1880s: In 1880, nobody called it “downtown.” It was just plain “town.”
An 1884 “bird’s-eye-view” map shows that almost everyone in the fledgling city of Spokane Falls lived in what we would today call downtown. North of the river and south of Fourth Avenue was the province of ponderosa pines and wildflowers. Almost all of the businesses were clustered within two blocks of the intersection of Riverside Avenue and Howard Street.
The commercial buildings were rarely taller than two or three stories, often rickety, and almost entirely wooden. This contributed to what happened on the most momentous day in the history of downtown Spokane. Nearly all of downtown burned to the ground in the Great Fire of August 4, 1889.
1890s: Yet the fire was also responsible for an astonishing downtown rebirth. Almost immediately, businesses began rebuilding. This time, they built in more substantial ways – taller, and with brick. An 1890 aerial view map, drawn just 11 months after the Great Fire, shows dozens of impressive brick buildings, many of them six or more stories high.
Some of today’s iconic downtown buildings sprang up in the years after the fire, including the Review Building and the Northern Pacific Depot (now the Spokane Intermodal Center).
Another development in this decade, the proliferation of streetcar lines, would have tremendous implications for downtown. No longer did people need to live within walking distance of downtown. This launched the gradual transition of downtown from a place where most people lived, to a place where most people commuted.
1900s: Spokane simply exploded in this decade. At the beginning of the decade, Spokane’s population was 36,848. By the end, it was 104,402.
This boom was reflected in a bustling, crowded downtown, jammed with massive brick department stores, office buildings and banks. The theaters alone were a marvel – six of them had capacities above 1,000. The streets were clogged with streetcars, horse-drawn wagons, and by the end of the decade, a few autos.
By 1905, downtown stretched out roughly to its proportions today. Even the sidewalks were cluttered. Pedestrians had to dodge barber poles and – outside of Spokane’s dozens of cigar stores – wooden Indians.
There were hardly any trees. The trees mostly vanished in the fire, to be replaced by forests of utility poles. Some poles had as many as 28 cross arms, according to Spokane architectural historian Robert B. Hyslop. However, by the end of the decade, most of the downtown wires would go underground.
Downtown’s character changed block by block. Trent Avenue was Spokane’s skid row, notorious for saloons, bawdy houses and flophouses. A nearby area called Trent Alley was Spokane’s “Chinatown,” filled with Chinese and Japanese shops, restaurants and apartments.
1910s: Now a new problem arose, which plagues downtown to this day: parking. Autos became commonplace and no one knew exactly how to accommodate them. In 1917, new parking rules were instituted for the “congested district” (downtown), mandating a one-hour time limit. Authorities would continue to experiment with parking rules in ensuing decades.
New construction techniques and elevator technology allowed buildings to reach new heights. The 12-story Davenport Hotel was finished in 1914 and immediately became one of downtown’s architectural landmarks.
The sidewalks were loud and crowded, used by street peddlers, news vendors and streetcar dispatchers in kiosks.
1920s: Every square foot, it seemed, was jammed with shops, including many that occupied basement spaces, accessible via steps down from the sidewalk.
“I cannot specifically remember any vacant lots,” wrote Hyslop, who grew up in that era. “There were about four times as many businesses as there are now.”
Parking was an increasing challenge, but nobody had yet contemplated tearing down a building to create a parking lot. In this decade, the first rudimentary traffic semaphores appeared in the middle of downtown intersections. These were called “dishpans,” with a red sheet-metal blade for “stop” and white blade for “go,” operated by a policeman with a shrieking whistle.
Downtown noise was sometimes deafening, with the constant clang of streetcar gongs, the whine of delivery trucks, and the shout of newsboys.
1930s: The Great Depression hit Spokane hard, yet downtown was livelier than ever. Howard and Riverside remained the hub and it was often a “crush of people,” wrote downtown historian Carolyn Hage Numemaker.
Traffic lights made their first appearance on Riverside Avenue and later at 12 other intersections. The huge increase in auto traffic spelled doom for Spokane’s streetcars, which rumbled off the scene in 1936, replaced by buses.
Neon signs began to brighten downtown buildings, first on the RKO-Orpheum Theater, and then, most famously, on The Washington Water Power building. The “Reddy Kilowatt” figure appeared be running across the roof.
Spokane’s downtown railroad tracks were now elevated – an improvement the city had sought decades before – yet this created another problem. Downtown was virtually walled off from the Spokane River by a stack of elevated tracks. People parked their cars in the gloom beneath the iron girders.
The 1940s: Uniforms were everywhere during the World War II years. Downtown Spokane was the nearest big city for thousands of service personnel, including the trainees from Farragut Naval Training Station. They arrived by the busload and jammed the theaters, bars, ballrooms and the three downtown USO clubs.
The Davenport Hotel, the Coeur d’Alene Hotel and the Desert Hotel, among others, allowed uniformed men to sleep on the sofas, chairs, floors and even the carpeted stairs. A newspaperman toured the downtown hotels one Saturday night and saw about 1,000 servicemen asleep in lobbies.
