In the first few decades of the 1900s, residents from throughout the Palouse and Coeur d’Alene region were able to travel by rail with relative ease and comfort from one community to another and into and around Spokane for shopping and entertainment. Also salesmen could cover ground more efficiently as they connected with customers in outlying areas and wholesalers could provide same-day delivery service.
These were the glory days when the consolidated electric railroad system called the Spokane and Inland Empire Railroad created an early mass transit system of travel, making city and inter-urban travel reliable, speedy and possible. Even mail was transported on the SIERR, the first use of U.S. mail service by electric railway in the states of the far west.
This all came about when Jay P. Graves acquired the Montrose Streetcar Co. in 1902 and began forming partnerships with other rail lines, leading in 1906 to the formation of SIERR. By 1907, European groups came to Spokane, including one commissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm, to analyze SIERR’s single-phase motor system, and by 1911, the Spokane area was rated third in the nation in the development of electric railways.
To properly service this thriving and growing enterprise, in 1907 SIERR built a repair facility on an oxbow peninsula along the Spokane River at what is now 850 E. Spokane Falls Blvd. This contiguous series of train sheds or car barns included rails entering and exiting the building and turntables within to move train cars to designated spaces for repair and fabrication work. There were repair pits below, city and interurban shops, a blacksmith shop and more. This structure is said to be the largest and most significant remaining historic monument to the electric railroad era in Spokane.
In 1908 another joining car barn was added, with the entire project designed by architect Albert Held, noted for many iconic Spokane structures including the Holley-Mason Building and the Hyde Building, and built by the P.L. Peterson Co., which also erected the Liberty Park frequency-changing station.
The structure was designed in a variation of an industrial Romanesque Revival style with dark red brick masonry laid in a common bond pattern and with repetitive tall elongated windows that let in abundant light, as did the clerestory windows and skylights. The interior had heroic dimensions, with open car barns 200 feet long and some 30 feet tall.
Unfortunately the electric rail system had reached its zenith by the time the facility was completed. An economic depression in 1907, World War I and the growth of automobile and truck transportation all marked the decline, which was only exacerbated by the Great Depression. In time the Great Northern Railway took over SIERR assets, including the car barn and repair facility, which was used for general purpose storage and some lesser repair work. By the 1950s all rail tracks were taken out, skylights removed, windows boarded up on the inside and cinder blocked on the outside – and the structure was leased to a truck freight and storage firm.
The years took their toll and by 2010 wood pallets in one area were stacked to hold up a collapsed wooden truss and the building was facing condemnation. It was then that Dean Allen, CEO of McKinstry, saw the building while looking for a Spokane site for its Inland Northwest operations. Seeing the potential for the structure, he purchased it and set into motion its rehabilitation under the National Park Service’s guidelines for historic buildings, and incorporating the green and sustainability technology – specialties of the consulting, construction, energy and facility services company.
The project took 15 months and $20 million, with today’s McKinstry Station now occupying what were Car Barns No. 3 and 4; with another 38,000-square-foot section devoted to the McKinstry Innovation Center, which includes flexible space, offices and wet labs that are now leased by 17 independent start-up firms.
Seattle architect Stephen J. Day, who worked with McKinstry on the rehabilitation, said they didn’t want to waste what was already there, so they retained and reused as much of the original material as they could in new ways that were compatible with the building’s character. Kim Pearman-Gillman, director of strategic market development at McKinstry, said the idea was to take a structure that had no energy needs 100 years ago and make it energy efficient, including collecting rain water in a cistern in the basement to use to water the landscaping.
The crowning achievement may well be Car Barn No. 2, which runs south toward the river from the main entry way and serves as common space for all residents of the building. It remains open to the original ceiling, but has separate free-standing meeting rooms lined up one after the other down the middle. When viewed from a second-story walkway that connects the east and west sides of the building above these rooms, they appear much like the railroad cars that once sat in similar positions in the barn. Wood that had been used to cover the interior windows now serve as siding for those free-standing meeting rooms, and the wood that serves as flooring for the walkway had been found stacked up in the basement, original use unknown. Railroading artifacts are on display throughout.
All the attention to detail has won for the building numerous awards, most significant perhaps being the National Preservation Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation during the 2012 national conference in Spokane. It was in 2010 that the former Spokane and Inland Empire Railroad Car Facility earned its place on the National Register of Historic Places.
But most import, Pearman-Gillman said, is preserving a historic building in a way that is true to its character and giving it a new and useful life long into the future.
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