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Room for a view: Duplex crushed

Browne’s Addition garden being restored

People who support historic preservation aren’t typically cheering when homes are torn down. Sometimes, they protest.

But preservation advocates and neighbors applauded – and participated in – the demolition of a Browne’s Addition duplex Saturday, a project that clears the way for the restoration of part of the garden and grounds of the 120-year-old E.J. Roberts Mansion.

“I have so looked forward to this day – for 28 years,” said Mary Moltke, who bought the mansion in 1981 and has renovated it as a bed and breakfast.

Moltke told the crowd gathered at the corner of First Avenue and Cannon Street that ever since she purchased the mansion, she’d tried to sell or convert or even give away the boxy, beige duplex next door.

“I even thought an arsonist might be a good idea,” she joked.

With the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey” playing, she hurled a historic street brick through a window, and the demolition began.

Moltke and the Spokane Preservation Advocates turned it into a party, with music and faux protesters carrying such signs as “Down with Urban Blight.” The SPA had auctioned off some of the premium destructive roles at a fundraiser. Pat O’Neil paid $450 for the prime prize, the chance to operate the enormous excavator parked on the duplex’s lawn.

“We think it’s really important to preserve these buildings that make up the history of a city,” said O’Neil, a mechanical engineer who moved with his family from Seattle to Spokane a couple of years ago.

He said he’d never operated heavy machinery.

“I’ve driven a Bobcat,” he said. “That’s about it, and that was pretty fun. I think any guy would like to have the chance to do something like this.”

A representative of the demolition company, MoMike Demolition and Salvage, gave O’Neil a brief tutorial, and he was off. Slowly and uncertainly, he raised the excavator’s claw above the corner of the roof and opened it wide. He sat it on the roof and closed the claw, tearing off the first hunk of roof to a big round of applause.

Then he took a second bite, the wood creaking and cracking as a larger hole opened. Then came part of a wall, and next the heavy claw dove through the roof and roamed around inside like a drunken tyrannosaur.

Soon – while the stereo played “Another One Bites the Dust” – O’Neil was wielding the claw like a club, swinging it through a wall sideways. Eventually, the demolition pros took over, and less than an hour after the ceremony began, the first clear view of the mansion’s west side in decades emerged.

“I did the best I could,” O’Neil said. “It was fun.”

The restoration of the grounds is the latest step in Moltke’s long-standing work on the mansion. She’s proceeded one room at a time, and she said her plans for the garden, which include a wrought-iron fence, walking paths and perhaps a fountain, were developed more than 20 years ago. Next, she plans to open a catering service and restaurant.

Moltke announced the building’s demolition in huge letters on the side of the duplex itself – painting “Bye Bye Blight” on the front, with the time and date of the destruction. She said she gave the tenants several months to find another place to live; among other neighbors the demolition was immediately popular, she said.

“I just had a lot of congratulatory calls, people coming to the door and asking, ‘Is it really true? Is it really going away?’ ” Moltke said. “I think it’s been pretty much a neighborhood consensus that it will help the historic integrity of the neighborhood to have it returned to the original grounds.”

Much of the material inside the demolished duplex was removed to be recycled or reused, including hardwood flooring, copper pipe and cabinets.

Among those in attendance Saturday was Bill Roberts, the grandson of E.J. Roberts. Bill Roberts lived in the mansion as a teenager with his family during the 1930s, and he’s provided some help to Moltke as she’s restored the place. Now 93, he said he’s excited to see the return of a lawn and garden on the mansion’s west side.

“I love to visualize it that way,” he said. “I’m happy to see the removal of the duplex.”