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Spokane a city of Modernist architectural gems

Constructed in 1967 for $3.5 million, the 10-story Parkade Plaza parking garage was designed by Spokane architect Warren C. Heylman. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Constructed in 1967 for $3.5 million, the 10-story Parkade Plaza parking garage was designed by Spokane architect Warren C. Heylman. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Think of it as a Modernist treasure hunt – and be advised that what you find just might surprise you. Scattered throughout Spokane is a bounty of mid-20th century architectural gems – homes, churches, schools, corporate offices, restaurants, medical facilities and more – that stand today as testimony to a time of amazing change and creativity in our community.

Your treasure map has been prepared by the Spokane Historic Preservation Office and the Spokane Historic Landmarks Commission, which used federal and state grants to identify and inventory some of the city’s most interesting and important buildings from the Modernist era, which extends roughly from the end of World War II to the time of Expo ’74. Research and documentation were done by helveticka, a Spokane marketing and communications design group, and architectural historian Diana Painter. Their collective effort resulted in the Spokane Mid-20th Century Context Statement and Inventory, an ambitious architectural survey report that provides a historical overview, a primer on Modernist architecture, a roster of more than 50 significant local buildings and thumbnail biographies of the architects who made it all happen. The document will be unveiled Tuesday during a 3 p.m. presentation at the Washington Cracker Co. Building, 304 W. Pacific Ave.

“Spokane has a great wealth of mid-century architecture, evidence of the hotshot young architects coming from the East Coast – from places like Harvard and MIT – to this little Western city in the 1950s,” said Michael Houser, architectural historian for the Washington State Office of Historic Preservation, which provided funding for the project. “These people were really rethinking design. They brought new ideas and they ended up changing how the city looked in a pretty short period of time.”

The “hotshot young architects” to whom Houser referred include Royal McClure, William Trogdon and Bruce Walker, all of whom studied at Harvard under the legendary Walter Gropius, founder of the famed Bauhaus school of design in Germany, before arriving in Spokane. There were many others of this generation whose architectural imprint helped reshape and refine the city – Warren Heylman, Kenneth Brooks, Moritz Kundig and Thomas Adkison among them.

“To some people, Kirtland Cutter probably represents or even defines historic architecture here,” said Megan Duvall, Spokane’s city and county historic preservation officer. “But the quality of architecture produced in Spokane during that post-war era is unbelievably high for a city of this size. These architects and their work were getting national attention.”

Indeed. An apartment building on the lower South Hill, designed by McClure, Adkison and Walker in 1948, was selected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as a standing exhibit in the museum’s architectural division. A residence in northwest Spokane designed by Walker was the winner in 1951 of the national Better Living home design contest. In 1959, the American Institute of Architects honored the newly constructed Washington Water Power Central Operations Campus on East Mission Avenue, designed by Brooks and Walker, as one of the best new buildings in the United States.

Part of the purpose of producing the Mid-20th Century Spokane report was to call the public’s attention to Modernist architecture and acknowledge its historic significance. Eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places begins when a property is 50 years old – and Modernist buildings are coming of age.

Engaging the public and creating discussion about Modernist architecture is a priority, Duvall said. A public presentation about the Spokane Mid-20th Century project is planned for Tuesday at 3 p.m. at the Washington Cracker Co. Building, 304 W. Pacific Ave. Over the past several months, a social media campaign run by helveticka staff has generated online interest and conversation around a webpage, at midcenturyspokane.org, and weekly Facebook postings featuring properties from the survey.

So what is Modernist architecture? It’s an umbrella term describing a time period as well as a group of styles that dominated post-war design in America.

“There’s an emphasis in Modernist architecture on form – and that form can be very simple or quite sculptural but without the traditional embellishment of earlier styles – and volume,” said Diana Painter, the architectural historian who did the leg work of researching and recording the properties included in the Spokane Mid-20th Century survey.

“Materials are also important. You often see concrete used in a very expressive way. You see a lot of glass and steel and, here in Spokane, especially in residential work, you see an emphasis on natural materials such as wood and volcanic stone.”

The survey intentionally covers a wide range of styles found under the Modernist umbrella and includes residential, commercial and institutional works on a scale from humble to grand. Following is a sampler of local mid-century Modernist buildings, culled from both the Spokane Mid-20th Century report and the Spokane Register of Historic Places:

Parkade, 511 W. Main St.

(Warren Heylman, architect)

Whereas some parking garages resemble concrete bunkers, the Parkade is a sleekly elegant structure significant not only because of its exuberantly modern design but also for the significant role it played in revitalizing Spokane’s downtown.

This 10-story parking palace, completed in 1967, is built in a style known as New Formalism. The building is notable for its symmetry and striking vertical columns, spaced to allow for views of the sloping interior floors. The spiraling exit ramp on the southeast corner of the structure and the huge “Parkade” sign atop the building add a bit of visual whimsy.

