by Ann M. Colford

Spokane is home to several historic districts, among them Browne's Addition, the Corbin Park neighborhood and portions of West Ninth Avenue. While these districts feature many of the finest residences in the city, not many commercial buildings sit within their boundaries. But just this month, a mostly commercial district has joined this august company; the Hillyard Historic Business District, about three-and-a-half blocks of North Market Street (roughly from Wabash north to Everett), recently was designated a National Historic District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"We've had excellent support here in the neighborhood," says Brooke Plastino, owner of Accent Frames on Market Street, with his wife, Vicki, and one of several volunteers who spent countless hours on the National Historic District designation. "We have some differing opinions of what should happen here, but it's just different means to the same ends. We all have the same economic revitalization of the neighborhood at heart."

Another Market Street resident and business owner, Karen Tuininga of Karenoia, shares the enthusiasm of many in Hillyard. "I love the buildings here," she says. "There are so many right here together, basically in original condition, which helped make us eligible for the National Register. This is an authentic American train town, still pretty much intact."

The new historic district also sits at the heart of the Hillyard/North Market Street Corridor, one of the pilot projects underway following adoption of Spokane's Comprehensive Plan. Melissa Wittstruck is the city planner responsible for the Hillyard pilot project: "The historic district designation is one tool to use to jump-start the revitalization process," she says, adding that the potential tax benefits will make the neighborhood more attractive to investment.

Hillyard's historic significance is rooted in its long identity as a railroad town. In early Spokane, the road to prosperity was paved not with gold but with steel rails. Though the rich natural resources of the region provided much of the city's early wealth, the railroads made possible the delivery of those resources to faraway markets.

"Hillyard's contribution to the transportation history of Spokane is enormous," says Linda Yeomans, the local preservation consultant who researched the history of the buildings and prepared the district's nomination. "It's a town unto itself and the only surviving turn-of-the-century railroad town around, and it's right here. The district chronicles the lives of all the people who started that town."

Needing a supply and distribution center for his company's continued expansion in the Northwest, James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railroad eyed a high prairie only five miles northeast of Spokane, yet beyond the city's boundary and taxing authority. In the early 1890s, he built the company's Western Regional Terminal Facility on the site, creating Great Northern's largest center west of the Mississippi. Early residents of the prairie, Leland and Kate Westfall, bought land next to the railroad facility and platted out a new town in 1892. They named the town Hillyard to honor the Great Northern founder, despite Hill's wishes to call the town East Spokane.

As Hill's rail yards boomed, so did his namesake town. In the thriving business district along Market Street, owners and workers put up new buildings of brick or concrete block, many of which survive still today. Hillyard was annexed by Spokane in 1924, and the neighborhood's prosperity fell and rose over the next six decades, depending on the economic health of the railroad. When the Great Northern's successor, Burlington Northern, closed the Hillyard facilities in 1982, most residents had to search for work elsewhere, altering the neighborhood's identity forever.

Fast-forward now to the mid-1990s. Shops selling antiques and collectibles moved into some of the old storefronts on Market Street, trafficking in the aura of the past that still pervades the area. Business owners and concerned citizens knew that something more was needed to revitalize the old railroad town and to encourage new businesses to move in, and they decided that history was the key.

"The main thing is it's one of the few remaining railroad towns, and it's really a prime example," Plastino says. "The architecture is not presumptuous. These are not buildings designed by Kirtland Cutter; you see the owners' sweat equity. These were blue-collar, hard-working people."

Indeed, there are no Cutter-designed buildings in the district, although Cutter's long-time partner, Henry Bertlesen, designed the 1920 United Hillyard Bank Building (5016 North Market) in the Beaux Arts style. A few years later, Cutter's former employee, G. A. Pehrson, a prominent architect in his own right, created the Art Deco-style Pay 'n Takit Food Store building (5003 North Market), built in 1932. Both buildings contribute to the district's unique character.

"The Pay 'n Takit building is significant because there's not a whole lot of Art Deco buildings in Spokane," says Yeomans. "This one retains its architectural integrity."

In all, 32 buildings are included in the district; 19 of those, dating from 1893 to 1948, are considered historic and contributing to the district's unique character.

"We're really excited about [the designation]," says Tuininga. "I think the stars are in alignment for Hillyard right now."

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