Talk about urban serendipity: There I was, walking along First Avenue and stewing about urban culture, when whom should I see heading straight toward me but Jim Kolva, a sort of one-man urban culture.
Not only is Kolva a planner and a consultant to historic preservation projects all over the country, but he also walks the walk, so to speak. Six years ago, he and his wife, Pat Sullivan, sold their South Hill home and bought one of those abandoned warehouses that hug downtown Spokane's railroad overpasses. They turned it into apartments and now live a Manhattan lifestyle in Spokane. They don't even own a car.
I brought Kolva to a halt and explained my problem. I had been trying to write an article that explained how Spokane had acquired, suddenly and simultaneously, two new and beautiful historic buildings. Within a period of 10 months, the Montvale Hotel at First and Monroe and the American Legion office building at Riverside and Washington had both opened for business.
The trouble with my writing this article explaining the buildings, I told Kolva, is that it didn't make much sense to me.
Until recently, major historic preservation projects were a rarity in Spokane. Just 10 years ago, the prevailing opinion, at least among civic leaders, was that the Davenport Hotel itself might not be salvageable. Perhaps Spokane just couldn't support such a magnificent building. Such remarks were usually prefaced by, "It's a shame..." but take it from one who did a good deal of opinion-sampling at the time: There was no panic over the fact that the venerable but empty building might have to be imploded. It was only saved because Walt and Karen Worthy bet their fortune on it.
So how does it happen that Spokane can spawn two such projects within the space of a year? More wealthy benefactors? New historic preservation laws? Some kind of banking error?
An Urban Revival
When I looked into the matter, it just got more perplexing. Visit the Montvale, a perfect specimen of the kind of early-1900s hotel that once lined Spokane streets, and you notice that the building next to it, and the one next to that, are also under renovation. This is the street that 10 years ago was home to the Nickel Pub and Grub, the Spokane Adult Arcade, the Dead End Tavern. Now all are gone, replaced by CenterStage, ella's Supper Club, the Good Works Gallery and the Avenue West Gallery.
Walking the other direction to see the American Legion Building, I passed major buildings on Sprague and Browne (the Havermale Park complex) and Riverside (the Morgan Building) under active renovation.
This is no illusion. Theresa Brum of the Spokane City/County Historical Preservation Office says that Spokane has more historic districts than any other city in the state. In 2002, Spokane had more total spending on historical preservation projects than the rest of the state combined.
That's why I collared Kolva on First Avenue. What's going on in Spokane?
Simple, said Kolva. There had been a sea change. When we fretted about the Davenport a decade earlier, the backdrop was still a city that had been more or less abandoned in the great out-migration to the suburbs. Urban buildings created before the car and freeway were left empty and vulnerable. The Davenport had no customers because (or at least this is what people assumed) not that many people had reason to come to the center of the city.
In just the last few years, things are entirely different. Ron Wells had been buying up unused buildings at the west end of downtown and making city living more attractive with developments like the Riverside Court, the San Marco and the Buena Vista. Clear at the other edge of the city, at Pine and Pacific, the Kensington Apartments recreated the look of London in a century-old building that was about to be demolished. Those who had fled to the suburbs were starting to drift back into town.
Kolva's own building, on Adams between First and Second, is all rented up, including two business suites. Three similar projects were filling other old industrial buildings right next to him.
The thing is, Kolva adds (by now we were continuing the conversation by phone), a downtown resident was highly likely to be a frequenter of restaurants, theaters and shops. It's why they live there.
Kolva and his wife are examples. They meet after work a couple of times at River Park Square or a restaurant for a movie and a late dinner.
"It's getting so that all the best restaurants are downtown," he says, and reels off six or eight examples. After dinner, they walk home through the night air along streets still pulsing with life at in the late hours. "There's a kind of romance about it."
Live, Work, Play
Thus those two beautiful objects, the Montvale and the American Legion, are like the urns that bob up in archaeological rubble to hint at something larger going on. They are artifacts of a lost civilization -- "Downtown Dwellers" -- that disappeared mysteriously into the suburbs a half century ago only to be recently rediscovered.
Tromping around and through old buildings, discovering signs of life unbeknownst to those who leave town at 5 pm, I had begun to think of myself more as an archaeologist than a reporter. When Kolva claimed there was a posh condominium development behind his building called the Blue Chip Lofts, I was unable to find it on my city map and had to launch an expedition through the alleys of the western reaches of downtown to find it.
