Spokane’s cultural atmosphere has undergone a Renaissance. Where twenty years ago there were empty historical buildings in the midst of urban decay, thriving and profitable businesses sit today.
The area of town that has seen this tremendous revitalization is known as the Davenport District, between Stevens and Madison streets. Three Spokane businesses that loom large in Spokane’s history are cornerstones of the District: the Steam Plant Grill, The Davenport Hotel, and the Fox Theatre.
Before becoming a place for food and business, the Steam Plant produced steam heat and electrical power for downtown Spokane.
"The Steam Plant was built 90 years ago, in 1915," said Grant Bursell, a worker at the grill.
Throughout its time, the Steam Plant burned wood chips, coal, and natural gas, to produce heat.
The Steam Plant has underground tunnels, and in the 1970s there was an oil spill underneath, and Wells & Co and Washington Water Power provided the cleanup, Bursell said.
The Plant was closed in 1986, and only later was it decided that the historic building should be preserved.
The Plant was to have a new lease on life.
"Ron Wendell, an architect, had an idea for the Steam Plant. He wanted to make it functional," Bursell said.
In December 1999, the 80,000 square feet Steam Plant was open, and featured food, and space available for lease.
The Davenport Hotel has its own claim to fame. Opened in September 1914 by Louis Davenport, it boasted amenities ahead of its time.
"The Davenport was the first hotel with air-conditioning, a central vacuum system, housekeeping, accordion ballroom doors and Crab Louis," said Tom McArthur, Communications Director.
"Throughout its time in Spokane, the Davenport has been home to royalty, kings of industry, captains of commerce, stars of stage and screen and just about every American president of the 20th century," says the hotel’s website.
Other greats to stay in the hotel include Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Clark Gable, to name just a few.
Zane Grey and Dashiell Hammet included scenes in their novels set at this most famous hotel in the West.
After many years of success, the Davenport closed its doors in 1985 for what seemed like the last time. "Spokane was in a funk," McArthur said.
"There was talk of blowing the hotel up, but because of the asbestos, it was too dangerous to blow up and too expensive to tear down," McArthur said.
But something else was in store for the Davenport.
In 2000, Walt and Karen Worthy bought the property for $6.5 million. Two and a half years and 38 million dollars later, the Davenport reopened, 88 years after its first guest had slept there.
"The ceremony was held in the largest ballroom, and fanfare was played," McArthur said.
The Steam Plant Grill and the Davenport Hotel have already been restored.
The Fox Theatre, on the other hand, is only beginning stages its metamorphosis.
The Fox Theatre captivated audiences throughout its history as one of Spokane’s greatest theaters. For years the theatre featured films, music, and performances from Spokane’s symphony.
The theatre was built during the height of the Big Depression, a time when people had little to celebrate, and even less to spend on amenities. Despite this, the need for an arts and entertainment complex was strong.
Robert C. Reamer, an architect who had designed other notable buildings, such as the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, the Mount Baker, and in Yellowstone, Old Faithful Inn, took on the task of building the Fox Theatre.
The interior was designed by the famous Hollywood designer Anthony Heinsbergen, and is one of the only remaining examples north of San Francisco of a large Art Deco theater.
After construction was completed, the theatre made its grand debut on September 31, 1931, to an audience of 2,300, with a crowd of almost 20,000 outside on the streets.
Betsy Godlewski is the development director for the Fox Theatre, which is now owned by the Spokane Symphony, who in turn bought it from Regal Cinemas.
Godlewski says movies were different back then.
"The movies in those days featured live singing, the movie, an intermission where someone played on an organ, a game show or contest, with chances to win movie tickets or popcorn, followed by the conclusion of the movie. The whole thing could last for 3 hours or more. All of that for 25 cents."
But in the year 2000, after nearly 69 years of performances, the theatre gave its swan song, with a showing of the movie Gladiator.
But the story of the Fox is not over. It is beginning a new chapter, one all about renovation. The project will cost nearly $28 million dollars, and will take 15-18 months to complete.
"Once we start, we can be up and going pretty soon," Godlewski said.
There are ambitious plans for the theatre when the restoration is completed. Not only will it be the headquarters for the Spokane Symphony, the Youth Symphony, ballet, touring groups, and a myriad of other regionally based fine arts programs, but it will also feature room for 1700 people, which places it above the Met’s seating, and below the Spokane Opera House’s seating.
While there are already several places for concerts, and plays, such as the Big Easy and the Opera House, the Fox Theatre may emerge as a powerhouse in its own right again.
With its intrinsic historical value, and the seating that it will provide, the Fox Theatre will be "great for (singing groups) that like smaller audiences," said Godlewski, as well as an ideal place for, "literature festivals, conventions, small Broadway plays, and a perfect spot for a lecture."
Taken together, three old buildings – the Steam Plant, the Davenport, and the Fox – will do much to fashion Spokane’s future.