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The Real Deal 

by Ann M. Colford

Corbin, Hutton, Davenport -- the names conjure up visions of early Spokane and feelings of pride in place. But for every one whose name adorns roads, schools and parks, dozens of others contributed to Spokane's founding without gaining the attention of generations. Among those anonymous but vital cogs was E.J. Roberts, an engineer and designer of railroads who came to the emerging city on the banks of the Spokane River to work with D.C. Corbin on his project to link the mines of North Idaho to the markets on either coast. As his fortunes in the booming city rose, Roberts sought a residence that would express his place in Spokane society. He traded his small home on West First Avenue for a grander home owned by his neighbor, a Mr. Lowenberg, who had hired an architect named Carpenter to design the house just a few years earlier.

The Browne's Addition home that E.J. Roberts and his family lived in has been owned by Mary Moltke and her family for the past 21 years. In that time, she has undertaken an extensive restoration project, working one room at a time and doing much of the work herself. The 1889 Victorian will be the subject for the first case study of the 2003 Old House Workshop, the MAC's 13th annual gathering for those who adore historic homes, says Patti Larkin, curator of the museum's Campbell House.

"The Victorian style really grabs people's interest," she says. "Spokane was founded at the height of the Victorian era, so the earliest residential architecture here was Victorian. Even as the style waned in other parts of the country, it continued to be popular here."

Although many of Spokane's earliest buildings were Victorians, it's now hard to find Victorians in the city. "A lot of the early business buildings downtown were Victorian, but the [1889] fire wiped them out," Larkin says. "There's a fair sampling of Victorian homes in some of the early neighborhoods, especially in Browne's Addition and along Seventh and Eighth Avenues on the lower South Hill. But a lot of our Victorians were taken down in the '30s, '40s and '50s as the buildings aged and the city grew and changed. Big houses cost a lot of money to maintain. Taste goes in distinct phases, and whatever seems old at the time is among the first to go."

Fortunately for architectural history, E.J. Roberts' home remained in the Roberts family for many years, so it avoided the fate of so many of its contemporaries. Current owner Mary Moltke is turning the home into a bed-and-breakfast and calling it the E.J. Roberts Mansion. Household items owned by E.J. and his family are on display around the house.

"The Roberts family was the second owner, but they had such a long tenancy that they're the ones most associated with it," she explains. "They have graciously provided us with many of his artifacts associated with the house."

Thanks to its continuous use as a private, single-family home, the house has retained many original period features, Moltke says, despite adaptations to nearly 125 years of technological advances. "We have a lot of ornate carved wood throughout the house, and we found original stenciling in four rooms," she says. The house has a classic Victorian turret room on the third floor, in the former maids' quarters -- census data shows the early Roberts family with five live-in staff, Moltke says -- along with a billiard room in the basement. One of the house's most distinctive external features, the wrought iron trim on all the porches, probably was a later add-on, Moltke explains, but it's now a vital part of the home's identity.

Finding the balance between an accurate restoration and the daily functioning for a 21st-century family is a challenge faced by anyone who lives in a historic home, but Moltke is comfortable with the decisions she has made. "Some of these lines are hard to draw," she says. "But I didn't want to live in a museum. This is my home, so it had to work for me." Still, she's doesn't change things that don't have to be changed, and she's careful to document what was there when she does make changes. "My tenancy here is just one part of this house's history, so I want to leave something for the next person."

The Old House Workshop, presented by the MAC's Historic Preservation Committee, runs for three consecutive Wednesday evenings, 7-9 pm, at the museum's Eric A. Johnston Memorial Auditorium, 2316 W. First Ave.

On February 12, the guest speaker is Paul Duchscherer, author of the book, Victorian Glory. He'll be followed by Mary Moltke's case study of the Lowenberg-Roberts House. On February 19, Donald Luxton, an expert on Victorian colors, will discuss Victorian color schemes, followed by another home case study presented by Brian Poirier.

The series wraps up on February 26 with a presentation by Bruce Bradbury, founder of Bradbury & amp; Bradbury Art Wallpapers. The evening concludes with an armchair tour of Spokane's Victorian homes, past and present.

Series tickets are available from the MAC; cost is $30 for MAC members, $35 for non-members. Call 456-3931 for tickets or information.

Publication date: 02/06/03

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