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Salvaged history

This former powerhouse on the bluff above Liberty Park has been transformed into townhomes by owners Frank and Sherry Knott. (Jesse Tinsley)
This former powerhouse on the bluff above Liberty Park has been transformed into townhomes by owners Frank and Sherry Knott. (Jesse Tinsley)

Exterior of residences retains look of former power station

When it comes to home renovations, Sherry Knott picked perhaps the most challenging one possible. Having once lived in a row house in Philadelphia that she loved, she always wanted to do a loft renovation for herself – and in 1978 when she came across the old derelict Frequency Changing Station on the bluff just above Liberty Park, she found her opportunity.

“It was a clear-span building with no interior walls and with 11,000 square feet on the main floor. It was being used as a storage facility for a boat dealer,” she said. “And it was perfect for what I wanted to do.”

And do with it she did. As a result, the building and its adjacent storage battery wing have been transformed into eclectic living spaces and a garage – a far cry from their original design in 1908 when they housed the electrical equipment that powered an interurban railway system centered in Spokane. The larger 102-by-76-foot brick building (the formal changing station), more than 50 feet high and capped by a medium gable roof, once housed four motor generator sets, four 1250-kilowatt transformers, three 375-kW transformers and three 75-kW transformers. They distributed power generated by the Inland Power Plant at Nine Mile to a rail system that connected people and products throughout the region – Coeur d’Alene and Moscow in Idaho and Colfax to Spokane in Washington – as well as the streetcar system within Spokane itself.

The 20-foot tall, 92-by-42-foot east wing contained a 550-volt chloride storage battery and other pieces of equipment that were charged when demands on the system were low, reducing the amount of power drawn from the Nine Mile generators during high-peak times, thus saving power costs by an estimated 50 percent.

All equipment was removed from the structures in about 1939, when the property was first sold by the rail interests. The buildings remained structurally sound but were subject to vandalism. “We had to put in $40,000 in windows alone,” Knott said, “as people had thrown rocks through just about every window, including all 12 of the 5-by-12-foot windows.”

Knott, who was a broker for Merrill Lynch, has a bachelor’s degree in design and served as her own architect on the remodel, which was completed under the umbrella of her own construction company. She found out rather quickly that no bank would loan money for her project as it was “too wild and crazy an idea,” she said. So she sought and received listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and began financing the project herself.

As there was no water and no sewer on site, one of the first tasks was to blast the front of the hill in order to connect to these services. And then in order not to affect the historic register designation, she could not modify the exterior to any great degree and was confined to create an interior design that worked within the 24-inch-square pilasters that were set 16 feet apart. She opted to construct four 16-foot-wide townhouses that went up three levels, a caretaker unit and living quarters for herself and her husband, Frank, former owner of Ott-Knott farm equipment and dealers in Fairfield. Their portion of the old changing station takes up the north end of the building and consists of seven rooms and four bathrooms; the other townhouses are rented out.

When she began the renovation in 1978, the front doors were (and still are) so huge that trucks delivering materials could drive right into the building to offload. That entry vestibule space, which Knott calls the great hall, is about 65 by 35 feet in size and boasts a 55-foot rise from floor to ceiling. It has been the site of many musical performances, often fundraisers for opera, chamber and classical music organizations. Knott is on the board of trustees of the Spokane Symphony Orchestra.

The great hall is surrounded by a catwalk that connects the master bedroom to the library, guest rooms and office areas. To reach the catwalk, visitors ascend a beautiful J-shaped staircase that rises 15 feet. It is made of wood salvaged from two structures that were being demolished, the Hyde Building downtown and St. Joseph’s Orphanage. Oak in the staircase came from the Hyde Building, and the vertical green fir came from St. Joseph’s. Also from St. Joseph’s is an ornate wooden facade that adorned the choir loft; it now serves as the handrail at the front of the catwalk connecting the east and west sides of the unit.

Many other materials in the building have been salvaged from historic buildings in Spokane. A garden area was also created on the north and west sides of the building. And the former battery-storage east wing now serves as a garage and storage area for the Knotts and the renters.

The view is quite spectacular – out over Liberty Park, with the spires of St. Aloysius Catholic Church in the Gonzaga district and Mount Spokane quite visible in the distance. There is that Interstate 90 traffic noise to deal with, which the Knotts have handled with a lovely water feature in the north side garden.

Modernity certainly caused Spokane to abandon its interurban electric rail line, but its former Frequency Changing Station, once abandoned itself, has a new life and new purpose today – while its exterior still pays tribute to its historic former life.