Since its founding days, Spokane has been the retail hub for the Inland Northwest. In the early years of the 20th century, holiday shoppers flocked to downtown. The Bon Marche came to town in 1947 and remains a downtown anchor, along with Nordstrom, which arrived in time for Expo '74. For almost a century, though, the creme de la creme for Spokane shoppers was the Crescent, and the ultimate Crescent experience came at Christmastime.
"For people who grew up in Spokane in the '50s and '60s, everybody always looked forward to the Crescent window," says Ed Clark. "It was pretty spectacular for a little kid, with Santa's workshop and elves and stuffed animals, all animated."
"Those were good times," remembers Sandy Huth, "because you'd make a special trip downtown just to look at the windows. It was really a big deal. When it would be snowing, it was an ideal Christmas setting, and there would always be a lot of people gathered around the corner window at the Crescent."
"The corner windows were the best," agrees Kathy Villemure. "Every year it was different. It might be Mickey Mouse; sometimes it would be other little animals."
Spokane, like other cities, lost those traditional windows over the years, but this holiday season they're comng back.
"Window displays are more based on merchandising now, promoting products for sale in the store," says Michael Bagley of LCD Exposition Services, a Spokane trade show production firm. "If you want to sell a [brand-name] shirt, you put the shirt on a mannequin in the window." By contrast, the old Crescent holiday windows often held no merchandise at all; the displays were pure entertainment, something to get people out of their homes and into the festive atmosphere of downtown.
In an effort to evoke some of the excitement and wonder of those bygone years, the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) is sponsoring four special window displays complete with animated critters and visions of dancing sugarplums. The displays are planned for the Bon Marche, Auntie's Bookstore, the Burlington building and, appropriately enough, Crescent Court. Bagley is busy creating the window for the Bon Marche.
"This is probably the most creative thing I've done in 10 years," he says. "I'm having so much fun with this. If there were jobs to do windows like this all the time, I'd be putting my name in."
While the windows themselves won't be unveiled until the day after Thanksgiving, Bagley did let slip that his window is a vision of Candyland featuring some old friends. "I have four little elves that are the centerpiece," he says. "In their past lives, they were Santa's helpers, and I first met them when I worked at Display House about 10 years ago. Now, with haircuts and a new wardrobe, they live in a world where they make gingerbread houses."
In the corner window at Auntie's, Steve Reichelt plans a woodland setting reminiscent of a favorites from the old Crescent. "It'll be a forest scene with animals, all animated," Reichelt says. "I'll probably have between five and 10 creatures." Over the years, Reichelt, whose day job is with Plant World, has created holiday window displays for many local merchants, including the Flour Mill and both the old and new River Park Square. "I do it for the fun," Reichelt says.
The window in the Burlington building has been turned over to the collective creative vision of the Interior Design Club at Spokane Falls Community College. Carrie Vielle, interior design faculty member, is facilitating the process, but she says the students are coming up with the ideas and sketching out plans.
"We have a budget and some props to work with, and we've pretty much been given the freedom to do what we want," she says. "This is a great opportunity for the students. The elements and principles of display and art that they've learned, like scale, proportion, rhythm and balance can be applied."
While many of the students are too young to remember the Crescent and its holiday displays, Vielle says she remembers them well and she has tried to share those memories with the students. "We're really wanting to bring back the spirit of family downtown."
And it was the family spirit that allowed the Crescent to reign as downtown Spokane's shopping landmark for 99 years, from the day after the fire that devastated the heart of the city in August 1889 until the day in August 1988 when the store closed its doors for the final time. The historic name -- as well as the famous clock -- lives on in the remodeled Crescent Court, although for long-time Spokanites, nothing can compare to the Crescent, until this year.
"A Crescent box under the Christmas tree was always something special," says Kathy Villemure.
Among long-time residents, there's general consensus that the Crescent's community involvement began to wane when the founding family, the Patersons, sold out to the Chicago-based Marshall Field's chain in 1969. Most also agree that the "Golden Age" for the store's holiday displays peaked during the 1950s and '60s, even though the displays continued through the store's later years.
"My kids just got in on the tail end of it in the '70s," says Megan Mulvany, "but they were just enamored of the windows." During Mulvany's own childhood years in the '30s and '40s, the Crescent was always a cut above other stores at Christmas, even when it came to the grandest elf of them all. "There may have been Santas at the other stores, but the real Santa was always at the Crescent."
So the merchants of Crescent Court have history on their side in this contest. Not only do they occupy the site of the Crescent, but they also have access to some of the store's original animated figures. Four windows stretching down Main Street from the Crescent Court entrance hold a series of displays, beginning with figures from the original Nutcracker collection. The children -- Fritz and Clara -- along with the evil mice and the heroic Nutcracker prince himself hold court in the first window, while the snowflake ballerinas pirouette around antiques from Jewels, Etc., next door. In the third window, Maury the Christmas Moose and his little animated friends return to promote the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery. And, in a nod of the party hat toward New Year's Eve, local artists who will be on hand for First Night on New Year's Eve display a sampling of their works in the fourth window. The displays will be up through the first week of January.
In addition to the four BID-sponsored windows, more than two dozen other downtown businesses are creating their own displays and competing for contest awards in 10 categories. (Vote for your favorites with the ballot on page 3.) Businesses of all sizes and types are competing in the window display contest. The smaller, locally owned retailers may not have big budgets, but they make up for it with home-grown charm and creativity.
Up on the second floor of River Park Square, the Children's Corner Bookshop is filling four windows with literary gift ideas for young readers and readers young at heart. Two windows are devoted to books and gifts with a Christmas theme, one focused on the Nativity and the traditional Christmas story, and the other embracing both new and classic holiday stories like The Nutcracker and The Night Before Christmas. A Tolkien-inspired window holds items related to The Two Towers, the second installment in the Lord of the Rings that hits theaters this holiday season. And Olivia, a relative newcomer to the scene, hosts the fourth window. "Olivia is a wonderful little pig who's really just a little girl," explains co-owner Susan Durrie. "She's very saucy and playful." The first Olivia book has been a big hit, Durrie says, and now there's a new book and an Olivia doll available for the holidays.
At the west end of downtown, the three partners of Finders Keepers Antiques already have their window display in place. In fact, they've been working on it since last Christmas. "I knew what I wanted to do, so I've spent the past year watching the estate sales, gradually picking things up," says Deena Moe-Caruso. The result is a vision of 1950s modernism, complete with three aluminum Christmas trees, oversized ornaments rescued from old retail displays, a vintage Santa Claus and two rotating color wheels to keep the trees in ever-changing hue.
"That whole era, the '50s vintage, is just fun," she says. "It's real colorful with the pinks and blues, so it's different from the traditional red and green. It's just funky."
Andy Dinnison of Boo Radley's, Spokane's favorite purveyor of punching nuns and Brady Bunch lunch boxes, says he's not planning anything too elaborate. "No moving animals or skating elephants, unfortunately," he laughs. "We're just trying to spruce it up with some of the whimsical stuff." The theme for this holiday season? "We're doing a Christmas cocktails window."
Dinnison says he remembers coming downtown to see the Crescent windows as a kid, and he's glad to see a the tradition revived. "It's just a good thing to get people down here."
Historical photos courtesy of the Eastern Washington State Historical Society. Photos taken by the Libby Studio.