When the war ended, it spawned what was probably the largest celebration in the history of downtown (with the possible exception of the celebration at the end of World War I). Confetti flew from office windows and a long chain of dancers performed an impromptu “snake dance” down Sprague Avenue.
For a few years after the war, downtown continued to thrive – but profound changes were looming.
1950s: Those changes were caused by decentralization and suburbanization. People and businesses were moving farther out to the suburbs – as they were in nearly every city in America.
Spokane’s first shopping mall, Northtown, opened in 1954. Downtown’s longtime monopoly on shopping and banking was over.
Downtown office buildings hung out vacancy signs. Some closed everything except the first floor. Some buildings were no longer economically viable and were torn down. Some of those lots became parking lots – a last-ditch attempt to compete with the ample parking at outlying malls.
In 1958, the biggest blow came. Sears Roebuck announced it was closing its downtown department store and moving to Northtown. By the end of the decade, downtown accounted for only about 40 percent of Spokane’s retail sales.
1960s: Downtown merchants and landowners sounded the alarm. The sidewalks seemed deserted, on the same corners where they were once crowded five-deep.
A group of downtown business people formed a group called Spokane Unlimited, which raised enough money to commission a downtown redevelopment plan from Ebasco, a New York consulting firm.
In 1961, Ebasco issued its report, which gave a gloomy assessment of downtown Spokane. Among its problems were “obsolescence, traffic congestion, blight” and a “drab and sometimes unappealing general appearance.”
However, Ebasco had a plan for “corrective surgery.” The report recommended removing the wall of railroad tracks, improving access to the Spokane River, adding more parking garages and improving pedestrian traffic with more attractive sidewalks and overhead walkways. The city’s voters were asked to approve a $10 million bond issue to fund a centerpiece of the plan, a new city hall/government center. Voters rejected it in both 1962 and 1963.
Hardly any of the report’s suggestions were implemented in this decade. Nobody dreamed that an even more audacious plan would be implemented in the next decade.
The 1970s: The plan was called Expo ’74, and it combined a world’s fair with a sweeping downtown urban renewal project. A group of downtown visionaries had the inspired notion that they could implement large portions of the Ebasco plan and invite the entire world to come and help pay for it.
It was an astoundingly risky venture. Spokane was easily the smallest city ever to stage a world’s fair. However, when Expo ’74 came to a close, more than 5 million people had walked through the gates.
The fair already had accomplished many of its urban renewal goals, including getting rid of the wall of railroad tracks. Work began immediately on another key goal, reclaiming the downtown riverfront. Riverfront Park was dedicated in 1978, creating, in essence, a gorgeous front yard for downtown Spokane. The park eventually would serve as the gathering spot for downtown’s two biggest events, Bloomsday and Hoopfest.
The 1980s: The decade got off to a towering start, with the construction of the 20-story Seafirst Financial Center (now known as the Bank of America Financial Center). It was, and still remains, the tallest building in Spokane. It was followed in 1982 by the 18-story building that is now the Wells Fargo Center.
Meanwhile, downtown Spokane had implemented another Ebasco suggestion – overhead walkways, or skywalks. By 1984, downtown had 14 skywalks, more than any other city except Minneapolis-St. Paul. Downtown now had foot traffic on two levels.
1990s: Spokane’s downtown was better-preserved than many declining American downtowns, but its prospects were cloudy. Two major department stores departed – J.C. Penney and Frederick and Nelson (formerly the beloved Crescent).
Downtown still had many of the same problems identified in the 1960s, the most serious being a continued migration of people and businesses to the suburban fringes.
Then in 1999, River Park Square was redeveloped into a massive downtown shopping mall. It provided downtown with a sleek, upscale shopping hub, but its controversial public-private partnership spawned intense political debate.
2000s: Two historic symbols of Spokane’s old downtown were saved from the wrecking ball in dramatic, last-minute rescues.
The first was the Davenport Hotel, which had once been one of the most elegant hotels in the U.S. It went into a slow decline in the 1950s and had sat empty since 1985. It was saved from destruction by the Friends of the Davenport and buyers Walt and Karen Worthy, who restored the old hotel to its former elegance. It reopened in 2002.
The second was the 1931 Fox Theater, which also went through a sad, slow decline, from an Art Deco palace, to a chopped-up discount movie house, to a candidate for demolition. It was saved by a massive Save the Fox campaign organized by the Spokane Symphony, which envisioned the Fox as its new home. The symphony raised $31 million to buy it and restore it to its Art Deco prime. It reopened in 2007 to the majestic strains of Brahms.
The 2010s: A newly thriving downtown was due, in part, to its own history. Many cities had thoroughly razed their historic downtowns in the 1950s and 1960s to erect giant unfriendly office towers. Spokane’s 1950s-1960s slump meant less go-go construction, and more surviving historic buildings – even if the reason at the time was indifference.
Now, many of those character-filled brick buildings have been converted into brewpubs, restaurants, cafes, workspaces, apartments and condos. In 2012, the National Trust for Historic Preservation held its national convention in downtown Spokane.
Why? Because there was so much history to see, dating all the way back to the 1880s.
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