Courthouse Celebrates Centennial ‘Castle’ A Repository For Civic Pride As Bawdy Town Became Respectable
Chortling gargoyles gaze down from the tower. Metal flowers crowning the turrets reflect the morning sun. Visitors, hardly noticing, troop through handsome, arched entrances.
They come to the “castle” - just as they did, for the first time, exactly 100 years ago.
Into the Spokane County Courthouse they go - to pay taxes, pick up license plates, kiss and get married, plead for custody of children, or beg stern-faced judges for mercy.
The landmark celebrates its centennial today, surviving everything from bomb threats, budget cuts and scandal to flocks of pesky pigeons.
Its creamy face is dirty now - years overdue for a scrubbing. Mold grows on the brick and terra cotta, paint peels.
Even so, the courthouse hasn’t lost its allure. It remains a stately, living symbol, a portal into the county’s rich and bodacious past.
“It’s grand and charming,” says Spokane architect Donald Neraas, who puts the building on his Top 5 list of area masterpieces.
“A building like that, you can’t see it all in one day. New features appear at night, in different light, in the shadows.”
Spokane Falls was a bawdy pioneer town of 19,500 when teams of men and horses scraped the rocky ground north of the river in October 1893, starting construction of the courthouse.
The county seat had just been recaptured from Cheney, and civic leaders were eager to make the arrangement permanent.
So they offered a $1,000 prize and a big-money contract to the architect who could come up with the grandest symbol of sophistication and stability.
The winner was 29-year-old Willis Ritchie, a lanky, self-taught designer who copied liberally from plans for a pair of 16th-century chateaux north of Paris he had never seen.
To bring Ritchie’s French Renaissance vision to life, county commissioners turned to one of the best builders of the day, David Fotheringham, an ex-mayor of Spokane Falls revered for his honesty.
An army of bricklayers and immigrant stone masons tackled the job, finishing the turreted four-story wonder and its 164-foot-high central tower in 25 months. It stood proudly a block away from the old courthouse, a drab wooden building with a leaky roof.
A newspaper reporter gushed, “The change from old to new is like bathing, shaving and dressing a tramp up in a complete full dress - you would never know him.”
The tramp’s new clothes were dazzling, with electricity and elevators and an intercom system (a web of “speaking tubes” snaking between offices).
Ritchie’s plans were only altered in one way: The wrought-iron clocks penciled in for the tower, a $180 item, were deleted as a token penny-pinching gesture.
Back then, the sound of cowboy boots on the tile floors probably echoed off the walls. The building was cavernous, carved into sprawling courtrooms and offices with 16-foot-high ceilings. The top floor was used only for storage, and the basement (now the main floor) was dominated by assembly halls and reading rooms.
There was so much extra space that, in 1897, county officials ranging from the sheriff to the schools chief moved their families inside and began living rent-free. Judges complained about the smell of boiled cabbage wafting into courtrooms, and the freeloading soon ended.
All this elbow room was pricey.
The courthouse was supposed to cost $250,000, but it wound up nipping taxpayers for $340,000 - an astronomical sum at the time.
But folks here burst with optimism. They envisioned Spokane becoming the jewel of the Inland Empire.
“They took a leap of faith,” says Commissioner Steve Hasson.
One look at Ritchie’s drawings on waxed linen and Hasson’s predecessors probably thought they had one heck of a drawing card: The finest public building west of the Mississippi.
“The courthouse was an attempt to say, ‘This is a place where people can set down roots. It is a place that rewards beauty, embodies culture - all of those good things,”’ says Superior Court Judge Michael Donohue.
Of course, that was really only public relations. The West was still wild.
Before the scaffolding came down, Ritchie and others found themselves under investigation for swindling taxpayers and building a lemon. One of the chief accusers was a rival architect.
A grand jury investigated, then cleared all concerned of the “untrue, malicious and wicked” accusations.
Less than a year after the cosmopolitan symbol opened, the sound of gunfire erupted inside.
