As word spread online about a blaze in Spokane’s Garland District, so did cellphone pictures of the fire – and a ton of anxiety.
The Garland District without the Milk Bottle would be like Washington, D.C., without the Washington Monument or Riverfront Park without the Clocktower.
Would what is perhaps the most famous landmark in North Spokane, The Milk Bottle, be lost?
When the fire was finally out, Ferguson’s, another iconic eatery, was nearly destroyed, as was much of Mary Lou’s Milk Bottle. The Spokane Fire Department estimated the blaze caused more than $1 million in damage.But the 38-foot-tall bottle was intact.
“The hysteria was almost worse than the actual fire,” said Bonnie Quinn, president of the Garland Business District.
Not that the fire on Sept. 25 wasn’t devastating, she said. Both restaurants suffered major damage and have been closed since. Damage was so bad inside Ferguson’s that for weeks it wasn’t clear it would be rebuilt.
Without Ferguson’s and Mary Lou’s attracting their usual breakfast and lunch crowds, surrounding businesses have noticed a decline in customers, Quinn said.
But there are finally signs of rebuilding. This week, construction started on a new roof over Ferguson’s. And Dave Jones, who owns Ferguson’s, and Ed and Kristine Ritchie, who own Mary Lou’s, say they hope to reopen in April.
Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said the department is waiting to complete tests to rule out electrical problems as a cause of the fire. If that occurs, it likely would be considered human-caused or arson.
Jones owned Ferguson’s but didn’t own the building. He also was “a little under-insured.”
But a few factors worked in his favor to rebuild. Firefighters were able to preserve the building’s walls. That allows Ferguson’s to be grandfathered in under some older codes that will keep costs lower. Also, the owner of the building agreed to sell it to him.
“I thought it was going to be a parking lot if I didn’t get a chance to buy the building,” Jones said.
Jones had spent several months refurbishing Ferguson’s and had been open only about a year before the fire.
“We were really doing well,” he said.
The reconstructed café will maintain a yellow, black and white color scheme. The restaurant’s soda fountain likely will be restored, as will the café’s historic neon sign, which collapsed in the fire. Original movie posters of the three films shot in the café were damaged. He said if they can’t be restored, he will search to find replacements.
Jones has cooked at two other historic Spokane breakfast joints, including Knight’s Diner and the Top Notch Café (which is now La Esquina). He also used to own Arny’s (which is now Wolffy’s) near Gonzaga.
Rebuilding gives him a chance to move the grill closer to customers, where he can better interact with them.
Jones said he realizes that Ferguson’s isn’t the landmark that the Milk Bottle is. It did, however, play a bigger role in two of the most famous movies filmed in Spokane, “Vision Quest” and “Benny & Joon.”
“I’m not near the draw they are,” Jones said. “I just happen to have really good breakfast.”
The Milk Bottle
The Ritchies were vacationing in British Columbia when they got the call from their son that their business was on fire and got a play-by-play from him over the phone.
Kristine’s family home burned when she was in first grade, and she has bad memories of firefighters removing her toys.
“I was so grateful that I didn’t have to see our precious business burn,” she said.
The Ritchies, who live near the Milk Bottle, also own Mary Lou’s in Spokane Valley. The family business employs two sons and a nephew. Even with the Milk Bottle closed six workers have been kept on the payroll.
“We want our good employees back,” she said.
Although the bottle is intact, the surrounding roof must come off and be replaced. For that to happen, the new beams must be installed to secure the bottle. Inside, the ceiling and nearly everything else has been stripped away except for the tangle of support beams that that support the bottle.
“It will be a totally new building in an old shell,” said Kristine, who bakes the restaurant’s pies.
The Ritchies plan to maintain the same feel and nearly the same arrangement. There still will be room in the back for Ed Ritchie to bake homemade hamburger buns.
Planned changes include the location of the restroom and raising the ceiling in the part of the restaurant that’s under the bottle.
They were advised against opening the ceiling to the top of the bottle, but it will be raised several feet, and neon will encircle the inside.
Outside, the Ritchies hope to bring back neon lights that used to mark the cream line and the top.
“I’m glad that it didn’t burn further because we would have run out of money,” Kristine Ritchie said.
With time on their hands until the restaurant can reopen, the Ritchies have been volunteering daily at The Salvation Army during the holiday season. The couple are organizing a Christmas Eve dinner for the needy, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. to 6:15 p.m., at The Salvation Army’s Spokane community center, 222 E. Indiana Ave.
Jones and the Ritchies say they are humbled by the support they’ve been given by nearby businesses and others and praise the efforts of firefighters to keep the blaze from spreading farther and for removing important items even as the buildings burned.
The district has auctioned items off to raise money for the Milk Bottle and Ferguson’s.
A few items can still be bid on at the Garland Business District’s Facebook page, including a dinner for four with actor Mathew Modine, who starred in “Vision Quest.” The bid for the dinner has reached $700.
Modine agreed to participate because he’ll be in town next year for the Spokane International Film Festival, said Stacey Takaoka, secretary of the district and owner of Karmony Salon and Day Spa.
Quinn said the district will work with the Ritchies and Jones to plan a reopening celebration.
“We’re going to make a big deal about it,” she said.
Ritchie said the Milk Bottle may reserve the first day of business for firefighters.
“This neighborhood owes the Fire Department so much,” Kristine Ritchie said. “They were amazing.”