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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