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Morning fire guts iconic Cliff House

But Arbor Crest’s operators say building can be salvaged

A landmark mansion that overlooks Spokane Valley will be rebuilt after an early morning fire that gutted the historic building’s interior, the general manager said Wednesday.

“We can rebuild it,” Jim van Loben Sels said of Arbor Crest Cliff House, 4705 N. Fruithill Road. “It’s not burned to the ground.”

Investigators said the fire was caused by a power strip located in the building’s first-floor office.

Firefighters were called at 3:51 a.m. after a motorist on Trent Avenue spotted the blaze, said Spokane Valley Fire Chief Mike Thompson. A second caller saw a glow coming from the mansion and with binoculars could see that it was burning, he said.

When the first crews arrived, fire was burning on all three floors. Windows already had been blown out by the fire’s heat, he said.

A second alarm went out a short time later, bringing 24 firefighters and six fire rigs to the scene initially. Crews from Fire District 9 assisted.

“It was burning pretty significantly before we even got our first units here,” Thompson said.

By 7:30 a.m., firefighters had knocked down the blaze and were in the process of mopping up hot spots inside the building. No injuries occurred. Firefighters said the wood-frame structure with stucco walls appeared intact.

Built by Royal Riblet in 1925, the mansion is the architectural focal point of the Arbor Crest winery grounds on a bluff east of Argonne Road.

The mansion was designed by prominent Spokane architect George Keith and built for Riblet, an inventor and entrepreneur who made his money building tramways for Inland Northwest mining companies, according to the local historic preservation office. Riblet named the mansion Eagle’s Nest.

His brother, engineer Byron Christian Riblet, in 1896 started what became the Riblet Tramway Co., still based in Spokane. The Riblet name is familiar to skiers because the company has built ski chairlifts since the 1950s.

At one time, the only way to reach the house was via one of Riblet’s trams crossing the Spokane River, according to the historic preservation office.

The building and property were purchased for Arbor Crest Wine Cellars in mid-1980s and restored about the same time that it was placed on the local register through the efforts of brothers David and Harold Mielke.

Harold Mielke is the father of Arbor Crest’s winemaker, Kristina van Loben Sels. David Mielke has retired from the family operation.

The landscaped estate, with its basalt rock entry gatehouse, is the setting for a popular summer evening concert series known to thousands of wine and music lovers. Weddings are held there throughout the warm-weather months.

The winery operates the mansion for special events and tours and uses a newer tasting room to the north for its retail wine sales and tastings. Winemaking and bottling are done at a separate facility near Havana Street and Buckeye Avenue.

Efforts to repair the fire-damaged structure started as firefighters left the scene Wednesday.

A fire restoration company used a mechanical lift to attach boards over broken windows.

Kristina van Loben Sels said the building is insured and that she “absolutely” wants to repair the damage if it can be done. Damage to the interior was most severe on the south side of the building, but the fire was kept out of the roof. A staircase leading from the ground floor to the second floor was taken out by the fire, said Jim van Loben Sels.

“It’s pretty much gutted on the whole south side of the house,” he said, but “the building is pretty much intact.”

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