A prominent lawyer was shot in the heart outside a courtroom. The friend-turned-foe who pulled the trigger was acquitted. Self-defense, the jury decided.
In those days, juries were routinely sequestered, confined to Army-style bunks on the drafty top floor of the courthouse. They drank whiskey with their meals, and the county picked up the tab.
Outside, in a medieval courtyard, there were hangings.
The last of three public executions, on the morning of March 30, 1900, drew a large, somber crowd. The sheriff sent out 300 invitations featuring the condemned man’s picture, suitably framed in black.
Atop the gallows, 28-year-old farm worker George Webster was hanged for the shocking murder of his employer’s wife.
Changes to the courthouse and its surroundings over the decades erased any trace of the hanging courtyard.
An annex was built in 1953, and there have been a series of remodelings, adding more offices and quadrupling the number of courtrooms - from four to 16.
Today’s interior more closely resembles a poorly maintained office building than a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, according to two Spokane artists, Ivan Munk and James LaVigne.
“It’s terribly sterile,” says LaVigne.
Says Munk: “It’s a beautiful building that has been badly mutilated inside.”
But some things haven’t changed:
Every morning and afternoon, maintenance workers still climb the tower’s rickety wood steps - passing turn-of-the-century graffiti - to raise and lower the flag.
When the flagpole needs a coat of paint or the pulley breaks, the county still must advertise for a courageous steeplejack to shinny skyward.
The tower remains a spooky place to visit at night.
Just ask Wes Whaley, county facilities manager, who was up there years ago to make repairs in the middle of a storm. The wind was howling and the tower swaying. Whaley, then a young mechanic, heard eerie voices.
The voices were real. They came from an old police radio stored in the tower that suddenly came to life.
Reporters still cover trials and scandals in the building - only not as often.
The courthouse used to be a gold mine of daily news. As recently as the ‘60s, every trial was breathlessly chronicled in Spokane’s two competing papers.
Readers couldn’t wait to hear lurid details flowing from divorce cases and estate squabbles.
“They were among the best-read things in the paper,” says former Spokesman-Review columnist Dorothy Powers, who broke in as a courthouse reporter in 1943.
Another recurring theme: Pooping pigeons.
Incensed by the volume of droppings smudging his black-slate roof, Building Superintendent Tom Allen declared war against the birds in 1947. Reputed to be a crack shot, he picked them off with a .22-caliber rifle.
The battle was won, but new generations of pigeons have stubbornly refused to surrender.
A few years ago, county crews were so desperate to scare away the pests, they mounted a fake owl on the roof. It didn’t work.
Like a mirror to America, the courthouse at 1116 W. Broadway has reflected the times.
In the Depression era, every employee in the building would be fired when one political party or another took control of the commissioner’s office. Cronies and campaign workers were rewarded with precious jobs.
During the Cold War, the courthouse became a fallout shelter, capable of shielding up to 573 citizens from the Red Menace. A cache of Saltines and lemon drops were stored in the tower, officials say.
For Expo ‘74, Secret Service agents ordered an extra padlock on the metal door leading to the tower. Agents feared a sniper would use the vantage point to assassinate President Nixon at the opening ceremonies.
The threat is gone but the lock remains.
The ugliest reflection came early this year in response to courthouse bombings and shootings around the country. The front entrance was locked and barricaded. Guards now funnel visitors through metal detectors at a couple of side doors.
“Outside, the building hasn’t changed,” says County Clerk Tom Fallquist, “but inside these hallways, you can see what’s happened to Spokane. It’s sad.”
Fallquist, though, is confident the courthouse can endure for centuries to come.
It is structurally sound, with 2-foot-thick supporting walls made of brick. The finely detailed facade - though recently neglected - has been given a clean bill of health by historic preservationists and county officials.
As the courthouse celebrates its 100th birthday, maybe more people will stop to admire its beauty.
Rosanne Montague, clerk to the board of commissioners, has been doing that for 29 years.
“You can’t come to work on a bright, sunny morning with the flag flying from that tower without feeling a sense of pride and privilege,” she says.
Her eyes are moist.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos