbered schoolhouse with diagonal cross braces, a style entirely new to Cleveland that would later find its way into Cutter’s work. The young boy also observed the transformation of the city, where large, ornate buildings were rising downtown, and the affluent were erecting elaborate mansions in the residential areas. 

After this schooling, Cutter enrolled in the Art Students’ League of New York, intent upon becoming an illustrator. From there, he went to Europe to travel and study art, mainly in Dresden and Florence. He would draw upon these European influences throughout his career.

With the encouragement of his uncle, Horace Cutter, a Spokane banker, Kirtland Cutter came to the fledgling city in 1886 and decided to practice architecture rather than to pursue a career in art. Initially Cutter supplemented his income from architecture by working as a teller in his uncle’s bank.His first residential designs were for his uncle and for his own house, “Chalet Hohenstein,” in 1887. On the basalt-strewn South Hill overlooking downtown Spokane, both were in a somewhat Swiss style. He received two important commissions in 1889, probably through his uncle’s banking connections. He made a success of two fine Tudoresque half-timbered houses, also on the South Hill, for James N. Glover (1837-1921), considered the father of Spokane, and businessman F. Rockwood Moore. With these residences, Cutter “had begun his long career in Spokane designing houses in an Arts and Crafts manner that seemed to grow out of the rocky hillsides” (Matthews, Kirtland Cutter … Land of Promise, 330).

Rebuilding and Building Spokane

In 1889 most of downtown Spokane was destroyed in a catastrophic fire. Kirtland Cutter and his new partner, John C. Poetz (1859-1929), were among the architects on the spot to help rebuild the city. Cutter’s strength as an architect was mainly artistic, whereas Poetz provided the technical expertise necessary for large structures. Immediately after the fire and in the decades that followed, either alone or with partners, Cutter designed many buildings in downtown Spokane. They included First National Bank, Rookery Building, White House Store, Sherwood Building, Pedicord Hotel, Davenport’s Restaurant, John W. Graham Building, Spokane Club, Washington Water Power Substation and Steam Plant, Western Union Life Insurance Company, Crescent Store, and the spectacular Davenport Hotel, completed in 1914, among others.

The firm of Cutter and Poetz received a boost with their very successful Idaho Building for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Of timber and basalt from Idaho, it was built in a strong, rustic style to suggest the mountains and forests of that state. The building received rave reviews from newspapers, and visitors flocked to see it. After the fair, it was moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and later demolished. A wealthy Englishman visiting the exposition so admired the Idaho Building that he had Cutter construct him a replica on his estate at Ringwood, England. Later there were commissions for rustic lodges in Idaho, Montana, and Upstate New York.  

Cutter was soon picking up new residential clients in Spokane, many of whom were making fortunes in the mining booms of North Idaho, Eastern Washington, and Southern British Columbia. These tycoons mostly chose to locate in Browne’s Addition, a flat area west of downtown above the Spokane River. Between 1897 and 1900, with his next partner, Carl Gunnar Malmgren (1862-1921), he built mansions in Browne’s Addition for John A. Finch, Patrick “Patsy” Clark, Amasa Campbell, W. J. C. Wakefield, Henry Richards, R. L. Rutter, and others. The Robert Strahorn house encased the earlier J. J. Browne house. The styles ranged from Tudoresque with English Arts and Crafts features, to Mission Revival, to the wildly eclectic and exotic Clark Mansion. Important residential commissions continued to come from other areas of the city, including the South Hill, where he designed homes for Louis Davenport, D. C. and Austin Corbin, J. M. Corbet, F. Lewis Clark, and many others. Some of his houses were suburban or rural, most notably Jay P. Graves’s incongruously named “Waikiki,” a virtual English estate north of the city on the Little Spokane River.

Seattle's Finest

Simultaneously, Cutter began receiving commissions in Seattle, sometimes in partnership with Malmgren and others. In 1898-1900, Cutter and Malmgren designed a large home on First Hill for lumber baron C. D. Stimson. Later known as the Stimson-Green Mansion, It was in the half-timbered and gabled Tudor Revival style, and its somewhat medieval interior drew strongly upon the English Arts and Crafts Movement. This style, while fairly new to Seattle at the time, became prevalent in the 1920s. In 1902, Cutter sent an assistant, Edwin Wager, to Seattle to establish a branch office. Two others, architect Andrew Willatzen and draftsman Carl Nuese, soon joined the firm. These people departed the firm at various times.

Whether in combination with others or alone, Cutter did a great deal of work in Seattle. In 1903, he designed the Rainier Club, and between 1908 and 1909 with Malmgren, the Swiss chalet-style Seattle Golf and Country Club. Cutter’s other Seattle commissions included the Crary Building, the Washington Securities Company Building, and residences for L. B. Peebles, C. J. Smith, T. J. Heffernan, Samuel Hill, and a later house for C. D. Stimson, this time in The Highlands overlooking Puget Sound, where he also designed a Prairie-Style house for C. H. Clarke.

Cutter’s work also spread to the Tacoma area, where his most notable residences were the Italianate Villa Carman at Gravelly Lake, designed for Joseph L. Carman, and Thornewood, “Cutter’s most faithful interpretation of a Tudor manor house in brick” (Matthews, Kirtland Cutter …Land of Promise, 268), which he designed at American Lake for Chester Thorne. For this project, as well as others during his career, Cutter was joined by the famous Olmsted landscape architectural firm of Brookline, Massachusetts.  

