Gym-turned-studio building once part of Catholic school

THURSDAY, FEB. 23, 2012

Hamilton Studio used to be a gymnasium for St. Joseph’s Catholic School. (Photo by Don Hamilton)
Hamilton Studio used to be a gymnasium for St. Joseph’s Catholic School. (Photo by Don Hamilton)

The old parochial school gym building in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood is not only beautiful, it is a wonderful example of a strikingly different kind of early-Spokane architecture.

St. Joseph’s Catholic School Auditorium/Gymnasium sits on the corner of Walnut Street and Dean Avenue, a few blocks east of the hectic Maple-Ash corridor on the city’s near North Side, just across the street from the church, rectory and convent. It was constructed in the Spanish eclectic tradition, which is rooted in Spanish Colonial architecture, influenced by Moorish, Gothic, Renaissance and Byzantine styles. Typical of the style are narrow, tile-covered shed roofs above entries and projecting windows, low-pitched roofs with hardly any overhanging eaves, metal-sash windows, entries surrounded by pilasters and patterned tiles.

Built in 1928 for $26,000, the gymnasium was home to the school’s assemblies and indoor athletic activities until the school closed in 1969. It was designed by noted architect Julius Zittel, who was appointed state architect in 1897. During his tenure, he designed most state projects in Eastern Washington and numerous religious and educational buildings in the area, including the downtown Carnegie Library, Gonzaga University’s administration building, Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral and St. Aloysius Catholic Church.

The building’s exterior remains nearly unchanged – though the front doors have been replaced – and is highlighted by its multicolored variegated brick veneer (Lincoln Log brick), red metal barrel-shaped tiles and huge scroll-sawn roof brackets. Also prominent are molded-concrete coping capping the pilasters that project 12 inches out from the front face of the building.

The interior, however, was significantly remodeled when the building was purchased in 1985 by Don Hamilton. He took care to preserve a number of original features, such as the footlights on the stage and the maple plank floors, when he set up his Hamilton Studio inside. He also retained the stage and its proscenium with its classic design-inspired entablature and some original pendant lights with their milky shades.

“I was actually looking for an old barn when a friend who sells real estate showed this to me,” Hamilton said. “And here it was, a big empty space with a clear span and no posts. It was a magnificent glazed-brick building. It was perfect.”

Well, not exactly perfect. Hamilton had to put in new wiring and a new HVAC system, blow in sound insulation, create a huge cyclorama (an infinity wall), build new restrooms and a kitchen and create a recording and editing room for his commercial photography and film making business. Hamilton Studio does work for such regional enterprises as Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, Spokane Symphony, Interplayers, Northern Quest Casino and Inland Northwest Health Services.

During the renovation, Hamilton encountered a few surprises. When an old staircase was torn out, a clay jug was found, on which there was a metal tag noting the clay contained radioactive material. Hamilton called people at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, who came and inspected it. Yes, they told him, it was a well-preserved example of clay items in which radioactive ingredients, thought to be beneficial, were added. Hamilton gave it to them, and it’s now on display at the museum at Hanford.

He took down the original St. Joseph’s gym sign from the front of the building, replacing it with his company’s sign, but the old sign now hangs from the balustrade on the second-floor catwalk inside the building.

When Hamilton bought the old gym, he also acquired the two-story slender family home only a few feet east of it. Legend has it, he said, that the house was built in the late 1800s by a Protestant man, who was none too pleased when the eaves of his house had to be sawed off to accommodate the construction of the Catholic school gym, which totally obliterated his view to the west. Hamilton uses the yellow house now for office and meeting space.

When built in 1928, the gymnasium was praised for its sturdiness and distinct design. In a newspaper article, it was described as the “pride of the parish.” Today it is listed on the Spokane Register of Historic Places.

“And you know,” Hamilton added, “with its 12-inch brick walls, if we ever go back to medieval times, I’ve got a good fortress to hide behind.”

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