Before Skagit was a county, the town of La Conner was a tribal area-turned-trading port alongside what was then the Swinomish Slough, named after the local tribe. In the 1860s the town’s namesakes, John S. and Louisa Conner, had built a trading post and later the town’s first post office, which was named after Louisa. In 1871 or 1872, an Englishman by the name of George Gaches (1846-1916) and his brother James arrived in La Conner and built the mansion that still stands today.
Having secured the purchase of the Conner’s trading post, the Gaches brothers renamed it the J & G Gaches Mercantile, turning it into a general store. From the success of their business, they acquired 120 acres of nearby land. He then drained and cleared it to create a farm. The farm, in turn, created produce for export and soon had a successful brokerage that handled a lot of the trade in La Conner.
Building a Mansion
Both brothers built their own homes on the property, and both still stand today, just half a block from each other. But it was George’s 22-room Victorian, dubbed the Gaches Castle, that was a landmark then and still is to this day.
The builder of the mansion was one Joseph Franklin Dwelley (1839-1933), formally of Fidalgo Island and Port Townsend. It is believed that he had built several structures in and around La Conner for the Gaches before he started on the mansion, including the Gaches’ brick mercantile building on First and Commercial Streets in 1882.
It is probable that Dwelley built the mansion for George and Louisa in 1891. The two-and-a-half story Victorian’s details, including the style of hardware and fixtures, back up that speculation. It is believed that Dwelley competed the mansion in late 1891 or early 1892. Influenced by Louisa’s English roots, the home is a homage to fine English living. It came replete with the trademark octagonal tower on one side of the structure and a widow’s walk on the roof top. It was built upon a solid granite foundation with a basement. Three coal burning fireplaces decorated with Italian-made ceramic tile warmed the house, and are still standing today, though not used. Tall, 12-foot ceilings finished the grand statement.
Two adjoining stairways, a grand case, decorated with ornate woodwork for family and guests, and a smaller, less ornate for servants, serve as a symbol of the distinct class division.
In that era in the Pacific Northwest the Gaches Victorian house on the hill had a commanding view and proclaimed affluence to the surrounding community.
The J & G Gaches Mercantile continued to be successful, and eventually George and Louisa moved to Seattle. In 1905 the home was purchased and converted into a private hospital by Dr. Gadsen E. Howe, a physician who worked in the offices of Dr. George E. Calhoun (namesake of Calhoun Street), the next-door neighbor to the Gaches family for many years. For reasons unknown, Dr. Howe closed up the hospital and moved to Seattle in 1909, and the property then was bought by L.W. and Julia B. Vaughan. They lived there from 1909 until 1927. The house then remained empty until 1940.
The property was well known as the Castle Apartments and transferred from four different owners until 1973 when tragedy struck – the mansion caught fire. The restoration of the house included fixing fire damage on the third floor and the roof. Coincidently, Dick Fallis had just arrived in La Conner to do restoration on another building in the area. He took interest in the mansion, and after much diligence, he was able to get support from the community and Washington State to have it recognized as both a state and national landmark.
The Gaches Manion Today
Today, the mansion is home to the Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum. Founded in 1997, the museum offers a fabulous array of quilts on display and on sale. The rooms are a fascinating mix of art gallery and historical preservation. Be sure to pay attention to the little things – such as the details of the fine woodworking craftsmanship on the stairs and doors. The hardware, such as the door knobs and hinges, are exquisite and help set a beautiful backdrop from the amazing textile pieces of art and specialized quilts hanging on the walls.
The Gaches Mansion
703 South Second Street, La Conner
Wednesday – Sunday: 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.