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A new tradition: Christmas tree a River Park Square ritual

Thu., Dec. 20, 2012

Standing tall this season over the many people in busy pursuit of those last few gifts for Christmas is one of Spokane’s largest Christmas trees – the several-stories high tree that occupies much of the atrium area of River Park Square in downtown Spokane.

People take pictures by it. Children have a visit with Santa in front of it. And the public gazes across and then down upon it as they ride the escalators up to see movies at the AMC theaters in the mall. They’ve been admiring the tree since it was first put in place in 2002.

True, the 80-foot-tall Norway spruce that is New York City’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree this year is taller. And, of course, that’s a real tree, but it’s surprising how many people think the RPS tree is real, too. “We’re asked every year if the tree is a real one,” said Elizabeth Mills, RPS marketing director.

It’s not. Instead it is an intricately assembled metal frame adorned with branches, lights and ornaments. The tree itself is 50 feet tall. The star, which was added in 2009, brings the height to 52 feet. The tree has 389 branches, with 24 twigs to a branch. Each branch normally has three giant ornaments, for a total of roughly 1,200 ornaments – red and silver balls and candy canes. And it boasts 10,000 LED lights.

When the current River Park Square opened in 1999, the first Christmas trees put up in the atrium were live ones. RPS management purchased the current tree from a shopping center décor store. It took representatives from the manufacturer three tries to assemble it on site before figuring out how to do it right, Mills said.

It does go together something like Tinker Toys do, Mills noted: “You know – section one, piece one; section two, piece three, etc.”

The frame consists of semicircular metal pieces that become smaller as they are bolted together and stack up from the ground. The branches, upon which the ornaments are permanently attached, are inserted into the rebar, with pieces color-coded to match and fit precisely in the right place. “This way, there’s an even distribution of ornaments and not a big clumping together of one kind of ornament,” Mills added.

The tree, with branches attached, is 25 feet wide at its base. A lift is required for hoisting the heavy metal sections the full height of the tree. Most lifts are too wide to come in through RPS’ 8-foot-wide exhibit doors, nor is a gasoline-powered lift allowed indoors. It was quite a hunt, but they did find just the right battery-powered lift with big tires and wide enough to support the load, but just narrow enough to get in through the doors. The lift is also used for window cleaning and installation of outdoor lights at the mall.

It takes a crew of two RPS workers – plus some help – about three days to get the tree installed and ready to shine. Mills said that in years past, members of the carpenters union volunteered to help, which cut down the job by a day. However, “this year, for the best of reasons, they weren’t able to volunteer,” she said. “They all had paid work elsewhere, which is great, especially this time of year.”

RPS staff has pretty much gotten the rhythm down now in assembling the tree, Mills said, even the small details. When they once hired people to fluff up the branches after they’re unpacked, “we now just fluff as we go when putting them up.”

Still, there are always problems to overcome with a project of this size. At first the tree was outfitted with C7 lights. There wasn’t enough power in the floor outlets for them, so power had to come from three power sources, Mills said, “and that meant the lights would dim from time to time. Now with the LED lights, they burn brighter, plug in to one regular household-type receptacle and there’s no flickering.”

Because things break with time, they had to install new ornaments in 2008. They have spares for any mishaps that might occur. “I think we’re good for another 10 years with ornaments,” Mills said.

There are a lot of responses from the public to the tree, Mills said, some of which are kind of funny. Shortly after the tree was put together for this season, she came to work one morning and heard the engineers inside the tree working on a wiring problem. “So I walked up to the tree and stuck my head inside to talk with them to find out what was going on,” she said. “When I withdrew and turned around, there were some people staring rather strangely at me. I guess popping your head inside a tree and holding a conversation with unseen people does seem a little odd.”

When the holidays are over, the tree will be disassembled, the semicircular frames stacked together, branches put back in their boxes – and everything will be put in the large storage room accessed from the lower level of the parking garage and under the Nordstrom sidewalk on Main Street.

Mills said she knows that many people used to take their children to the former Crescent department store this time of year to see its winter wonderland display windows, complete with animated figures and holiday scenes.

“That was a family tradition that is gone now,” she said. “But I hope our tree will become like the Crescent store windows, something for families to look forward to every holiday season.”

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