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Washington Voices

Cheney City Hall’s history no hard sell

Thu., March 26, 2009

Old-timers in Spokane know it, but many younger people here don’t: Spokane’s City Hall on the corner of Post Street and Spokane Falls Boulevard in downtown Spokane used to be a Montgomery Wards retail store.

And the even-younger 20-year-olds here may not even know what Montgomery Wards is – or was – never having experienced the pleasure at the arrival each year of a new “Monkey Wards” catalog, which was the size of a big-city phone book, and the hours that followed carefully examining the pages for the delights contained therein, from all that practical farm equipment to toys and pretty dresses.

But back to the building in downtown Spokane. How it came to be constructed as a retail store is part of the interesting history of the Montgomery Wards company, which had largely been a national catalog mail order business until the 1920s.

As the price of goods fluctuated day to day in the years following World War I, the company realized it was at a disadvantage being obligated to prices that were fixed in a catalog published annually. Adding retail department stores would provide flexibility for changing prices as economic conditions changed. So, Wards opened its first retail store in Evansville, Ind., in 1925, and plans were made for additional stores across the nation, including Spokane.

Spokane’s population more than doubled in the first two decades of the 20th century, with the city serving as a major retail center for a large geographic region, hub for several major national railroads and supplier of goods and services for Idaho’s mining industry. No wonder that in 1929 Montgomery Wards located its first major department store in Washington in Spokane.

Elevated railroad tracks crossed the entire downtown at the time, which made possible an elevated Union Pacific spur abutting the third floor elevator on the north side of the new building, so freight could be off loaded on to the cantilevered platform and through the large sliding doors. The more public east-, south- and west-facing sides of the building incorporated vertical windows accented by the floral motifs of the art deco style – a progressive, though short-lived, design style – with second-floor windows having the curvy lines at the top and heavy fluted pilasters capped at the third floor line by inset precast floral panels.

The precast elements appeared to have rose, ochre and green aggregate in the concrete mix, yielding different colors from the cast-in-place concrete work. Art deco ornamentation was carried inside into the basement, first and second floors of the retail space, largely with the use of artistic geometric forms rather than the floral designs displayed on the exterior.

Art deco, popularized by the Paris Exposition of 1925 and considered “architecture for the people,” was new to the Montgomery Wards company. The style was used at the Spokane retail store and at catalog warehouses in Portland, Oakland and Kansas City.

Times and fortunes changed and the company merged in 1968 with Container Group of America, was purchased by Mobil Oil in 1976 and in 1985, after 113 years, closed its catalog business. It was out of business by 2000, though an online incarnation emerged in 2004.

The city of Spokane, whose City Hall was located just a few blocks away, needed more space to house its offices, purchased the Wards building, renovated it and in 1981 moved into the historic building which is on the National and Spokane registers of historic places.

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