In 1913, Cutter received a commission in Santa Barbara, California, to build a winter vacation mansion in the Spanish Colonial Revival or Mediterranean style for Spokane newspaperman, William H. Cowles, for whom he had built a much smaller Browne’s addition dwelling in 1903. “Eucalyptus Hill” was Cutter’s introduction to Southern California, and it would serve him well for the final phase of his career.

Cutter did not compete well in the post-World War I building climate in Spokane. Clients were less wealthy than those at the turn of the century, and Cutter, who refused to lower his fees, lost bids to well-qualified younger architects. Yet during this period, he received one of his highest accolades. The June 1921 issues of Architect and Engineer focused on Spokane and announced that a jury of distinguished architects had selected the 10 most notable buildings in the city. Of these 10, six had been designed by Kirtland Cutter.  

Last Years 

As Cutter’s income declined, he continued to live well, with the result that mounting debts led to the loss even of his own house. Therefore, he moved his practice to Southern California, where he designed many houses in Long Beach, Palos Verdes, Beverly Hills, and San Marino. His past experience with the Mediterranean style was a plus, but, as in Spokane and Seattle, he produced work in a variety of styles. Cutter practiced successfully in California from 1923 until his death on September 26, 1939, at age 79 in Long Beach.

A surprising contradiction has come to light regarding the final disposition of Kirtland Cutter’s remains. The biography Kirtland Cutter: Architect in the Land of Promise states that Jess Jones, Cutter’s final partner during his last years at Long Beach, accompanied by his young son Richard, fulfilled Cutter’s request by sprinkling his ashes in the Pacific Ocean. According to an endnote, this information was provided during an interview years later with Richard Jones. 

Jean Oton, a Spokane collector of historical memorabilia, discovered conclusive evidence that his ashes were, in fact, interred in Hawaii. During the 1990s Oton had befriended and corresponded with Cutter’s grandson, Corbin “Joe” Corbin, and upon his death in 1998 received a collection of photographs and documents. In it were photographs of the headstone of Kathryn W. Walker, Katharine P. Cutter, and Kirtland K. Cutter in the Christ Church Episcopal cemetery at Kealakekua, Kona, Hawaii. Katharyn Walker was the daughter of Katharine Phillips Williams Cutter, Kirtland Cutter’s second wife. Walker’s daughter, Mrs. Kenneth (Joan) F. Brown wrote to Jean Oton stating: “When Kathryn Walker, my mother, died we decided to have all three buried together on Kona which she loved” (Bamonte, 250). The dates on the headstone match the birth and death dates of Kirtland Cutter.  

Another letter in this packet, to Corbin Corbin from the “Cemetery chair” of Christ Church Episcopal, states:  “The Rev. Carol Arnie and I found an entry in the register that two urns for Katharine Phillips Cutter and Kirtland Cutter were re-interred and brought here from the Nuuanu Columbarium on Oahu. Their remains were buried here ... on March 1, 1965 ...” (Bamonte, 251). These letters are now in the possession of Spokane historians Tony and Suzanne Bamonte. In 2011 Tony Bamonte contacted the pastor of Christ Church Episcopal who corroborated the facts and sent a new photograph of the grave marker. Whatever their circuitous journey, the ashes of Kirtland Cutter came to rest in a Hawaiian cemetery, not in the Pacific Ocean. 

Spokane's Kirtland Cutter

Many Cutter buildings are now on the National Register of Historic Places. The most complete list extant of his buildings and projects appears in Appendix 2 of Henry Matthews, Kirtland Cutter: Architect in the Land of Promise. The largest single collection of Cutter architectural drawings is held at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane (Eastern Washington State Historical Society).

Before moving to Southern California and opening a new practice in Long Beach, Cutter had sold his existing practice to a longtime Spokane assistant, Henry Bertelsen, to whom he owed several months’ salary. Cutter settled the debt by selling the contents of his office to Bertelsen and his secretary, Dana Agergaard, for the sum of one dollar “and other valuable considerations” (Matthews, Kirtland Cutter ... Land of Promise, 325) This fortuitous transaction is the reason Cutter’s architectural drawings and office records accumulated to that time were preserved in Spokane.


Henry Matthews, “Kirtland Kelsey Cutter,” in Shaping Seattle Architecture: A Historical Guide to the Architects ed. by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 78-83; Henry Matthews, “Kirtland Cutter: Spokane’s Architect,” in Spokane & the Inland Empire: An Interior Pacific Northwest Anthology ed. by David H. Stratton (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1991), 142-177; Henry Matthews, Kirtland Cutter: Architect in the Land of Promise (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998); Edward W. Nolan, A Guide to the Cutter Collection (Spokane: Eastern Washington State Historical Society, 1984); ); Larry Schoonover, email to Laura Arksey, April 4, 2009, in possession of Laura Arksey, Spokane, Washington; Tony and Suzanne Bamonte, Spokane, Our Early History (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 2011), 250-251. 
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject. It was expanded slightly on October 27, 2011.

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