Morton James III, a prolific South Sound architect who designed the Olympia Farmers Market, died along with his wife, Alice James, last week when their SUV crashed on West Bay Drive.
James’s designs will live on throughout Thurston County: in countless homes, in projects such as the west portion of Percival Landing, at the Griffin and Black Lake fire departments, at the state Parks and Recreation Headquarters in Tumwater, and office buildings such as Smyth Landing.
“He really was Olympia’s iconic architect,” said Janet Jansen, who was once a partner in James’s architectural firm.
Jansen told The Olympian that James would talk about the Olympia Farmers Market as “a very community-based project,” since the Port, the city, and the market were all involved.
The coordination of the three entities took some time, Janet said, but “in the end, he was very proud of that.” He thought it was “such a key asset to the city,” Jansen said, and that the location at the end of Capitol Way was “very fitting for that.”
Born in Seattle, James attended high school in Tacoma, then went to the University of Puget Sound before graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in architecture in 1968, according to The Olympian archives.
While a college student, he got a job working for Robert Olson, who designed South Sound Center in Lacey. There, James was paid $1.25 per hour to do office tasks. He opened his own business in 1975 and grew it by designing small office buildings before moving on to residential and civic projects.
Olympia architect Ron Thomas told The Olympian “growing his firm” was never a passion for James, whom Thomas called “a voice of stability” in the community for almost half a century.
“He was more concerned about design, his clients, work — that’s what fueled him,” Thomas said in an interview last week.
Thomas said he trained under James, as many other local architects have, almost 40 years ago.
“His legacy is going to be one, yes, as an architect — but also as somebody who just gave so generously of his talents as an architect to better our community,” Thomas said.
As an example, Thomas said James donated his time to design the lighthouse outside the Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia.
In 2009, James received the Charles T. Pearson Community Service Award from Southwest Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects — the first time the honor had been awarded to an Olympia architect. James was still going to meetings of the AIA chapter into his 70s, Thomas said.
Friends of James make clear that his contributions to the community extended beyond architecture: He was a commodore of the Olympia Yacht Club, the president of the West Bay Drive Neighborhood Association, an avid sailor who had recently taken up wood carving, and more.
He had kept a running lunch date with a group of friends every Friday for the past 30 years at Budd Bay Cafe, said Jill Floberg, James’s sailing buddy since the early 1970s.
Talk to one friend or client, and that one will point you to three other friends who will have more to say about Mort James. They’ll also call focus to the legacy of Alice James, who was an active force in the community in her own right: She was a nurse who they say rose up the ranks at Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia and later worked at the state Department of Health.
The Jameses lived in a tall, red structure of Mort’s design on West Bay Drive that also housed his architecture firm. It boasted an indoor hot tub, orchid hot house, expansive views, and a Koi pond, according to a 2004 article in The Olympian devoted to the home.
In his office, Jansen told The Olympian, is a collection of seed pods from different plants — a collection that reflects a concept underlying his body of work.
Mort James did not want to design “flowers,” Jansen explained. “When you design a flower, it blooms but then it’s short-lived.”
James instead aimed to design projects to withstand the test of time. He felt the seed pod, Jansen said, is “the true structure of the plant,” without extra, unnecessary elements. That the pods are “elegant examples of form following function.”
Friends confirmed a memorial in honor of Mort and Alice James is being planned, likely for January, though no date has been set.