The downtown Spokane Public Library sits on a storied location, one that could reveal the layers of city transformation simply by digging a hole and rifling through the soil.
Before the Great Fire of 1889, that part of downtown was a deep gully stretching from Post and Main to a sandy beach at the foot of the falls. When the fire destroyed 30 blocks of the fledgling town, much of the charred rubble remains were dumped into the gully, filling it and creating a new part of town on which to build.
First came the Spokane and Inland Empire Railroad Co. Terminal Building, a three-story structure where commuters could catch both streetcars and interurban lines to local towns like Liberty Lake and Coeur d’Alene.
The Terminal Building was closed in 1927 and demolished in 1929. Separate from market forces, architectural historian Robert Hyslop suggests the building may have been failing because of the charred, unstable foundation.
In 1932, Sears-Roebuck built an art deco building on the site, driving foundational support 80 feet into the ground to buttress the building. For 30 years, the store carried the newest of consumer wonders: modern appliances, hardware and auto accessories.
In 1961, the location succumbed to the forces rocking downtowns across the country when Sears moved to the new, suburban NorthTown Mall and the building was sold to the Comstock Foundation, which donated it to the city.
Within a year, the building had been remodeled and opened as the library, but in 1966 a new idea bubbled up for the site.
With the city core still struggling with 1960s collapse, and unsure on how to proceed after two rejections by voters to renovate downtown, the Design for Better Communities conference was held in Spokane. At a panel discussion at the Davenport Hotel, Paul Spreiregen, director of architecture and design for the National Council on the Arts, said Spokane needed a plaza along the lines of New York’s Rockefeller Center or San Francisco’s Union Square to revitalize the city center.
Spreiregen said the plaza “should be a place where people like to go and sit down.” He said it should be the community’s “living room” and said its fringes should include what he called “a lot of little magnets,” such as “soft drink establishments,” bookstores and restaurants, but not banks.
“You should have a place where kids like to walk,” he said. “It is important to provide an outlet for teenagers.”
Benches for elderly people are a must, he added, and maybe a swimming pool would be nice. The plaza should be imaginatively landscaped. Developing a plaza would inspire confidence throughout the community, he said.
Spreiregen didn’t suggest a location, but within a year the city’s plan commission had one. The library’s location was the spot, but a short article about the idea doesn’t mention what the commission thought should happen with the library, let alone the building.
They did have a name: Lincoln Square, due to its proximity to the Lincoln statue in the small, nearby park.
Clearly, the library still has the location, even if a newer building and the plaza was never realized. But in a strange coincidence of history, the city is currently building a plaza across Spokane Falls Boulevard from the library on top of a huge, 2.2 million gallon stormwater tank.
The plaza will connect to Huntington Park and the Gathering Place, a plaza beside City Hall.
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