John Phillip "J. P." Kiggins was a prolific politician and a prolific builder in Vancouver (Clark County) during the early decades of the twentieth century. He served nine non-consecutive terms as mayor of the city between 1909 and 1939. He served on the commission that oversaw the construction of the Interstate Bridge across the Columbia River between Vancouver and Portland, Oregon, between 1915 and 1917. He built a significant part of the city's commercial district, including four theaters. The Kiggins Theatre, his final and most elegant theater, opened in 1936 and remains in operation today in downtown Vancouver.
John Phillip Kiggins was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 3, 1868. He was the son of Michael Lalor Kiggins (1838-1893) and Delia O'Connor Kiggins (1842-1928), and was the second of seven children. Most accounts say he moved to Washington, D.C., as a child (though a 1908 biography of him says he moved when he was 15), and worked in construction when he was a young man. He then joined the Army and rose to the rank of sergeant before being stationed at Vancouver Barracks in 1892. He fell in love with the community, and became known by his friends and neighbors as "J. P." He also fell in love with a woman he met in Vancouver, Mary Connerton. They married in 1893 and had four children: John Jr. (1893-1980), Horace (1902-1988), Anthony (1904-1968), and Mary Helen (1909-1988).
Kiggins served in the Spanish-American War in 1898, and received an honorable discharge from the Army the following year. He then served a roughly 18-month stint in Alaska as a civilian employee of the Army Quartermaster Corps before returning to Vancouver by early 1901. He opened contracting shops in Vancouver and Portland, and his early work included building housing for Vancouver Barracks and some of the facilities for Portland's Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905. But he soon focused on work in Vancouver, especially its downtown.
Construction and Politics
Kiggins built his first significant commercial structure in Vancouver, a two-story brick building, at 411 Main Street in 1908. His next project was the first of four theaters he built during his lifetime. It opened in 1910 on the northeast corner of 10th Street (now Evergreen Boulevard) and Main Street as the Grand Theatre; later it was known as the Rex Theatre and Liberty Theatre. Kiggins's U.S.A. Theater, originally built for vaudeville, followed in 1914 at the southwest corner of 9th and Main streets, and operated as a theater until 1929. The building still stands but has been extensively remodeled.
A Republican, Kiggins launched his political career during the first decade of the 1900s. His first foray into Vancouver politics came with an unsuccessful run for city clerk in 1907, but late that year he was elected to the city council. In December 1908, he won his first of what eventually would be nine terms as Vancouver's mayor. The next day the neighboring Oregonian, headquartered in Portland across the Columbia River, aptly described the new mayor: "He is very aggressive and proposes to introduce many reforms in the municipal administration. He stands for a greater Vancouver ..." ("Vancouver Mayor Reformer").
Kiggins was challenged almost immediately. Less than two weeks after he was sworn in in January 1909, he was attending a city council meeting at City Hall when a group of 50 unarmed soldiers from Vancouver Barracks marched there, protesting the arrest of a fellow solider who had been arrested for fighting at the local skating rink. (Soldiers were also angry because repeated scuffles at the rink between soldiers and civilians had resulted in uniformed soldiers being denied admission.) A large crowd, anticipating trouble, gathered outside the courthouse. The soldiers threatened to boycott doing business in Vancouver en masse and spend their money across the river in Portland. Kiggins had the police order the soldiers away from the courthouse, and subsequently appointed a council committee to talk to the skating rink owner and work the problem out.
Dalliance as a Democrat
Kiggins was reelected in 1909 and 1910, but lost the November 1911 primary. (Until the 1940s, the city's mayoral primary was held in November and the general election in December.) Women had just won the right to vote in Washington state the preceding year, and in their first municipal election in Vancouver they turned out in large numbers; the Oregonian noted that the women's vote "materially aided" ("Kiggins Loses Vancouver Fight") Kiggins's opponent, Vancouver dentist Charles Irwin. Kiggins ran again in 1912 but withdrew shortly before the primary when it became apparent that he would lose. He lost the 1913 primary but then was elected to the Clarke County Commission (the state legislature formally removed the "e" from "Clarke" in 1925), assuming office in January 1914 and serving through 1920.
Though Kiggins did not run for mayor in the November 1914 primary, he appears to have changed his mind before the December general election. The Republican candidate was unopposed, and Kiggins became an 11th-hour candidate -- on the Democratic ticket. "While Kiggins was in Portland today his friends had his name printed on stickers and pasted them on the Democratic ticket," explained the Oregonian the day after the general election ("Republicans Race for Mayor"). The opposition either failed to fully realize what was happening or did not take it seriously until word began to spread in the city that Kiggins's total was rising fast, but the Republicans rallied to save the election and Kiggins's dalliance as a Democrat ended as quickly as it began.
During the mid-1910s, Kiggins served on the Interstate Bridge Commission. The commission, compromised of prominent citizens and politicians from both Clark County and Oregon's Multnomah County, oversaw the construction of the Interstate Bridge across the Columbia River between Vancouver and Portland. Building the bridge was a significant undertaking that replaced an outdated ferry service across the river, and it was a big day when it opened to traffic in a grand ceremony on February 14, 1917. As a perk for his work, Kiggins's 7-year-old daughter, Mary Helen, was given the honors of helping pull the symbolic ribbon opening the bridge. (When a second bridge opened next to the original in 1958, she was back to repeat the feat.)
