Gardner J. Gwinn was a talented and industrious immigrant from Canada who quickly established himself as one of Seattle's most influential home builders and land developers in the early decades of the twentieth century. By 1924, when he was 36, Gwinn's company had become the largest home builder in the Northwest. He also constructed numerous apartment buildings and the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in downtown Seattle. Gwinn served as president of the Seattle Master Builders Association (now Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties) in 1927–28 and was active in civic organizations.
Born to Build
The Gwinn family tree was studded with builders for several generations back. Born in Nova Scotia, Canada, on July 29, 1888, he began working construction there with his father at an early age. While Gwinn was still a teenager, the family moved to Massachusetts, and then, in 1909, to Seattle. The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was underway and the city was booming; housing was in demand, and local contractors had just launched the Master Builders Association to bring some order and discipline to the industry. Gwinn continued working with his father for a few years, but in 1913 started his own firm.
Doing business as Gardner J. Gwinn, Incorporated, he was soon building quality homes at a furious pace. During his first 15 years in business, Gwinn designed and built more than 600 homes before branching out into apartment buildings and commercial projects. Many of his structures survive today, testaments to his reputation for quality construction and timeless design.
From Plumber and Painter to Entrepreneur
Gwinn began as a hands-on builder, and in the early days he listed his occupation as both plumber and painter. But his talent for business emerged early, and he was soon putting up houses in such profusion that he had to leave the labor to others and concentrate on running his rapidly growing enterprise. By 1924 his company was the biggest of its kind in the Northwest and employed more than 150 people. His was a one-stop shop, offering homebuyers everything from labor and material to building plans and financing. Prices for his homes ranged from $5,000 to $25,000 (about $62,500 to $312,600 in 2009 dollars).
Gwinn’s houses were known for their livability and sturdy construction. As his success increased, he started to purchase large tracts of land, and then designed, built, and financed all the homes on them. Many of the first houses in the Cowen Park, Ravenna Park, and Bothell Way areas were his. Always an innovator, Gwinn was tapped by Seattle’s Electric Club in 1922 and 1923 to design and build the city’s first all-electric demonstration homes, which were used to educate the public on the many labor-saving advantages of electrical appliances.
In the early days Gwinn focused on single-family homes, and for several years he published popular plan books titled with the company motto, “Homes of Individuality.” By 1925, however, he had turned his attention to larger projects. He soon became a leading developer of apartment buildings, putting up more than 50 of them before 1930, including the venerable Marlborough House, which still stands on Seattle’s Boren Avenue. His company played a significant role in meeting Seattle's housing needs during the construction boom of the 1920s.
In 1924, Gwinn joined fellow builders Stanley Long and Edward L. Merritt in a successful effort to re-establish the Seattle Master Builders Association to represent the interests of area home builders after the original organization, founded in 1909, had been absorbed by the Associated General Contractors. Merritt, Long, and Gardner served successively as presidents of the new organization, Gardner in 1927–1928.
Energy and Vision
Gwinn’s greatest building project was the Benjamin Franklin Hotel at 5th Avenue and Virginia Street in Seattle. Boasting 13 stories and 350 rooms with private baths, it was the city’s second largest, and Gwinn kept an ownership interest in it for several years. In 1969, the hotel was linked to a new 40-story tower wing and renamed the Washington Plaza; in 1980 it was demolished to make way for a second tower, which together with the first became the Westin Hotel.
Gwinn was well known and much respected in the Seattle business community. He was a longtime member of the Chamber of Commerce and the Exchange Club and devoted many hours to community work. Clarence Bagley, in his History of King County, summed up Gwinn’s contributions to the city’s growth:
"One name that is written on every page of Seattle’s history is that of a man who based his own fortunes on the fortunes of his city, and staked his whole future on her progress. That man is Gardner J. Gwinn. If Seattle’s growth during the past decade had been nothing short of phenomenal, it is in no small measure due to the energy and vision of this man, who has made so notable a record as a city builder and who so truly typifies the western spirit of progress” (Bagley, Vol. 3, p. 708).
This high praise came in 1929, when Gwinn still had years of city-building ahead of him. And in that very year, he opened the Garden Court Apartments (now condominiums) at 16th Avenue and E Olive Street in Seattle.
Gwinn eventually pulled back from active engagement in the construction business and occupied himself with private investments. One of these, a large tract of land in Seattle’s Laurelhurst neighborhood, was purchased from Gwinn in 1946 for $150,000 and became the site of today’s Seattle Children's Hospital.
Family and Community
Gwinn’s first wife, Marguerite, whom he married in 1915, died in 1920, leaving three sons. The next year, Gwinn married Mabel Reeves of Everett. They had five children together, and the large family lived on a country estate in Lake Forest Park, where Gwinn became an accomplished amateur gardener. He had a tennis court on the grounds and was an avid golfer and member of the Inglewood Golf and Country Club.
Fifty years after settling in Seattle, Gardner Gwinn, active to the last, died unexpectedly while bowling at Seattle’s University Lanes on October 30, 1959. He had more than lived up to Bagley’s early encomium. Even now, another 50 years on, many of his sturdy,well-designed homes and apartments still grace the city he did so much to build.