Long before Lewis and Clark and railroad and timber barons discovered Spokane Washington, Native Americans hunted freely across the Pacific Northwest. They dipped spears into the teaming waters of Spokane Falls and hunted moose through forest trails along river cliffs. Today with the falls damned by one of the Pacific Northwest’s first water power plants, their spirit echos through murals, statues, and gracious views. Another migration is spreading into the area opening businesses, restaurants, bars, and re-purposing old buildings. The city is affordable, full of interesting central neighborhoods and diversions for nature lovers as well as urban dwellers. They’re preserving and renovating the best in downtown Spokane Washington.
In the 1980’s, I worked in downtown Spokane through a deeply snowy winter. Years later during a road-trip to Glacier National Park, my family spent an afternoon wandering along the Spokane River Waterfront Park. We wandered between Ponderosa Pines and totem poles on the island sites of the 1974 World’s Fair. It was the world’s first environmentally themed fair and rightly so as the history of the city is wrapped around clean air and water. Recently I spent another four days exploring neighborhoods and gardens.
Smokestacks and ghosts
Glance across the city and you’ll see a pair of tall brick smokestacks. At their base, sits the Washington Power Company’s Steam Power plant. In 1885 the city of Spokane Falls was exploding with new businesses needing electricity. Many of the companies used coal and smokey pollution blighted downtown. In 1885, George A. Fitch arrived with a brush arc dynamo salvaged from a wrecked ship and soon offered electricity. His success convinced local investors to buy him out with an eye towards expansion. Here’s where fate and the beauty of today’s downtown Spokane Washington retro revival overlap. A devastating fire flattened 32 blocks of the city’s core. Along with the need to rebuild quickly came the realization that brick was a safer material. Many of those buildings remain in downtown Spokane Washington and that’s where I found ghosts – lots of ghost signs, that is.
With downtown percolating with commerce, early merchants swiftly envisioned marketing opportunities on the expansive brick surfaces. Across the country, painters transformed downtowns. Today old and new paint is mingling in Spokane. The railroad still crosses through downtown and underpasses host wide murals filled with local lore. The Spokane historical society offers a tour of the ghost signs and this insight:
Almost any image of Spokane from this period shows signage advertising cheap cigars (Henry George or La Azora), cheap food (Alber’s Flapjacks), and cheap, single resident occupancy (SRO) hotels. Advertising had a decidedly local flavor as well. Long before the days of neon or digital signage, local entrepreneurs painted the names of their businesses on the sides of the buildings. (Frank Oesterheld and Anna Harbine, “Welcome to the Ghost Signs Tour,” Spokane Historical, accessed June 16, 2018, http://spokanehistorical.org/items/show/422.)
Steam plant retro revival
The downtown smokestacks drew me close as I explored downtown Spokane Washington recently. Curious, I strolled into the passageway leading to the power plant. Inside the ceiling, open and rising several stories high, was crisscrossed with iron beams and ladders. A cement bunker, once the coal bin, now houses an office. Old equipment has been shined and burnished with black paint. A glass elevator slides to the third floor where it’s easier to appreciate the jumble of machinery and purpose behind the original layout. Near the building’s entrance, a cooling water trough once carried evaporation out of the building. Today it’s a wishing pool. There are meeting rooms and a downstairs bar, cozy booths and an open kitchen. Walk past them all to step into one of the stacks and look up to the sky overhead. The other stack now houses a boardroom. The creativity and expense that led to this retro revival is impressive.
Vintage touches and new tastes
By 1900, there a crush of workmen and families flooded into Spokane. In ten years the population jumped from less than 40 thousand to over 100 thousand residents and housing was tight. By 1910, Coulee City businessman Hiram H. Hutton opened the Saranac Hotel, one of many single room boarding houses across town. Today the Saranac has been renovated by Jim Sheehan who owns the Community Building next door earning a LEED certification for his efforts. Now open to the public, the Saranac is full of tasty temptations from artisanal pizza and pastries to the localvore-centric, Saranac Public House.
On the north side of the river from downtown Spokane Washington River, the Kendall Yards development has turned a long industrial space into a pretty urban village. The mission to create a walkable neighborhood has led to wonderful restaurants (The Wandering Table for one) and a variety of living spaces from apartments and condos to trim craftsman bungalows sporting raised garden beds.
What’s more of a retro revival than the donut craze? A local family turned their baking skills, and lots of practice with their kids, into one of the Kendall Yards most successful ventures – the Hello Sugar donut shop. Patrons order mini-donuts by the 1/2 dozen and they’re cooked to order (unless you order gluten-free – disappointedly served from a pre-made bin.) Inaba Coffee shares the space. It’s all a bit spendy but a friendly space close to a river overlook.
Other vintage delights fill the Garland neighborhood. Vintage clothing stores, lots of great old signage plus mom and pop shops fill several city blocks. The area originally grew when the street rail line opened along Pine Street in the 1920’s. Several buildings are eligible for the Historic Register and the Garland Theater, now an indie house, is considered one of the Northwest’s finest surviving deco buildings.