A Singular Election
After sitting out Vancouver's 1916 and 1918 municipal elections, Kiggins was again elected mayor in 1920. Vancouver had changed its mayoral term from one year to two since he had last been mayor, and he served a single two-year term before losing the 1922 primary. He didn't run in 1924, but won in 1926 and served four consecutive terms, from 1927 to 1935. It was his longest uninterrupted stint as mayor of the city. He lost the 1934 Republican primary that November in one of the more unusual elections in the city's history. Kiggins lost by 40 votes out of nearly 3,000 cast to a 26-year-old insurance salesman, Wes Brown. Brown was his own manager of a campaign without an organization and who was not backed by any local civic group, and whose entire campaign consisted of five newspaper ads promising "clean government" which ran in the four days before the election. "Brown's nomination goes down in local political history as the seventh wonder of the city," deadpanned the Oregonian the next day ("Kiggins Loses to Brown").
Kiggins refused to concede, suggesting Democrats were behind Brown's unusual victory. His suspicions seemed to be validated when Brown withdrew from the race nine days later, leaving the Democratic candidate unopposed in the upcoming December general election. Kiggins mounted an aggressive "sticker campaign" to have his name put on the ballot. He sent out ads, circulars, and followed up with personal visits to local voters, but his efforts were for naught -- he lost by a large margin. He was more successful in the 1936 election, and served his final term as Vancouver's mayor between 1937 and 1939. He won the Republican primaries for mayor in 1938 and 1940 but lost both general elections.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Kiggins continued to pursue his second passion: building the city's downtown core. In 1920 he built a building on the west side of Main Street between 8th and 9th streets, which still exists though it has been remodeled. Another structure followed two years later on the corner of Main and 9th streets. Ever a fan of theaters, Kiggins built the Castle Theater on the southwest corner of 10th and Broadway streets in 1927. His work is said to have encouraged others to build and open businesses in the area, and led to the gradual northward expansion of Vancouver's business district.
In his first mayoral message to the city in 1909, Kiggins had argued for the construction of a new city hall building to replace a smaller one dating from 1891, but the old building had remained. Days after the Great Depression struck in 1929, he ordered that a new and larger city hall be built and ordered that the building be built to office specifications in case it had to be sold quickly. The Art Deco building, designed by noted Vancouver architect Day Walter Hilborn (1897-1971), was finished in 1930 and used by the city until 1965. It later served as part of a brewery before being demolished in the 1990s.
In 1924, Vancouver resident Anna Leverich donated approximately 40 acres of land to the city to be used as a public park and playground after her death. (The site is located just north and east of the Interstate 5/Washington State Route 500 interchange.) After she died in 1930, the city developed the land accordingly. A stadium and playing field opened at the site in 1933, and in honor of the mayor, the venue was named Kiggins Bowl. Kiggins had more ideas for the park, including building a dog track, but this idea received a chilly local reception and was abandoned. The park was developed further in the 1940s, and tennis courts were added at that time. A 12-hole disc golf course opened at the park in 2008. Kiggins Bowl is still used today  for sporting events, and seats approximately 4,000.
Kiggins's most memorable building was his last one. Architect Hilborn was hired to design the Kiggins Theatre and was so involved in the project that he worked with the theater managers to pick out the interior furnishings so it would flow with the building's design. Construction of the roughly 10,000-square-foot building, located on the southeast corner of Main and 11th streets, began in September 1935. The two-story concrete building featured curved walls and vertical and horizontal lines common to Art Deco structures. One of the most striking features of the theater was its long, bright "Kiggins" sign, which appeared to hang from the building's façade with no visible means of support. (The sign was supported by a cantilever beam hidden within the sign's hood that connected to the building.)
The theater's grand opening was Friday evening, April 24, 1936, with an elaborate, well-attended ceremony. Visitors entered through a subdued green foyer before stepping into an elegant lobby with plush furniture, mahogany trim, and pile carpeting throughout. The restrooms were located on the second floor above the lobby, as was an elaborate smoking lounge with two large mirrors prominently displayed on opposite ends of the room; a third wall had three stained glass windows. The single-screen auditorium featured hand-painted walls and a ceiling said to be reminiscent of Native American art. Sea-green curtains framed by a proscenium arch defined the stage. The theater's 714 seats were covered with fine-grain leather, and the building had both heating and air conditioning. The premiere showed Claudette Colbert (1903-1996) in She Married Her Boss.
The theater operated continuously between 1936 and 1955, but then entered a long period of decline. New management took over in 1958 and modernized it to some extent, including remodeling the marquee. However, business continued to dwindle. In 1980, the Maranatha Christian Church acquired the property and briefly offered Christian movies as well as live shows and music. The building was damaged in an electrical fire in 1981 and closed for two years for repairs and renovations before reopening under new management. The theater ran mostly second-run films for the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, but continued to struggle financially. The building underwent more renovations in the 2010s, and was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 2012.
Kiggins underwent gall bladder surgery in May 1941. He initially rallied, but complications set in and he died on May 21, 1941. In addition to his colorful political career and development of downtown Vancouver, he is credited with other accomplishments. These include developing a fire protection system in the city and being an early advocate for municipal ownership of the city's water system. He can also be credited for city street improvements in the early twentieth century.
Vancouver's newspaper, The Columbian, summed up his work when it announced his death: "Although John Kiggins made money in Vancouver, he put it back into permanent monuments in the form of buildings that represented his faith in the community" ("John P. Kiggins, Former Mayor, Dies"). Though not without controversy in his day, Kiggins left an indelible impression in the city's early history which reverberates to this day.