I found the door of the Blue Chip Lofts on a newly created street called Railroad Alley Avenue. One of its residents is Tobby Hatley, the reporter with KHQ Television News.
Hatley told me that when he moved from Coeur d'Alene a couple of years ago, he had decided to live either well out in the country or in the middle of the city. He chose the latter and has never regretted it.
"I live across the street from work," he says. "I can see the Q-6 sign from my apartment." He owns a car, but "the last time I filled the tank was in November."
The real payoff, he says, is living a quick stroll from all the best Spokane has to offer: the Davenport, the Met, the Spokane Club and a dozen restaurants. The previous Friday night, for example, he and friends walked to the Opera House to hear the Spokane Symphony. Then they went to the Europa for a late dinner and landed at the Davenport for night caps. Even that late, the Davenport was still buzzing with people.
Hatley told me his neighbors are mostly professionals. They include an Air Force pilot, an attorney, a commodities broker, a realtor, an airline executive and a retired couple.
One of the professionals who lives in the building -- now get this -- commutes every day to his job in Liberty Lake. That stands on its head the logic of Spokane's growth dynamics for the past half century.
Not Just Old, Historic
No wonder I couldn't understand the sudden bloom of historic preservation. I was caught in a paradigm shift. Historic preservation was always assumed to be a fight against economics. At the very most, preservationists would argue that someday those buildings would pay off. Who really believed the day would come?
Even that great effort to save downtown from suburban suction, Expo, had a kind of despairing anti-urban tone to it.
What distinguishes urban from suburban is the character of the structures -- their density, their variety, their history. Yet Expo toppled buildings by the dozens -- including two of Spokane's finest buildings, which were in good shape and which were right where they were needed. With only a few people protesting (notably architect Ken Brooks), the Union Station and the Great Northern Railroad Station, both in what is now Riverfront Park, were condemned almost off-handedly. If one or both had been retained, Spokane would have had a stunning Great Hall with marble floors, wide oak staircases and giant arched windows. It would have been a useful building and a symbol of Spokane's history during the Railway Age. A bond campaign to raise money to refurbish the buildings lost at the polls 2-to-1. In 1971, people considered preservation of urban buildings exactly the wrong way to build a city.
Expo accomplished its goal of giving access to the river, but its commercial aspect tried to fight suburban malls by becoming another mall. The skywalks tried to capture the hermetically sealed feel of a mall. The second-story pathways took people above and around one of the major attractions of urban life, the hubbub and surprise of "street life."
An anti-urban bias among Spokane trend-setters lasted at least into the 1990s. Old buildings have long been treated as so many milk cartons: useful if full, best discarded if empty. Just five years ago, the board of the Spokane Club, no less, needed parking space, so it announced it was considering buying and tearing down the Fox Theater in order to replace it with a concrete garage.
The biggest difference in recent downtown development is that its leaders are enthusiastic about saving old structures. Ron Wells moved to Spokane 20 years ago because its streets had character. An architect who got his start in restoring buildings in Moscow, Idaho, he looked for a place to work and decided -- based upon the stock of quality buildings -- that Spokane was it.
"People didn't think of most of these buildings in this neighborhood as historic. They just thought of them as old," he says.
Since then, Ron and Julie Wells have renovated a good portion of the city. Aside from the apartment complexes, they developed the buildings around Carnegie Square, the Steam Plant, the Freeman Center and the Morgan Building, to name a few.
Ending the Destruction
Wells is hoping the City Council will pass an ordinance this spring that would forbid destruction of historic buildings when the only product is a parking lot. This idea was "quietly scuttled" when it was first proposed in 1997 because certain real estate interests didn't want it. He's afraid the a few "reactionary conservative" land owners will stop the idea again because they want no constraints on their control over buildings. "I think we're headed for a bit of a public showdown," he says.
The obvious problem with tearing down a building precipitously is that no one will ever get a second chance at doing something with it. Think of the Davenport.
The ordinance would not prevent buildings from coming down if the owner of the land has immediate plans to replace it. What it would prevent is the sacrifice of old buildings to provide parking lots -- which, Wells says, are an evil quite aside from the loss of a building.
"A downtown composed largely of surface parking lots looks and acts more like a suburban mall or a suburban development than it does a downtown. What makes a downtown work is a continuous row of storefronts with visible activity or with the possibility of visible activity. You see something in the window, and presumably you can be seen from the other side of the windows."