The Parkade was built as the centerpiece of an ambitious, privately funded urban renewal effort to combat a loss of downtown business to suburban shopping centers. Upon completion, the Parkade not only provided 970 parking spaces in the heart of downtown but also gave birth to Spokane’s central Skywalk system, with the original connections linking the parking garage to the Bennett Block and leading on to what was then the Bon Marche department store.

The Parkade also features street-level retail space and a public plaza at its southwestern edge. The book “Spokane Sketchbook,” published in 1974 by the University of Washington Press, waxed poetic about the Parkade. “Architect Warren Heylman designed the structure with people more in mind than cars,” author Thomas Stave wrote. “The street level is given to small shops and the entrance and exit ramps are created so as not to interfere with pedestrian traffic. But the real people place is outside the shops, beneath the Parkade’s spiral ramp and flared concrete columns, around the spilling fountain on the patterned brick floor of the plaza. Here on a sunny afternoon the whole mosaic of Spokane life appears: all ages, all types, all reasons. There is no more perfectly suitable place in town to meet for lunch, stage a rock concert, talk over business, preach the end of the world, garner votes, bum a dime, or simply watch people.”

Heylman, a Spokane native who began working as an architect here in 1945 and retired in the 1980s, won six American Institute of Architects awards over his career and a national award from the Concrete Institute specifically for the Parkade. Other local Heylman designs include the Spokane International Airport terminal building, the clubhouses at Liberty Lake and Hangman Valley golf courses, Riverfalls Tower, Cathedral Plaza apartment buildings, and the Spokane County Health Services Building.

Avista Headquarters,

1411 E. Mission Ave.

(Kenneth Brooks and

Bruce Walker, architects)

Modernist buildings can be defined in part by construction method. Avista Headquarters (formerly the Washington Water Power Central Service Facility) in north Spokane is an iconic example of curtain-wall construction.

In brief, this means that the exterior skin of the building – in this case mostly glass and thin metal panels – hangs like a curtain from an interior structural framework.

The five-story Avista corporate office building, completed in 1959, is a Modernist classic and widely regarded as one of the finest of its type in the West. Spokane architect Kenneth Brooks won the commission to design the office building and the entire 28-acre suburban WWP headquarters campus along the Spokane River. Brooks assembled a collaborative team to complete the job that included Bruce Walker, Spokane artist Harold Balazs and Lawrence Halprin, hailed as the “single most influential landscape architect of the postwar years.” The result was the first project in Washington state to receive an AIA national First Honor award.

Balazs, well-known for his public art and architectural collaborations, designed the pebble mosaic in the reflection pool in front of the main building. Halprin, who designed the grounds of the corporate campus, was later the landscape architect for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square and the Sea Ranch residential development on California’s Sonoma Coast.

Brooks, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from the University of Illinois, came to Spokane at the behest of an uncle living in Seattle, who advised him that the city was ripe with opportunity. He opened his own architectural firm here in 1951 and was also heavily involved in civic affairs, including planning for Expo ’74. He received a second AIA First Honor award in 1978 for his design of the art, drama and music complex at Columbia Basin College in the Tri-Cities.

Shaw Middle School,

4106 N. Cook St.

(Lawrence Evanoff, architect)

Spokane County’s population boomed during the war years and immediately after, thanks largely to a growing military presence and two new Kaiser Aluminum plants. These new families created a need for new schools.

Completed in 1959, Shaw Middle School in northeast Spokane represents a popular Modernist school design incorporating features that were quite progressive at the time and have since proven very serviceable. In fact, two other local middle schools – Glover in northwest Spokane and Sacajewea on the South Hill – are clones essentially built from the same plans.

Long and low, single-story Shaw is a classic example of scholastic architecture’s “finger plan” – a series of narrow classroom wings extending from a central spine.

This design creates a series of small courtyards between wing extensions, giving each classroom, through individual banks of windows, visual access to the outdoors. Inside, classroom spaces get good natural lighting and ventilation. The relatively low classroom ceilings are intended to create an intimate learning environment.

The building’s central hallway spine allows students easy movement between classrooms and becomes a de facto social space.

The Modernist motif is notably capped by a butterfly-shaped roofline with an unusually shallow pitch and deep eaves. Viewed from the ends of the school’s four “fingers,” this creates a pleasing undulation.

Shaw was designed by Lawrence Evanoff, himself a product of Spokane Public Schools. Evanoff graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in 1936 and, with no formal training, went to work for an architectural firm in Detroit. He returned to Spokane and worked as a site planner for Whitehouse and Price, then as chief draftsman for architect G.A. Pehrson. In 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force, serving in the South Pacific. After the war, he enrolled in the architecture program at the University of Washington. Upon graduation, he briefly taught architecture at the University of Idaho before opening his own firm in Spokane.

Evanoff gained national attention as an advocate of Modernist design with articles in newspapers and magazine, including Arts & Architecture. His 1952 design for a residence on Spokane’s South Hill was featured in Better Homes & Gardens “Five Star Homes” series. Evanoff also designed the Publications Building and the Agricultural Engineering Laboratory on the Washington State University campus.

