Benjamin Hartsuck – Olympia’s First Architect Leaves Legacy

olympia washington history
Historical buildings, such as the Thurston County Courthouse, are still considered architecturally striking due to Benjamin Hartsuck's designs.


By Alyssa Ramsfield

boggsfinallogoEvery city has their well known landmarks. This holds true even in our backyard, Olympia. Historical buildings that were created years ago that are still considered architecturally striking help to define the character of this town. The man behind many of these gems is Benjamin Hartsuck.

Born in 1831, Hartsuck grew up in Ohio. He later spent most of his early life in the south. He was even drafted to the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Very little is known about his background or how he became an architect after the war, but he is believed to have moved to Olympia in 1887.

olympia washington history
Historical buildings, such as the Thurston County Courthouse, are still considered architecturally striking due to Benjamin Hartsuck’s designs.

Hartsuck’s claim to fame in our area is that he was the first to establish an architectural firm in the City of Olympia. Being the first in town had its perks. He was hired for many projects around the city. Many of these jobs were to resolve arguments between builders and property owners. He was also called in numerous times for safety projects including fire escapes for the Olympia Theater and to examine the piers of City Hall.

Hartsuck played an important role in architectural issues as well. He even testified at the State Supreme Court in a case regarding the Mann Building (1889). The County Treasurer at the time, C.B. Mann, wanted to build a two-story commercial office building, but the permit was denied due to the plans not meeting the local fire code which required the building to be made of brick and stone only. Hartsuck played an important role in the testimony of this case due to his extensive background in building safety.

After establishing the first architectural firm in Olympia, Harsuck teamed up with J.W. White. While the partnership was short-lived, the two men were a part of many important building opportunities in the city.

The face of Olympia was in Hartsuck’s hands. In 1892, he was appointed supervising architect for the Thurston County Courthouse project. The County Jail was also under his close supervision at that time. He later helped to build the Westside School/Garfield School (1893).

olympia washington history
Hartsuck designed the County Jail. Despite controversy on the design, Hartsuck claimed that prisoners were unable to escape because the walls were tall enough.

Controversy surrounded Hartsuck in 1903 when the new jail was completed. The local newspaper, The Morning Olympian, published a story pointing out the many defects found inside the structure. These issues included, “Tissue paper ceilings, hinges on the doors inside the cells, no bars on the upper windows, and a stove flue that could be removed.” Hartsuck claimed that these issues with the jail did not make it easy for prisoners to escape because the walls were tall enough that they could not reach any of the points for exit.

Hartsuck became very ill in 1905. The newspaper reported, “Mr. Hartsuck had been in ill health for quite a long time and a few days ago became confined to his bed. The cause of death is given as heart disease. Hartsuck had lived in Olympia for about 15 years and was the architect and builder of a number of the best buildings in the city and was the contractor on the new courthouse.” Hartsuck is buried in Masonic Memorial Park in Tumwater, Washington.

olympia washington history
Hartsuck helped build Garfield School in 1893.

The Washington State Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation (DAHP) hope to keep Hartsuck’s work preserved. “By preserving significant cultural and historic resources, we are able to learn from the past achievements (as well as mistakes) in order to improve, enrich, and even enliven, the Washington state that is passed to the future generations,” explains the organization’s website. “If we do not work to preserve the diminishing presence of our historic places, we undermine the stability and strength of our future communities.”

While there are no known photos of Benjamin Hartsuck, thanks to the DAHP’s work, his stunning buildings will continue to reflect the man behind the brick.


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