Art Deco Made Nouveau

by Mike Corrigan & r & Saving it from the wrecking ball was only the beginning. Back in 2000, the Fox Theater was on the brink of destruction when the Spokane Symphony, local preservationists and Spokane residents joined forces to buy the lovely art deco movie house. But the $1.2 million public fund drive that spared it from a parking lot destiny was only the first step in what will be the transformation of the Fox into a new home for the Symphony -- and an integral part of a revitalized downtown arts district.

Now that the hoopla over its rescue has all but faded, the people of Spokane want to know: What is the deal with the Fox these days?

Quite a lot, says Betsy Godlewski, the Fox restoration project's development director. The project that will restore the 1931 theater to its former glory is, in fact, in its final planning stages. A total of $22 million will cover the original purchase of the building, plus the purchase of the land in the rest of the block and the total design and construction costs. The Fix the Fox campaign is also looking to raise $5 million and $6 million as an "operating endowment" to maintain the building and to subsidize rents (in the business spaces around the Fox) for nonprofits and community groups.

And thanks to the efforts of Godlewski and many others, a large chunk of the all-important financing is now in place.

"We're ready to go," she enthuses, "with the $2.5 million we received from the state Legislature -- and about a month ago, we received a wonderful gift from a private local donor of $1 million. Just spectacular. And that in turn has precipitated lots more. So we are very optimistic."

The Fox Theater was built by movie magnate William Fox (of 20th Century Fox), who built impressive movie houses all over the country -- all bearing his name and originally showing exclusively Fox movies.

"It was the biggest in Spokane and really was designed for live performance as well as for film," says Godlewski. "They weren't sure that these talking movies were gonna make it -- you know, vaudeville was here forever. So they were hedging their bets."

But fans came. In droves -- seeking an escape to the wonderland that Fox, his architects and artists had created. The theater was much loved. And it shows. Fortunately, the Symphony has also received grants from Save America's Treasures and the National Endowment for the Arts to clean and restore much of the Fox's original artwork.

From the balcony, the views of the hand-painted ceiling and the auditorium's 60-foot diameter sunburst light fixture are stunning. Though the walls today appear almost black due to decades of neglect -- not to mention outright damage from the Fox's 20-year tenure as a triplex -- spot cleaning has revealed the vibrant colors and shapes of Anthony Heinsbergen's murals that are hiding beneath more than a half a century of cigarette residue and grime.

"These art deco murals are actually incredibly pristine," says Godlewski. "And our restoration people know this artist. They've restored his work all over the country and they really understand the techniques he used, the paint types he used and how to clean them without damaging what's underneath."

What's underneath is breathtaking. The highly stylized plant life curls upwards from the lobby into the top levels where clouds pass overhead. Everywhere you look, the recurring sun motif commands your attention.

Godlewski explains, "You start under the water. As you move up to the mezzanine level, you get to the castle -- and in the auditorium, you're in the sky. Now imagine this all cleaned up. This room will be so bright and brilliant with lime green and eggplant and pumpkin colors. It will be fabulous."

The "hard" construction projects include replacing the entire heating, air conditioning, electrical and plumbing systems and then expanding the lobby and restroom facilities. When the $16 million restoration project is completed, the Fox will hold 1,700 seats (original capacity was 2,300).

"It's imperative that we get underway soon," says Godlewski, citing ever-rising construction costs and the cost of maintaining the building through yet another winter vacancy. "We've been talking to the architects, we're looking at the timeline for permits and constructions plans, and we'd like to get started by the end of the year."

The Fox is a beautiful and soon to be functional link to Spokane's future and past. It's almost overwhelming to consider that at one time, an out-of-town investor thought enough of this young city and its potential to construct something so grand here during some of the darkest years of the Great Depression.

"There were already 14 theaters in Spokane," says Godlewski. "And Fox came in -- at a time when people were not building big -- with this vision of tomorrow and put up a million dollars to build this theater. It's incredible. And he didn't just build a box. He built something wonderful."

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