The theater was one of the first projects undertaken by the Everett Improvement Company, a corporation formed by railroad tycoon James J. Hill to represent his interests in the city. At the turn of the century Hill picked up the pieces of John D. Rockefeller's holdings in Everett and, through the skillful management of John T. McChesney, began anew the work of building an industrial city. While much of McChesney's effort went toward attracting lumber magnates to the waterfront industrial sites encircling the town, certain cultural developments were considered important as well, if only to enhance the community's image. The converted warehouse known as the Central Opera House, which had served local entertainment needs during the depression of the previous decade, was woefully inadequate as a symbol of civic stature.
McChesney formed the Everett Theatre Company in 1900 and as it's president awarded the architectural contract for the new playhouse to Charles Herbert Bebb. In doing so he assured widespread publicity and comment for the project. Few architects on the coast equaled Bebb's prestige and qualifications for such an undertaking. His credentials included four years as a construction supervisor on Adler & Sullivan's Chicago Auditorium, the grandest American theatrical commission of its decade. Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan were already figures of major importance when Bebb joined them after several years as a construction engineer with a Chicago terra cotta company. His experience in decorative moldings neatly fitted Sullivan's own interest in ornamental detail. Soon after completion of the Auditorium, Bebb came to Seattle to oversee a proposed Adler & Sullivan theater there. While that theater was never built, Bebb stayed on to become a noteworthy force in regional architecture, described at the time of his death in 1942 as "the dean of Seattle architects."
Bebb provided the Everett Theatre Company with a design for a $70,000 structure that would seat 1200 people, about a sixth of the entire population of Everett at that time. Facing 70 feet along Colby Avenue near the intersection of Hewitt, the building completely filled a peculiar, trapezoidal lot that was 119 feet deep and five feet narrower at the back than at the front.
Bebb's treatment of the Colby Avenue facade was clearly inspired by Henry J. Hardenbergh's American Fine Arts Society Building on West 57th Street in Manhattan, a widely acclaimed work of the 1890s. Hardenbergh had drawn upon the ornament of the early French Renaissance, specifically a mid-16th Century hunting lodge built for Francis I at Fontainbleau, but those origins were thoroughly obscured and transformed by the time they resurfaced in Bebb's Everett Theatre front. The result was formal, distinctive and imposing. More than once it has been described as a consummate period piece with strong evidence of Sullivan influence. The stucco facade featured finely detailed terra cotta moldings, an ornate entrance canopy of metal filigree and a tile roof with stepped parapet gables.
Shipments of foundation stone began arriving late in April of 1901. The actual laying of the cornerstone was a low-key affair, with Mercer Vernon, youngest son of Everett's postmaster, doing the honors. At the last moment Vernon was given some tools and put to work chipping out a cavity to fill with some ceremonial mementos. Several hours and a few blisters later, the youngster set the first stone into place.
On the 14th of June the business of booking performances began. Through the Klaw & Erlanger agency two melodramas, Humanity and Way Down East, were slated for dates in February and April of 1902. Over the summer, the calendar for the theater’s premiere season was gradually filled. On August 20th arrangements were made for the opening night offering, The Casino Girl. Though they often dealt with Klaw & Erlanger, kingpins of the “theatrical trust,” the Everett Theatre Company frequently arranged bookings directly with independent companies as well. Only half of the attractions for 1901, for instance, were actually booked through Klaw & Erlanger. Regardless, the Everett Theatre was sometimes the target of criticism by the community’s smaller, independent theaters and performance groups, who characterized the theater as part of “The Trust.” In spite of the facility’s broad popularity with the general public, it was difficult to avoid a ruling class image given the elegance of the facility and the fact that its proprietors were the most powerful single corporation in the community, controlling everything from the city's electrical system to its water supply. Coupled with the burgeoning trade union movement in the community, this meant that the theater was involved in labor unrest from the very beginning.
Slow progress had been made through May, largely due to problems with the delivery of barge loads of Chuckanut stone for the foundations. Brick masons finally began their work in June of 1901, but in the middle of July the strained relationship between the contractor and the local carpenters' union collapsed and work stopped.
The carpenters had faced down the contractor once before, when he had demanded a ten-hour day from them and they successfully held out for nine. But in addition to employing his own son, who was not in the union, he hired yet another non-union carpenter. Tensions increased. A verbal showdown with a foreman brought a stream of insults from the contractor and the carpenters walked off the job. The brick masons struck in support of the carpenters and everything came to a standstill.
A couple of nights later, on the 18th of July, Louie Smith was walking a horse back to the Wainwright stable three doors south of the construction site when he noticed that the scaffolding was on fire. He quickly called in an alarm, then took a friend and two buckets of water back to the blaze and put it out.
Apparently Smith simply told the firemen that the opera house was on fire. To most people that still meant the old Central Opera House a block east of the Everett Theatre. The fire department rushed to the Central, where fire chief Connor scrambled down the aisle during the last act of the evening's entertainment and leaped into the wings, searching in vain for something to extinguish. By the time he got to the right location there was little left to do but examine the bits of wood and paper, sniff the strong aroma of coal oil and diagnose arson.
Louie Smith remembered seeing two suspicious-looking strangers at the stable shortly before the incident. One of them wore carpenter's bib overalls. The contractor hired a night watchman but before long a compromise had been worked out by the building trades council. No arson charges were ever filed.
Machinery, decorations and lights were arriving almost daily by mid-September. The main floor was piled high with plaster moldings and as opening night neared every available craftsman was employed, with shifts of workers busy around the clock. The contractor became increasingly anxious about the arrival of the filigree portico canopy from the east. He busied himself with trips to Portland and Seattle, purchasing doors for the entry and securing the services of an Italian craftsman whose name he couldn't pronounce to repair some plaster ornament that had been broken in transit.
With the opening less than a month away the plasterers and carpenters demonstrated that union controversy was not always confined to labor versus management. The two unions had a falling out over which local should install certain plaster castings around the interior cornice work. When the contractor sided with the carpenters, seven plasterers walked out.
Once more the building trades council resolved the dispute and work resumed, with plenty of technical assistance from Seattle theater personnel. Installing the stage apparatus was J.A. Foster of Seattle's Third Avenue Theatre. He gave the press an informal tour of the nearly completed stage area. "I have with me W.L. Egan, property man of the Grand Opera House, and W.L. Ward, assistant carpenter from the Seattle Theatre, the most expert men I could procure in this line. You see in this great network of cordage 30,000 feet of rope, more than one ton, extending from the rigging loft 65 feet above to the stage floor. Here are 60 feet of bridges and traps, forming a full complement; it is possible with this arrangement to make any height or angle of runways desired. This is the latest thing known to stage carpenters. The stage will be the best lighted on the coast and is fitted with four border lights 36 feet long. The drop is what is known as a triangle curtain; it is operated by an endless rope. There are two fly floors and a paint bridge with working frame. We will have the stage in readiness by November 4."
Electrician Dave Alexander was eager to explain the glories of the slate switchboard, which he described as "...a beauty...it's duplicate cannot be found in the Northwest...These large levers control the lights so the entire house, back and front, may be instantly dimmed. By operating these small levers any light or group of lights may be dimmed. Color schemes in lighting are also perfectly arranged...From this board run the wires connecting with 1360 lights...The house has six bunch lights, two more than any other western house, and the stage is three feet deeper than any other in the Northwest, larger than the Seattle Theatre, heretofore the largest."