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Washington Voices

Direct line to history

Thu., Aug. 6, 2009

The Home Telephone and Telegraph Co. building, at First and Howard in downtown Spokane, dates back to 1907. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
The Home Telephone and Telegraph Co. building, at First and Howard in downtown Spokane, dates back to 1907. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

There are so many buildings in Spokane, especially in the downtown area, that contain interesting and little-known tales about the development of the region. They may look like just so much brick and mortar, with maybe a little filigree out front, but they are veritable history books.

Take, for instance, the Home Telephone and Telegraph Building at First Avenue and Howard Street . Built in 1907, it was designed by Spokane architect Albert Held, famous for such structures as the Holley-Mason building, the James Glover home and Lowell, Grant, Webster and Lincoln schools. The builder was John Huetter, also a noted Spokane pioneer, who got the contract for $60,700 – though there was a $1 million capital outlay earmarked for construction and implementation of the phone company’s operations in Spokane.

The 72-by-100-foot building, now on the Spokane, Washington state and National registers of Historic Places, housed the Home Telephone and Telegraph Co. for 56 years. The company played a large role in the development of telephone services in the Inland Northwest and holds three distinctions: It was the first in Spokane to offer independent, automatic-dial service for home and office, the first to offer independent long distance service throughout a four-state region, and the first to promote battery-powered exchanges that eliminated the need for the same type of batteries in personal telephones.

When the company introduced the automatic-dial system, the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was up in arms, calling it an effort to “shut the ‘girless’ (system) out of Spokane,” according to a Spokane Daily Chronicle story concerning the possible fate of telephone operators.

And it was former President Theodore Roosevelt who pressed the button that completed the final connection of the new automated exchange, the so-called girless system, at Home Telephone and Telegraph.

The company was in competition with Inland Telephone and Telegraph Co., which caused a certain amount of chaos, according to reports, because in order to telephone people utilizing rival equipment, a person had to have two phones. In 1915, Home’s equipment was taken over by its rival, although the name was retained until 1935, when it became known as Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co.

It operated at the South Howard address until 1963, when it was sold and used for a variety of purposes, most notably as an alcohol and drug detoxification and treatment center, from 1991-2005. After that, it was purchased by JoAnn Kauffman and her husband, Thomas Keefe Jr., for $600,000. It was renovated at a cost of about another $600,000, according to Keefe, and now houses Kauffman & Associates Inc., a public policy consulting firm that employs 50 people in Spokane and another 20 in Washington, D.C.

“Falling in love with an old building can be an expensive business,” Keefe said.

Kauffman & Associates now occupies a portion of the first floor and the entire second floor, which is designed to approximate the look of a northern coastal longhouse, reflecting Kauffman’s Nez Perce heritage, Keefe said. The basement retains the commercial kitchen, though not in use since the detox days, and is also home to the Howard Street Boxing Club, the former Spokane Eagles boxing club.

As originally constructed, the building sported a unique façade, with Beaux Arts-style decorations, a terra cotta parapet and wide frieze. The frieze still remains, covering the top third of the building with sculptured dentils, fruited festoons and egg-and-dart design centered within the terra cotta panels.

A 1910 postcard shows the original lower portion of the building was faced with red bricks and a storefront system divided by brick pilasters into five bays. In 1970 a rusticated Roman brick veneer was applied over the bottom two-thirds of the building, covering the original street-level architectural treatment.

Keefe said there had been a piano store on the first floor of the building at one time, and when Kauffman & Associates set about remodeling, an old grand piano was unearthed. It turned out to be a 1911 Steinway, and a portion of the building had to be broken open to remove it.

“We’re having it restored and will put it in our home,” Keefe said.

Old buildings like the Home Telephone and Telegraph Co. Building contain all kinds of glimpses into Spokane’s history. Keefe said that when they set out to find a building to purchase, they wanted to invest in a solid downtown structure, one with space for the business to grow, and one with history.

This one has done quite nicely, he said.


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