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Downtown’s past draws preservation conference

Historic preservation in downtown Spokane is a lot more than old buildings.

It’s fine dining, nightlife, shows, shops, wineries and lodging. It’s also the people who make historic places go.

For the past 30 years, Spokane has put a big hug around its historic assets through restorations of the Davenport Hotel, Montvale Hotel, Lusso Hotel, Fox Theater, Bing Crosby Theater and Steam Plant Square – to name a handful.

Hundreds of buildings are now on historic registers.

“Look at the restaurants and bars and the things that are downtown now,” said Joanne Moyer, co-chair of the 2012 National Preservation Conference in Spokane this week.

Nearly 1,700 delegates from around the country will get a chance to see these accomplishments during the annual convention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, held at the Spokane Convention Center and at numerous historic sites.

As a complement to the conference, The Spokesman-Review staff and several conference volunteers put together more than a dozen Web-based guided tours available on mobile devices, tablets and desktops.

Three of the tours focus on dining in historic places, and another is a tour of area wineries.

An excellent tour of Kirtland Cutter’s mansions in Spokane was prepared by Professor Emeritus Henry Matthews of Washington State University, who wrote a book about Cutter. Preservation consultant Linda Yeomans contributed to the tour preparation.

Other tours focus on Bing Crosby, who grew up in Spokane; the Olmsted Brothers’ plan for the “great gorge park” in Spokane; Native American places still visible today; and a Columbia Basin tour that includes Grand Coulee Dam.

The idea is to make historic preservation accessible to visitors and residents alike.

The modern preservation movement in Spokane traces back to 1980, when the city established its Historic Preservation Office.

Working through that office, the City/County Landmarks Commission reviews applications for historic registers and makes recommendations on property tax breaks available to qualified properties.

Spokane owes its reservoir of history to a bit of luck.

The city largely missed out on more aggressive urban renewal projects that claimed historic buildings in many cities, Moyer said. “We got passed by,” she said.

Spokane was left with a substantial stock of old buildings for restoration and reuse.

Even so, some great buildings were lost.

Union Station, the Great Northern Depot, and old hotels and bars along Spokane Falls Boulevard were cleared in the run-up to Expo ’74.

Natatorium Park in northwest Spokane closed in 1968 and now is the site of a manufactured home park along the Spokane River.

The Post Theater was torn down at Post Street and Spokane Falls Boulevard following closure in 1971.

The 1981 demolition of the Spokane and Eastern Building on Riverside Avenue led to an article in The Spokesman-Review pointing out how Spokane was not taking full advantage of tools to enable historic preservation, including a demolition ordinance.

Lack of a demolition ordinance led to the razing of the Rookery Building and adjacent Mohawk Building and Merton Block from 2004 to 2006, leaving a gaping hole in the downtown area. Parking lots fill those spaces today, but the City Council approved a demolition ordinance as a result. The ordinance requires construction of a new building if a historic one is to be demolished.

The 1905 Caputo Building at Washington Street and Spokane Falls was torn down in 2004 prior to the demolition ordinance. It had housed a brewery in its last years.

Valecia Crisafulli, a vice president with the National Trust, said her organization likes to mix smaller and larger cities for its annual convention to give delegates a look at places they likely they haven’t seen before. Spokane is one of those places.

“We are telling people coming to Spokane, you won’t be disappointed,” she said.