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Storefront memories

To this day, people still get misty-eyed when recalling Christmas season at the downtown Crescent building

One recent winter day, Patty Kilcup, 63, and Deb Green, 49, sat in Green’s restaurant, Madeleine’s Café and Patisserie, and reminisced.

The women, business acquaintances now, didn’t know each other as children, but both experienced nearly identical holiday season rituals.

They would dress up in pretty dresses, patent leather shoes and furry white hand muffs and travel with their families to downtown Spokane.

They would stand outside The Crescent department store windows and watch elves pound out Christmas toys, reindeer fly through the sky and ballerinas twirl on stardust.

They would visit Santa inside The Crescent, peruse “Toyland” and then eat at the store’s lunch fountain.

And they would gaze upon the Madonna stained-glass window at the Bon Marche department store across the street from The Crescent, another symbol that Christmas had finally arrived in Spokane.

Madeleine’s, at 707 W. Main Ave., is located in the former Crescent department store building, as is the Pita Pit next door. People walk into both businesses and share memories of The Crescent Christmas windows.

What happened to those iconic Crescent decorations? That Bon Marche Madonna window – now Macy’s Madonna window – how did it survive all these years?

And why so much nostalgia for Christmas windows from Spokane’s past?

Dear readers, with Christmas less than two weeks away, we have some answers.

Christmas past

For those who never knew The Crescent, understand this: Nothing like it remains in Spokane.

It opened in 1889, the day before the great fire roared through town. The store was spared. It moved several times; ultimately the building encompassed several premier downtown Spokane blocks, took up seven floors and boasted 101 departments.

The Crescent thrived in the eras when women dressed up just to go downtown. You could spend the whole day in the department store.

Get your hair done. Meet your friends “under the clock” and then go to lunch in the Tea Room, later renamed the Apple Tree. Shop. Request same-day home delivery.

See a fashion show. Buy gifts for a bride-to-be. Pause for an afternoon snack at the lunch fountain. Select candy treats for the children before heading home.

“Whenever The Crescent is mentioned, the stories of service and quality proliferate,” writes Donald R. Johnson in “Under the Clock: The Story of The Crescent Department Store.”

“There are stories of the employee who delivered the special Christmas present on Christmas Eve, the superb tailoring services, the patient clerks and the overall ‘the customer is always right’ policy.”

And those Christmas windows: handcrafted Santas, elves, ballerinas, chipmunks, giant elephants, dreamy hot air balloons. Some of them moved in animatronic fashion, like characters from Disneyland.

In 1988, Frederick & Nelson bought the store and The Crescent name disappeared into history. Though Frederick & Nelson enjoyed a fine run in Spokane, and retained the Christmas decoration tradition, the store never again achieved its exalted holiday season status.

Times had changed. Shopping malls beyond downtown created their own Christmas rituals. Children, apt to have seen the real Disneyland in person or on TV, didn’t thrill as much at Spokane’s version.

The Crescent building ceased its department store life in the mid-1990s and evolved into its new life as an office-and-retail complex.

Meanwhile, across Main Avenue, the Madonna window has made an appearance every Christmas season for 52 years, even surviving the store’s official name change to Macy’s in 2005.

Baldwin Sign Co. created the Christmas decoration in 1957 for the Bon Marche and refurbished it in 1973.

The Madonna window is not really stained-glass, explained Tom Best, Macy’s operations manager-logistics. The structure is fashioned from eight 6- by 12-foot durable plastic panels, hand-painted to look like glass.

It’s lighted with 75-watt incandescent light bulbs – “500 of them,” according to Joel Baldwin of the sign company.

It takes a crane, and six strong workers, 10 to 12 hours each holiday season to put the decoration in place. Workers fasten the panels on a metal structure that anchors it to the store’s enormous entryway window.

“It is the oldest and largest lighted holiday decoration in Spokane,” said Macy’s downtown store manager Laura Howe. “We are proud to be able to continue this local tradition.”

Young Catholic kids once thought the initials “BM” – still situated in the window above the Madonna – stood for “Blessed Mary.” The initials stood for Bon Marche, but the decoration’s religious overtone was unmistakable.

Neither Best, Howe or Baldwin can remember anyone ever complaining.

Christmas present

Darrel Muehling, professor and chairman of the marketing department at the Washington State University College of Business, has researched the use of nostalgia in advertising.

He defines nostalgia as “a bittersweet longing for the past.”

Emotions evoked in nostalgia are so powerful that until the mid-1900s, “nostalgia was viewed as a mental deficiency, a psychiatric issue,” Muehling said.

It has more positive connotations now, he said, but “the bittersweet part is recognizing that we cannot return to the past.”

Nostalgia really surfaces during difficult times, Muehling said. He’s not surprised that in this shaky economic climate, people sometimes get emotional when reminiscing about those long ago Crescent windows.

“People say, ‘Wow, this life we’re living now is so stressful, wouldn’t it be nice if we could return to a calmer, more gentle time?’ ” he said.

The Crescent decorations live on in nostalgia – and in reality.

Curt Lorenz is the property manager for The Crescent building, which is owned by a national company, Fowler Property Acquisitions.

He led the way one recent afternoon to The Crescent’s former bargain basement. Here, some of the Christmas window decorations now reside: giant ornaments, wreaths, snowmen, a papier-mâché Mary and Joseph, a reindeer, a skunk, a nutcracker head.

In a sub-basement, more characters: a moose, an owl, bunny rabbits, chipmunks dressed in burgundy sweaters. Some are still attached to electric cords. Most need repair. All look lonely.

A local casino tried to buy the leftover decorations, as did one individual, Lorenz said. “But the decision was made to keep them with the building and encourage tenants to use them.”

Some of the characters live on in the Pita Pit window, spruced up by owner Kathy Robinson. Santa’s elf stirs paint. A squirrel in a stocking cap rides a tricycle. Ballerinas arabesque into the past.

“The little dancers are so excited to be out in the open again,” Robinson said.

The Crescent decorations also live on in historic photos. Eight Crescent window photos are on display at Madeleine’s, copied from archives at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture. They provide the backdrop for the café’s annual Sunday breakfasts with Santa.

“We have a lady come in every year, and she brings 20 of her family members,” said owner Green. “Her father played Santa in The Crescent for eight years. We couldn’t do exactly what The Crescent has done, but we wanted to start our own traditions in the same location.

“Times are hard. Memories are built on love. If we share the memories, it keeps us all alive.”