The first surprise for the painting restoration workers from New York this summer was that decades of tobacco soot haven't destroyed the Fox Theater's 71-year-old murals. But a bigger surprise was finding art deco flowers and flourishes painted on the lobby ceiling, covered for uncounted years under layers of scarlet paint.
Restoring the Fox's artwork will help recapture the old, damaged, locked-up West Sprague theater's grand style, but it won't be enough to open the doors. For that, theater officials (from the Spokane Symphony, which is renovating the place) say they need about $20 million. They've raised a little more than $8 million so far.
"We haven't been very public, because it's so important to get these things taken care of before you go public," says Annie Matlow, publicity director for the symphony and the Fox.
The Fox restoration campaign began in earnest two years ago, when the Spokane Symphony bought the property for $1.1 million. After purchasing the Fox — "rescuing" it from an uncertain future — the campaign swung into renovation mode, with an initial estimate of $15 million.
"Of course, there's been a little more [expense] than expected," Matlow says.
By comparison, the Spokesman-Review's newly constructed printing plant downtown cost about $11 million; the Davenport Hotel refurbishment cost about $36.5 million; and the projected cost of expanding the Spokane Convention Center is running about $70 million.
Ultimately, besides bringing the artwork back to life, the campaign will expand the use of the Fox, adding an addition, taking over two parking lots and reclaiming space now rented to several businesses. Those businesses, including the Rocket Bakery and the Papermill print shop, expect to move out in December, when ground-breaking is scheduled.
Workers atop scaffolds, meanwhile, will strip the lobby ceiling of its red paint in a sort of counter-Michelangelo project, revealing the historic art deco above. Along the way, theater officials are seeking additional grant money and courting donors.
"If everything goes according to our master plan, then we would have the Fox open in May 2004," says Matlow.
When and if that happens, the Fox project will be more than the polishing of a piece of history: It will provide a new and needed place for musicians and other performers, says Karen Mobley, arts director for the City of Spokane.
"The most important thing is that we really need another venue," Mobley asserts. She adds, "I believe there is enough going on in this community that the Fox will have no problem staying busy."
The Met, just down the street from the Fox, crams its 758 seats with more than 300 performances a year; the Opera House holds 2,700 people. At 1,700 seats, the Fox will provide a niche for shows that aren't traditional or large enough (The Nutcracker ballet, for example) to sell out the Opera House and that might not be able to schedule time at the Met "because we have such a tight gridlock on theater space," says Mobley.
Not that every show sells out. There are plenty of half-sold shows at the Met. The Fox, however, will house the Spokane Symphony, giving it an immediate base of performances.
Mobley says the Fox also fits into a revitalizing downtown, and could help draw people interested in traveling to Spokane for a weekend of high culture and high living.
"I think we're going to see a lot of symbiosis between [hotels] like the Lusso and the Davenport, and places like the Fox," she says.