Downtown Spokane Washington – Lilac City
Craving a bit of green? Venture into Spokane’s South Hill neighborhood. Craftsman houses with stone and brick features sit behind mature gardens and tall trees. In the heart of the area 90 acres of gardens – Manito Park – is overflowing with green The five historical gardens are about a five-minute drive from downtown Spokane Washington and well worth the effort – during the warm months of the year. I was there in early spring as the formal flower beds of Duncan Garden were just beginning to bloom. The Rose Garden and Japanese Gardens were already bright with blossoms but sadly I’d missed the Lilacs. With over 100 varieties it’s one of the “most important lilac gardens” in the West. Spokane has been nicknamed, the Lilac City since 1933 when local garden clubs began planting the bushes across the town.
Locals still love the name and it seems fitting somehow that another retro revival is underway. During the Prohibition era, alcohol was outlawed and smoking became a flamboyant indulgence for men and women. Today Spokane Washington offers smokers the latest options at Lilac City Vaping.
The retro revival blossoming across downtown Spokane Washington shows no sign of slowing down.
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This is the first time I am hearing about Spokane in Washington. The place seems to be full of history and character. The hanging bottle is what I really loved and it is adding so much character to the ceiling. Spokane River too looks great.
That mini mall with the bottle chandelier was very cool – like many places in the city.
Looks like plenty to see and do in Spokane Elaine. I also enjoyed reading your history breakdown, all the way back to the Native Americans. Way cool. I would love the city because it feels green to me. I need that. Flat out urban centers that are concrete jungles drive me mad after a week or 2. This is why I dig NYC for about a week at a time, then need to head back to NJ, where we can see trees and enjoy wildlife.
Nice that the Garden State is so close to NYC. I’m kinda the same about LA and San Diego.
Retro revival sounds like a cool way to liven up tourism! Personally, I’d love to explore the power plant with its old equipments. Are there any tours available inside? The ceiling with those hanging bottles looks pretty unique btw, 😀 And those donuts looks pretty tasty!
There may be some formal tours but self-guided works. There are lots of signs with info about the plant and machinery. The staff in the restaurant is helpful too.
I’ve never heard of spokane but now I want donuts! I wanna go to Washington, though. Been the set for many movies I like.
Yes, many movies have been shot in this part of Washington. I hope you visit one day.
I’ve been to washington but it seemed I missed out on a Gem of a city! the Donuts look good I think I may just visit for those especially! thank for a great read.
Spokane is pretty far west and most people breeze through on their way to Seattle or Glacier National Park.
We explored the same area of Spokane when we visited. Unfortunately we missed the gardens at Manito Park. I guess we need to go back again.
I hope you do and in springtime.
I’ve never been to Spokane Washington but I’m adding it to my travel list for my next Pacific Northwest road trip. It’s wonderful to see art and local businesses emerging from these industrial sites.
The city is really roaring with new energy right now. I hope you can stop by.
Interesting to see how the old and new paint is intertwined. I think I’d be heading straight to the Hello Donut shop myself – they look so yummy and I can’t resist a sweet treat when I travel!
They’re pretty and delicious little donuts. The size makes them guilt-free – mostly!
I love when cities set out to revive areas, something interesting and unique always comes out of the venture. Do you get to dip and decorate your own donuts at Hello Sugar?
Yes, I appreciate the hard work demanded to repurpose or rebuild and they did it so well with the Steam Plant. Nope, you can’t dip your own donuts but you can watch!
I’m from Seattle, but I admit that I haven’t spent much time in Spokane. I mostly just passed through, but I have admired those ghost signs on the brick buildings. I think I’d like to check out the waterfront and the steam plant next time, as they look intriguing!
I so hope you do. The city was gorgeous in sunlight and I always love the riverwalk.
Love the ghosts of old painted advertising on the brick walls, that’s something I am always drawn to. Sounds like a timely renaissance for Spokane, like it was waiting for an era when new businesses would be sensitive to balance the old retro vibe with modern touches, for something altogether wonderful.
Thanks, Kavita. I appreciate your knowledge of repurposing. Not everyone feels the same about old buildings.
I live in Seattle and never realized this place had so much character! I’ll have to make the trek out there!
Yes, you do! It’s a long drive but worth it!
What a gorgeous place to explore!!
I especially love the look of those ghost signs!
Thanks, the signs are a kind of obsession for me!! Fading fast!
I recently visited Washington state for the first time, including San Juan Island, Whidbey Island, Seattle, Gig Harbor and Olympia… but not Spokane! We visited my husband’s cousin and wife who lived in Spokane for many years and who still works for the Spokane newspaper. I’d love to come back to the state for more exploration. Interesting to read about how it came to be known as the “Lilac City” and I always enjoy reading the history of a city. Nice read!
Thanks, Debbra. It’s a big state and takes a bit of time getting from one point to the next but I really loved seeing a bit of the Eastern urban sites. Glad you liked a bit of the history too. That makes a place so much more dimensional for me.