Stephan Dental

731 W. Indiana Ave.

(Royal McClure and

Thomas Adkison architects)

This small commercial building has a clean, horizontal form that is elegant in its simplicity. The design offers a rich display of materials – wood, stone, concrete and glass – that provides texture and pattern in place of traditional architectural detailing and embellishment.

Built in 1950 by brothers Walter and Robert Stephan to house their dental practices, the building is “one of the earliest expressions of modern architecture in Spokane,” according to a 1967 publication of the local AIA chapter. The flat roof over post-and-beam structural framework and large window banks are hallmarks of Modernist design. A long stone wall, running north-south and enclosing a small courtyard at the rear of the building, further helps define the character of this style.

Architects Royal McClure and Thomas Adkison were classmates at the University of Washington, receiving undergraduate degrees in 1941, then working together at a major Seattle firm. McClure went to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design for a master’s degree before the two reunited in Spokane, where they established their own firm in 1947.

McClure and Adkison designed schools, hospitals, churches, civic buildings and homes throughout the region. In Spokane, their notable projects include the U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building, designed in collaboration with three other firms. After McClure moved to Seattle, Adkison was architect of the Expo ’74 site plan.

Trogdon House,

1918 S. Syringa Road

(William and Dorothy Trogdon, architects)

Built in 1963, this home is an excellent example of mid-century modern residential design executed in the regional style. As is typical of the Northwest tradition, the home appears almost as if it has sprouted naturally from its forested surroundings.

Constructed of concrete and wood, the three-level home’s east-facing façade offers asymmetrical window placement and minimal ornamentation, achieving a powerfully massive yet pleasing stance against a steep, wooded hillside. It has a low-pitched roofline with widely overhanging eaves.

The north end of the home features full-width walls of glass on both the first and second floors, flooding interior spaces with soft natural light. Floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors on both levels connect indoor and outdoor living spaces, here a grade-level patio and an upper-floor balcony.

The Trogdon House is listed on the Spokane Register of Historic Places not only because it embodies important architectural characteristics but also because it represents the work of a master architect – or in this case two. William and Dorothy Trogdon both earned master’s degrees in architecture in 1952 from Harvard University’s acclaimed Graduate School of Design. This home – which the Trogdons designed as their own family residence – is in many ways a crowning collaborative achievement of two highly successful practitioners.

At Harvard, William Trogdon was a favorite pupil of Walter Gropius, who since 1938 had been chairman of the architecture department at the Graduate School of Design.

Gropius, founder of Germany’s famed Bauhaus School of Design, had fled to America after the Bauhaus was shut down by the Nazi regime. He hand-picked William Trogdon to study in his intimate Walter Gropius Studio and later hired him to work briefly at his firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Trogdons were married in 1952 and relocated to Spokane in 1953. William Trogdon had a long and successful architectural practice in Spokane. During that time, he was involved in various partnerships with the city’s other top architects and had a hand in many prominent commercial, civic and residential projects.

In spite of her Harvard training, Dorothy Trogdon found it difficult to crack the men’s club that was the architectural field in the 1950s. She instead worked primarily as an interior decorator and home furnishings adviser, most notably for Joel Inc., from 1956 until 1976, where she helped the downtown store become Spokane’s leading modern furnishings shop.

Farline House,

2205 E. Girard Place

(Frank Toribara, architect)

Built in 1953, this is a handsome local version of a mid-century ranch style popularized in California by Joseph Eichler, a real estate developer who often contracted with disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright in his effort to bring high-end modern design to the masses.

The low-slung house strikes an elegant, angular pose that seems to flow across the wide lawns of its corner lot on the lower South Hill. The shallow-pitched roof with broad overhanging eaves, supported by exposed beams, the cedar siding with brick accents, and the banks of floor-to-ceiling windows both front and back are classic elements of this design type.

Somehow, the single-story house seems more substantial than its 2,100-square-foot measurement. That’s part of the beauty of the best residential architecture of this era, when even middle-class homes had real high-class swagger.

The couple for whom this house was designed and built, Louis and Ruth Farline, were fairly ordinary folks. He was a railroad engineer who later worked as a maintenance supervisor at Kaiser; she worked for a time as a receptionist at KHQ but was mostly a stay-at-home mom to their son, according to the Polk City Directory.

Clearly, they did have the courage and cultured taste to hire a good architect: Frank Toribara, who had recently moved to Spokane from Seattle to open his own firm. Toribara was a Japanese-American who began working in Seattle after receiving his architecture degree from Washington State University in 1938. His career was sidetracked by a forced stay at the Minidoka internment camp during World War II. Toribara came to Spokane shortly after the war’s end and lived and worked here until shortly before he died in 2015. Along with numerous homes, his commissions include the Highland Park United Methodist Church and the former Farmers and Merchants Bank on East Sprague Avenue.


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