Rob Brewster, the developer of the Montvale Hotel and a handful of other downtown projects, considers it a crime to dismantle beautiful structures. He remembers thinking back when he was a fifth-grader what a shame it was that they were going to dismantle his elementary school, Roosevelt, and replace it with a new one. Every time he saw a building being torn down into a heap of wood and plaster, it struck him as a terrible waste of labor and materials. "They were built by true, skilled carpenters," he says.
"I just think there's something in old buildings [in] urban settings that offer a community something that suburban locations really don't have to offer," says Brewster. "I'm sorry, but the Valley just doesn't cut it. It's just a suburban blah that you can find anywhere."
Still, says Brewster, a major threat to the current preservation trend exists: a chicken-and-egg problem in reviving any downtown. "In order for people to want to move to Spokane" to start the businesses that will bring economic prosperity, he says, "you have to have created an environment where people want to live... like Boise or Seattle or Portland or San Francisco, where there's plenty of activity."
That may be taking hold in Spokane. Between River Park Square, the Davenport, the Montvale-Fox, there's the nucleus of an urban excitement that will draw people downtown, Brewster believes. "You have the Big Easy in there, some theaters, the Met - there's a network" that is mutually reinforcing.
But Brewster adds that if renovation is going to continue, renovators will need more cooperation from City Hall. He said he had to fight City Hall to get space in front of the Montvale to park the hotel's limousine, a necessity for the small hotel. Building codes are applied with no consideration to the peculiarities of the project, or with success of the project as the goal. He pointed out the required "Exit" signs in the small lobby of the Montvale. From where we were sitting, we could see eight of the lighted green signs. "Look in at that wall there. "You have a fire exit sign, you have a sprinkler, you have a spotlight and you have a strobe." All these things really start adding up and there's just not the return to justify it."
Every developer of a historic building takes a big leap into the unknown. The costs of doing the work is hard to gauge, and the demand for the final product usually cannot be known until it's already paid for and completed and people have a look at it.
Developers have circled around the century-old American Legion Building for years. It represented interesting architecture and history, having been built for the first Spokane Club and the first home of the Chamber of Commerce. On the other hand, water had nearly destroyed the building's interior.
Two years ago, Steve Schmautz took on the challenge. At age 44, he has worked in construction most of his life. He loves the business, especially classic construction: When he and his wife went to Europe, it became a kind of joke that he was always examining cornices and columns. He brought home dozens of rolls of film of architectural detail.
When he first weighed in on the American Legion building project, he regarded it like a work of art. He was in the building day and night, making all the decisions that must be made when you have to work with what's already there. He envisioned staircases as sculptures: "I would stand in 50 different spots to try to visualize what it was going to look like."
The building was originally designed with a steep-sloped, French-style roof -- which burned in 1930s. Trying to recover it would be very expensive, and Schmautz agonized over whether to go that far. "Then my wife said, 'You can't afford not to put it back the way it was. Knowing the way you are, I can't believe you'd even consider not doing it.'" That restored Schmautz's nerve. He put on the roof. Now it sets the building apart in the city's skyline.
"You don't get into this kind of thing without a passion, because it takes so much out of you," says Schmautz. Behind the walls, everything is a decision: Air shafts? Wiring? Restored doors or new ones?
He feels it has to pay off. The quality is "like an annuity, a long-term investment," Schmautz figures. "If someone signs a five-year lease, they're going to like the building so much they are going to stay for the long term." After the American Legion, people will be reluctant to go back to working in the "vanilla shell corporate look." That should secure the building's future because, as Schmautz asks, "How many more American Legion buildings are there going to be?"
That's the same question that gave Walt Worthy confidence to invest in the Davenport Hotel. Banks wouldn't make loans because the project was so large and risky. And Worthy doesn't blame them: "I wouldn't have lent me any money, either."
Yet he and his wife Karen were confident enough to invest almost everything they had accumulated from a successful career of major construction. "I thought if you did it right, it would be real tough for anybody to compete with you," he says.
That strategy depended completely upon the most exacting job of restoration. "We didn't have any budget, and we didn't have any schedule."
But it has paid off. Business is "better than my wildest dreams," and it should improve from here on out. Worthy points out that if you built a new Marriott today, "in 20 years, it's going to be dated. This place, in 20 years, is going to be a little more near and dear to most people.
"I think it's going to be one of the best real estate investments we ever made."
And that's a fresh argument for historic preservation in Spokane.
William Stimson is the author of Spokane: A View of the Falls.
Publication date: 03/17/05