I have lived in Vancouver for most of my life, but never been to Spokane! Those doughnuts are calling me! (And the outdoors … we have been meaning to make a trip that way for ages, but it just never happens!) I never knew it was so retro but love the charm of small towns (Anacortes is one of our favs! maybe Spokane will be on that list soon too!)
Hi Lindsay. So wonderful to live in Vancouver. Spokane takes a bit of getting to but it’s definitely worthwhile. Anacortes is one of my favorite small towns too. Spokane is considerably larger!
Even though I live quite close to Spokane as the crow flies I’ve never actually been to that side of Washington state. It looks like there’s quite the revival going on and lots to see and experience. I would love to get my hands on some of those doughnuts too!
Washington State is huge, so it’s not surprising that you haven’t spent time in Spokane. There’s time to remedy that!
I love how retro the city is downtown. I love just exploring the area and seeing what you can find. Sign me up for fresh made donuts. Almost nothing is better than that. What flavors do they come dipped in?
Each day Hello Sugar has a different variety of donuts to choose from. I selected the lemon, gluten free and they were a disappointment but my pal loved her strawberry frosted ones.
Each city has a character and history of its own, so good to know about Spokane in Washington. Knowing about this town for the first time and it got me interested for its vintage touches and little stories. Those old equipment of steam plant have become antique.
Yes, each old city especially has it’s history. The Steam Plant is spectacular for its story and renovations.
Thx for putting Spokane, Washington back on my radar, Elaine. It’s been far too long since I was last there.
You’re most welcome. I loved visiting it again and having a chance to explore the neighborhoods.
Oh I thought you’d write, ” I see ghosts ” I was a bit terrified by that but glad you didn’t actually see them but only ghosts signs! Yaaay! And the Duncan Gardens, it’s open for public, right? Because I’d totally love to walk in the greens! This feeling is just so relaxing!
I’m not a ghost-seeker either but can’t help collecting the ghost signs when I find them. Yes, the gardens are open to the public and free to visit!
Thanks for sharing this post, I really enjoyed reading about spokane. I really enjoyed this very comprehensive post of yours regarding the revival of Spokane and it is beautiful. I love looking at the buildings, Spokane River, the garden, and the Hello Sugar’s donuts sounds really delicious!
Thank you, Ghia. There’s a lot going on across the town and more on the way.
Spokane is such an underrated experience, nice to see someone exploring its history and vintage vibe more deeply. A revival is coming along, yet these are the kinds of “ghost” towns with a sense of place that leave you hoping some of it remains untouched as well :).
That’s an important point and something I grappled with while writing this. I didn’t mention the ice cream place that makes 9 flavors a day or the burger joint that’s incredible. Spokane is changing nevertheless. It’s one of the few authentic PNW cities that’s affordable and a college town. Still, I had to sing its praises. Thanks, Greig.
We stopped in Spokane when we drove across from Toronto to Vancouver (thru the U.S.) We loved it so much, we planned a return visit. We loved all that art by the river. It was great to read a bit more of the history of Spokane in your post. We did not have donuts in Spokane. Maybe we should have! Thanks for taking me back.
How great to hear you stopped by Spokane. Glad you enjoyed the post.
It’s nice to see such a revival is going on! I love all of the great decor inside the buildings, especially the bottles in the Saranac building. And of course, the donuts look great too. A half dozen sounds perfect!
Your sweet tooth would be very happy in Spokane!
The history of Spokane is fascinating. The mural of fishing is so poignant. So sad a power plant has changed the landscape of the falls. It is heartening to see a retro-revival happening. There is always something so endearing about the old world charm. This is so evident in Spokane. I love the efforts made in this revival and the spectacular results that can be seen.
There are mixed blessings anytime a city has emerged in any undeveloped countryside. Today we can acknowledge the loss and I hope that there was compensation.
Spokane looks so beautiful, Elaine! The Duncan Gardens and that view of Spokane River are to die for. I’d love to visit Washington state sometime.
It is absolutely beautiful from manmade to natural. I hope you get up to explore the mountains in the NW one day.
Sounds like a great place to visit, one of those place to stop for a night on the way to somewhere else. Small towns often have the biggest surprises. It is great when cities use old space and make them new. Kendall yards sounds fascinating.
The city isn’t small and it’s growing further quickly. You’d find plenty of diversions in the neighborhoods.
I’ve never been to Spokane. The downtown looks interesting. That overlook of the Spokane River looks so peaceful.
There are many beautiful views across the town and peaceful is a great word for their beauty.
I think you’re right, nothing says retro like getting back to makin’ the donuts! I’ve had Spokane come up twice for me in the last week with fantastic ideas for a trip. It was never really on my radar – don’t get me wrong, I love the state of Washington so I’d be down with visiting anywhere – for some reason.
The coastal cities of the NW get the most attention. I hope you get a chance to visit Spokane as well one day.
I really liked this post! Thanks for taking us through a bit of a historical tour of Spokane. I especially like all those “ghost signs.” Looks like a city with a lot of character. I have friends in Washington, so maybe I’ll stop by there next time 🙂
Great plan, John. Western and Eastern Washington have much to offer – each in their own right.