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Shawn Vestal: Park butterflies may rise again

Kelli Johnson didn’t just attend Expo ’74 – she got the whole VIP treatment.

A Greenacres fourth-grader at the time, Johnson had an uncle who was closely involved in preparations. Her family had access to preview events and admission throughout the six-month fair. She and her family attended the opening ceremonies. She shook the hand of President Nixon. She later watched the event’s closing ceremonies from a hospital window, while recovering from a tonsillectomy.

Among all of that memory fodder, one of the most potent images remains the five brightly winged sculptures of butterflies.

“When I think about Expo, the butterflies were really one of the things that were significant and stood out,” said Johnson, now a broker with Windermere Realty and a member of a citizens group pressing to restore two of the butterflies.

“Everybody loves the butterflies,” she said. “There’s just no reason not to make them a part of our future.”

As the city moves forward with its multimillion-dollar renovation of our centerpiece park, recent discussions about park art have focused on alternatives for a commissioned $450,000 sculpture – the kinds of cost and aesthetic arguments that dog all public art projects. But the idea of also restoring the iconic butterflies, which has long had a degree of general popular support, also has been gaining ground in concrete terms.

The founder of the group Save the Expo Butterflies, Jennifer Leinberger, has been making her case with the city for more than a year. Last week, Craig Lee, a structural engineer with deep knowledge of the butterflies who has teamed up with the group, told a Park Board committee the sculptures could be renovated with modern materials and restored to a better version of their former glory – including rising, turning, even fluttering in the wind.

“We’re going to bring the butterflies back to life,” he said, “and they’re going to be flying.”

The idea would be to restore two butterflies with fabric wings – one frame stands at the north park entrance, and another lies in pieces in a storage lot near the Arena. Lee told the board that it would cost $150,000 to $200,000 to renovate them with modern materials.

The park renovation budget still has roughly $150,000 for art projects that the park board could put toward the butterflies, said Ted McGregor, chairman of the Riverfront Park subcommittee.

It’s also likely that a butterfly project could draw on community support for contributions and volunteer contributions, supporters say.

The project artist for the Riverfront restoration, Meejin Yoon of Boston, has recommended restoring the structures, and is expected to formally include that in her parkwide art plan that will go before the Park Board for approval sometime next spring.

Nothing’s certain yet, but McGregor said, “It feels like there’s a convergence of, ‘This is going to happen.’ ”

Leinberger formed Save the Expo Butterflies in 2015, after meeting for a fun run at the standing structure at the park’s north entrance and wondering if it would be part of the park overhaul that was being proposed. Since then, she’s been a regular at city meetings, and has formed a Facebook page with 875 members.

She was 3 when her family moved to Spokane toward the end of Expo ’74. She says she has some memories of a “sense of magic” surrounding the closing ceremonies, but her attachment to the butterflies came more from seeing them in the park in later years.

“It was more about going to the park with my mom post-Expo, and we’d see the butterflies,” she said. “They looked sadder and sadder all the time.”

Originally, five butterflies were installed for Expo, and they were color-coded for use as gathering places and way-finding. The original event plan did not call for them to remain standing beyond the event, Lee said.

“They didn’t design them to last 20, 30 years,” he said. “But everybody liked them so well that they just left them.”

Over the years, they wore down significantly, falling down – or being removed. Now, only the two remain. The other three are in the wind, as far as the butterfly group knows. They support restoring the one standing at the north entrance, and rebuilding the second one and finding it a good spot in the park.

Lee said that one of the biggest problems was the wear and tear associated with the butterflies’ movement. They were designed with simple bushings – essentially metal rings that sit between moving parts – and not ball bearings, and so as they moved in the wind, the tubes ground away at each other, Lee said.

In 1995, Lee was working at his office, which was then at the Flour Mill, when he received a phone call from Hal McGlathery, then the park manager.

“He said, ‘We have a problem,’ One of the butterflies fell down in the middle of the night,’ ” Lee said. “I could see it from my window. I knew what he was talking about.”

Lee was enlisted to fix the structure. That was how he began to become an expert – perhaps the expert – about the way the structure works.

Leinberger and Johnson say that enlisting Lee in their cause has given them new momentum; in addition to being able to appeal to people’s support for the butterflies, they now have him as a resource on the structural issues.

Much remains to be decided. If the city brings back the dissembled one, where would it go? One possibility is the corner of Stevens Street and Spokane Falls Boulevard, where the old readerboard now stands. What kind of color and materials would be used on the wings? Could they include any lighting? All to be determined.

What’s unquestioned, Johnson said, is the public support.

“People love them, and want them to be preserved,” she said.

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