Elmer H. Fisher was Seattle’s foremost commercial architect in the few years surrounding The Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889. His extensive Romanesque and Classical Revival building programs asserted the economic optimism of the city rising from its ashes. This confidence propelled his initial success.
Fisher was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, around 1840. Little is known of his life before age 40. He began practicing architecture in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1886, after years spent in Minneapolis, Denver, and Butte, Montana. He produced residential and commercial buildings in a number of Canadian cities before practicing in the state of Washington. He first moved to Port Townsend where he designed the McCurdy Block, in 1887.
He opened an office in Seattle the same year; its focus was primarily commercial. Among Fisher’s designs were:
As the explosion of post-fire building abated, Fisher received diminished commissions. Among his last works were the Bank of Commerce (1890-1891; altered) and the Yesler Block (1890-1891; altered), both commissioned by Henry Yesler.
Comparable to many other young architects of his generation, Fisher deserted his practice in 1891, as the time of reconstruction ended. He became the proprietor of the Abbott Hotel, but lost this and other real estate investments during the economic crash of 1893. Fisher’s attempts to reestablish his practice failed, both in Seattle and in Los Angeles. He died in 1905, working as an architectural draftsman and carpenter.
Although the majority of Fisher’s buildings have been destroyed, the extant Pioneer Building in Pioneer Square-Skid Road Historic District, suggests the scale, materials, and style of Seattle’s late 19th-century cityscape.
His commercial buildings reflected the endurance of High Victorian style, which combined historical forms with modern building materials. Metal framing systems provide relatively fire-resistant skeletons for his large-scale buildings. The number of Fisher’s works suggests the output of an extensive office of draftsmen, a trend gaining momentum toward the turn of the century. Fisher’s use of materials, his compositions and stylistic methods, as well as his office structure, reflected nation-wide changes in urban architectural practice.
Despite the briefness of his architectural career, Fisher helped create the stylistic voice of the city’s commercial district at the turn of the 20th century. His Pioneer Building still anchors of one of Seattle’s best-known historic districts.