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Hitting the ceiling

TUESDAY, JUNE 19, 2007

Restoration of the Fox Theater in downtown Spokane has entered a crucial phase.

Workers late last week began assembling a steel support structure to keep the auditorium’s ornate ceiling suspended. At the same time, craftspeople were reinstalling sections of a large etched-glass light fixture above the main lobby. Masonry experts continued patching and prepping exterior walls for new paint.

“This is a critical month for us,” said construction superintendent Dennis Snyder, of Spokane’s Walker Construction Inc.

This week, 25-foot-long steel bars – each weighing a half-ton – are being lifted by crane into a square hole high above West First Avenue. Once inside, the bars will be slung by makeshift trolley into position to create a new gridwork that will support the ceiling, which currently rests on scaffolding inside the auditorium.

The steel grid will replace the ceiling’s original wire hangers, which were cut during earlier phases of construction to make room for new heating and air conditioning – a pivotal element in transforming the 1931 art deco masterpiece into a modern venue.

“This is the biggest part of the project, and the hardest,” Snyder said of the ceiling support work.

Completion of the restoration project is expected late this autumn.

The Fox Theater organization is closing in on its $31 million fundraising goal. It still needs $4.2 million more, but a number of funding requests are pending with foundations and other organizations, said Elizabeth Thompson, marketing and public relations coordinator. The total includes $26.5 million for restoration, with the remainder going to an endowment for maintenance and support for community-based entertainment.

Susan Kim, who previously created stained glass art for the Davenport Hotel and Davenport Tower, is heading up a group of craftspeople restoring the theater’s two giant light fixtures – the starburst in the lobby and sunburst at the head of the stage.

Earlier this week, Kim and her team hauled in restored sections of the leaded-glass starburst, which had been removed from the theater last winter.

“When we took it out, things were broken, completely falling apart, missing,” Kim said while standing on a deck of scaffolding erected months ago. The scaffolding has given painters and other workers access to the lobby ceiling. “Things were so structurally unsound it was better to take it out in pieces.”

Typical leaded glass, she said, is mounted vertically, using gravity to support the artwork inside a frame. But the Fox fixtures are hung horizontally, so that the weight of the glass and lead had pulled downward over the years.

Kim, who operates Reflections Stained Glass in Spokane Valley, said she remembers going to movies at the Fox years ago and noticing that makeshift repairs had been done to the 45-foot-long starburst fixture. Never did she imagine she would be hired to fix them.

Out of about 120 individual pieces of glass, 30 had to be replicated with a combination of techniques. Some pieces needed a crackled pattern created by applying glue and then removing it. Much of the metal framing had to be restored and the original glass scrubbed to remove oily residue. The fixture uses a shiny zinc instead of lead for a reflective look consistent with the art deco motif, she said.

Kim’s crew includes her associate, Scott Graham, and metal specialist Alex Robinson. In July, the team plans to remove the main sunburst fixture over the stage and overhaul it in time for the theater’s reopening, likely in November.

On the theater’s exterior, Talisman Construction Services of Spokane is repairing cracks and pits in the concrete surface in preparation for repainting. The masonry experts have done work on the Masonic Temple, Chronicle Building and Lewis & Clark High School.


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