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Old downtown garage made into bar and bistro

The old Bear Frame and Axle garage, which is now nYne Bar and Bistro, 232 W. Sprague Ave., is on the National Register of Historic Places. (Dan Pelle)
The old Bear Frame and Axle garage, which is now nYne Bar and Bistro, 232 W. Sprague Ave., is on the National Register of Historic Places. (Dan Pelle)

Not all of Spokane’s historic older buildings get saved from the wrecking ball, but the city is full of ones that have been spared and even gone on to new uses for new generations.

The old Bear Frame and Axle garage at 232 W. Sprague Ave. at the southeast end of Spokane’s downtown business core is one of them. Once a public service automobile garage, the one-story structure built in 1930 lives on today as the home of nYne bar and bistro, which opened in 2010. It is open 3 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

“It is a great space,” said Catherine “Kitty” Kane, nYne owner, who is also a co-owner of Hallett’s Chocolates in Spokane. “I had looked at it the year before and wanted in, but first I had to sell my bar in the Valley.”

She operated the Spitfire pub near Trent Avenue and Fancher Road for nine years, and chose the rather odd name for her new business because she thought it eye-catching and nine is her lucky number.

When she first saw it, however, it was being used for storage by then-owner developer Rob Brewster. Interestingly, in one of its earlier incarnations, the building was also used for overflow storage by Sylvan’s Furniture, which had been next door.

Early on, it was one of many public garages built along major thoroughfares through the downtown area. The 4,400-square-foot garage was put in place between two already standing, multi-story single-room occupancy hotels that had been built in 1906.

All three buildings remain today, and two of them – including the Bear Frame and Axle garage – are now under the ownership of investment groups headed by Bobby Brett, owner of the Spokane Indians baseball team and other local enterprises.

A public service garage for 73 years, Bear Frame and Axle is a contributing property in the East Downtown Spokane Historic Business District listed on the National Register of Historic Places. At 50-by-88 feet, the simple structure has an open-space cavernous interior, with some enclosures at one end for the kitchen, bar and restrooms.

The interior remains unfinished with exposed brick masonry walls, poured concrete floor containing a mechanic’s pit at the back, open trusses and flat roof. There’s a stage, dance area and room for any kind of configuration of tables appropriate for multiple venues – after-wedding parties, karaoke night, dining on hamburgers and wraps and even a small VIP area. And the original copper steel fire door remains in place at the back of the building.

“It’s just perfect,” said Kane, who offers music most nights, whether it’s a solo performer, DJ or band. Located across the street from the Spokane Intermodal Facility, Kane said that because they are at the edge of the downtown entertainment core “we have to keep reminding people we’re here.”

It is the only remaining historic garage of the three that formerly occupied the block. Its most outstanding exterior feature is the original large wood-paneled accordion-fold garage door which when opened provides access to outdoor seating out front along Sprague Avenue.

The building is unexpectedly attractive, with its exterior covered in multi-hued wire-cut brick laid in stretcher bond and also displaying some subtle art deco influences, most notably in the corner piaster chevron design and the parapet’s corner pyramid-like projections. The west and north walls still contain the original multi-paned casement windows.

The previous building on the site was also a garage, operated from 1915 to 1929. Rebuilt in 1930, it was leased through 1947 to such dealers as the Midway Garage, Grant-McKinley Company Auto dealers, George Preston Auto Repair and Radio Sales & Services and others.

In 1947, Edward Vacura leased the space and operated his Bear Frame and Axle Service Company there until 1995, when Sylvan Furniture took over (Sylvan and Eleanor Dreifus, founders of Sylvan’s, purchased the property in 1968), using the building in support of the furniture store.

Whether as a garage or a night spot in the city’s music scene, Bear Frame and Axle remains historic and still relevant today.