February 4, 2010 in Washington Voices

Casket factory survives with new life purpose

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photo

The former Inland Casket Company Building at 2320 N. Atlantic St. was renovated in 2003 and is on the Spokane Register of Historic Places.
(Full-size photo)

The Inland Casket Company factory building on Atlantic Street on Spokane’s near north side holds two distinctions. It was home to one of the longest operating casket companies in the area. And it is the only casket factory building still standing in Spokane.

This building nearly went the way of the others, but then Marshall Clark of Clark Pacific Realty stepped in. “It was a mess, but I’m good at visualizing things and saw what, with a lot of work, this beautiful old brick building could be,” he said.

When he bought it in 2002, he could hardly walk through due to all the junk in the building, which had been used as a storage facility. The roof leaked so badly, Clark said, that the fire department had condemned it. “Moisture was being collected on plastic sheets on the top floor and run through hoses to the outside, and there were 40 wild cats living inside,” he said.

Today, it is on the Spokane Register of Historic Places and completely renovated.

Inland Casket Company was founded in 1905 by Minnesota casket maker Emil August Skone, who opened his business at another site less than two weeks after arriving in Spokane. He worked from a wooden one-story building at 21 W. Sharp Ave. until it burned to the ground in 1913. Skone then purchased several lots at what is now 2320 N. Atlantic St. for his new three-story brick factory. The lots were adjacent to homes on the west and the commercial Division Street corridor to the east.

The residential neighbors were not happy at the intrusion of a casket factory into the neighborhood, and a civil suit was brought to stop construction. It was settled for a reported $2,000, and the building project proceeded. Together with partners John Powers and Peter Sether, Skone reopened Inland Casket Company in the three-story brick structure in December 1913.

Records show that wooden caskets were manufactured there from cedar brought in from Priest River, Idaho, and British Columbia, and dried in a kiln, all operations on site. Upholstery work for the interiors was also completed at the factory. By 1925, casket prices ranged from $20 to $100. The company also brought in metal casket shells from the Midwest and finished them on site. Finished products were shipped to Spokane funeral homes and to communities throughout Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon.

In 1927 the building was enlarged, with mirror image of the original building added on to the south side. A vertical joint shows where the two buildings merged into one. Architect for the project was G.A. Pehrson, who was also responsible for the Spokane Daily Chronicle and Paulsen Medical and Dental buildings in downtown Spokane. A newspaper account at the time noted that Inland Casket Company was one of the largest such facilities in the Pacific Northwest and that 4,000 to 5,000 caskets were produced there annually.

Powers died in 1923, Sether in 1933 and Skone in 1945. The Skone heirs continued making caskets at the factory until late in the 1970s, when, according to historical research prepared for the Spokane Register of Historical Places nomination form, “small independent, locally owned casket factories were unfortunately absorbed or replaced by larger, mega-national corporations.” It is estimated that between 1913 and 1978, hundreds of thousands of caskets were produced at Inland Casket Company.

When renovating the structure, Clark said he worked to retain all he could inside the building. An old walk-in safe remains, as do some of the windows from the upholstery shop, now providing light into a conference room. The giant scales that were built into the floor, used for weighing caskets to determine their weight for shipping, are still part of the flooring on the main level. “We just walk right across them,” said Clark, whose realty company is located on the first floor.

And when he built a separate nine-bay garage building on the property, he ensured that old brick was used, thus retaining a vintage look for the property.

The Inland Casket Company factory building still resides in a transition zone between the hustle and bustle of businesses on North Division Street and the homes to the west, just as it was back in 1913, but there’s an interesting twist to the story today.

So committed was Clark to the project that he created a 4,000-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bath apartment that takes up half of the top floor – and moved his family in. “I have a 40-foot commute to work, from the third floor to the first,” he said. “Not bad.”

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at upwindsailor@ comcast.net. Previous columns are available atspokesman.com/ columnists/


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