The Final Appeal

Tearing down the past can cripple our future

It’s not too late for Washington State University administrators to reconsider their decision to tear down the Jensen-Byrd Building. I suppose by now they may be so tired of arguing with Spokane they are tempted to demolish it just to shut us up. Or they could do what college educators advise their students to do when one’s own opinion meets informed objection: They could take it as a signal to re-examine their premises. 

The official reason the administration of WSU says the historic and beautiful Jensen-Byrd Building at 131 East Main must go is that it is impossible to make a university building out of it. As a Cougar myself, I hate to have to be the one to point this out, but the University of Washington did it. The U faced exactly the same problems of building a campus in an urban setting when it built its branch campus in Tacoma. Now it brags on its webpage: “UW Tacoma owes its charm to century-old brick buildings that were built to last by businesses that depended on the railroad in the late 1880s and early 1900s. The university has earned architectural awards for transforming these stately buildings into modern classrooms. In the design of its beautiful campus, UW Tacoma honors the traditions of the Northern Pacific Railroad and its part in establishing Tacoma as the City of Destiny.”

Of course it’s possible. Historic buildings are reconfigured all the time. Look around London or Boston or Savannah. Look at downtown Spokane, which is so much more interesting because Ron Wells and a few others found ways to reuse old buildings. (Wells says it’s eminently possible to reconfigure the Jensen-Byrd.)

There’s a beautiful old dormitory on WSU’s Pullman campus called Stevens Hall. If the WSU administration were to ask its dormitory experts, Campus Advantage of Austin, Texas, how to maximize beds in Stevens Hall, Campus Advantage would do its measuring and calculating and advise them to tear down the 1892 building. That won’t happen because history and beauty count for something — at least when the building is located on the Pullman campus.

If only WSU could imagine what Jensen-Byrd could mean to Spokane. If you save the Jensen-Byrd, you have, right there between Main Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard, an enormous footnote to Spokane’s history as a railroad center. People could not miss the striking pentagonal building with its five-story bank of windows facing into the afternoon sun. Whenever anyone asked, “What is that building?” they have asked to be educated about Spokane history — and to know is to value.

Jensen-Byrd has one more, somewhat remote, chance to survive in the form of an appeal of the city’s demolition permit on July 31. If that does not change the course of things, one of Spokane’s most distinctive buildings will be rubble by the end of the year.

Or WSU could reconsider. It’s not too late.

American Inheritance: Unpacking World War II @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through May 23
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