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Landmarks: Former owner was local legend

The theater icons on the shutters mark the former home of Dorothy Darby Smith, a founder of the Spokane Civic Theatre, on East 19th Avenue on the South Hill. (Jesse Tinsley)
The theater icons on the shutters mark the former home of Dorothy Darby Smith, a founder of the Spokane Civic Theatre, on East 19th Avenue on the South Hill. (Jesse Tinsley)

Dorothy Darby Smith was grand dame of theater in Spokane

Homes are listed on the Spokane Register of Historic Places for two reasons mainly – the significance of the structure or the significance of the person associated with the dwelling. The house at 612 E. 19th Ave., modified from its original Craftsman design, may not be a classic example of remarkable architecture, but its principal occupant certainly puts it on the map of significant places.

For more than 60 years, it was the home of Dorothy Darby Smith, the grand dame of theater in Spokane, co-founder of Spokane Civic Theatre – and a woman who knew how to make an entrance and command a room. She lived at the house from 1943 until her death at age 97 in 2007.

The house was built in 1910 as a one-and-a-half story structure with a front porch extending across the front façade. In the 1930s the porch was enclosed and the upstairs modified into a full second story with gambrel roof. A separate one-car garage was added to the property in 1954 and a deck was built off the rear of the house in the 1990s.

When the house was first purchased from Smith’s heirs, a major remodel included gutting and entirely rebuilding the kitchen, redoing all main floor flooring in oak, rewiring and other major improvements – but retaining all of the original leaded windows.

The three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath home located a few blocks east of Manito Park was sold again last year to current resident Candice Young.

“I had looked at dozens of houses,” she said, “but when I saw this one, just the right size for me, I knew it was my doll house.”

Perhaps one of the most outstanding features of the house is the master bedroom, which runs the entire width of the front portion of the upstairs. It was noted that in her final months, when she was no longer able to get out much, Smith would sit in a comfortable chair by her bedroom window and look out into her Rockwood neighborhood.

There is also a spacious living room and very pleasant deck leading to the backyard. The owner who did the renovation work and who researched the narrative for the historic register designation noted that Smith paid $5,000 for the house and was somewhat aghast when it cost her about the same amount to add the deck.

People who knew Smith would understand what aghast might look like on her. Described by everyone as flamboyant and theatrical, she was a force – an exacting director and a personality who could (and did) establish live theater this city. Fond of elaborate hats and capes, one always knew when she was in the room. Said one acquaintance: “She knew how to make an entrance with flourish.” And if you didn’t know she was coming, the jangling of her myriad bracelets would announce her arrival, recounted several people who knew her.

Born in Spokane in 1909, the only child of Ethel and Hunter Darby, she earned a degree in business from Washington State College, where she appeared in a play that also had in its cast Edward R. Murrow, who would go on to fame in the early days of television news. She taught for awhile and put on her first show at a girls’ finishing school in Missouri. As a young woman she also began her lifelong love of travel, going to Japan and China in 1936. She married Montgomery H.L. Smith in 1939, living first in a converted cable car on the Little Spokane River and moved to the house on 19th Avenue in 1943. Montgomery Smith died in 1944, leaving his wife with two small children.

By 1949 she was giving speech and drama lessons in her spacious living room, with 60 students coming and going in a typical week. By the 1950s she was a faculty member at Holy Names Academy and then moved on to Gonzaga University, where she established the theater arts program.

It was in 1947 that she helped found Spokane Civic Theatre, performing the lead in its very first production, “State of the Union,” at the old Post Street Theatre. A driving force in developing Civic into a quality regional theater, she directed more than 100 shows there and also directed for Spokane Children’s Theatre and elsewhere, and there are testimonials from actors and directors throughout the country as to what an influence she was on their lives.

Smith retired from Gonzaga in 1974 but never left the theater – including creating, producing and directing “Spokane – Children of the Sun,” the 1980 production for the city’s centennial. Kathy Doyle-Lipe, a current Spokane Civic Theatre director/choreographer/ actor, recalls working with her in that production: “She was certainly eccentric, one of a kind, and I can clearly remember those bracelets.”

In the 1990s Smith appeared in Civic’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” and in 2002 she received the Individual Artist Award from the Spokane Arts Commission. Fittingly, after her death, her life was celebrated at a special event at Civic Theatre – before a packed house, naturally.