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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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History In The Remaking Businessman Sees High Potential For Restoring Well-Preserved Montvale Block Building

Motorists rushing past the Montvale Block building at First and Monroe probably never noticed this cool relic from Expo ‘74.

Nailed to a third-floor window of the old downtown hotel is a chunk of plywood with a green hippie peace sign painted on it.

The peace sign is an invitation of sorts to the history of the Montvale, one of the first blue-collar rooming houses built here at the turn of the century.

Now, a young businessman with an appreciation for the past wants to restore this old hotel, vintage 1899.

“It has an authentic feel,” said Rob Brewster, who grew up here. He is teaming up with his father, Robert C. Brewster, an orthopaedic surgeon in Spokane.

The younger Brewster is the driving force behind the project. Where some people might see a dingy old hunk of bricks, Brewster sees potential.

He said he would like to restore the building as a youth hostel or hotel of some kind, or as office space.

Shop fronts along First Avenue could be good locations for a restaurant or gallery, Brewster said, and the cavernous basement might house a nightspot.

The hotel has been named to the state and local registers of historic places and has been nominated for the national register.

Originally the Montvale was erected to house the influx of laborers who came to Spokane looking for work in the wake of economic recession in the late 1890s.

It was the first in a string of working-class hotels put up along West First Avenue as Spokane’s population boomed between 1900 and 1910.

Linda Yeomans, a historic preservation consultant on the Montvale, said the building is remarkable because so much of it remains original.

“Bar none, it is the one that’s in the best condition,” she said.

Other working-class hotels on West First are the Jefferson, the Parsons and the Commercial buildings. As a group, they are known as single-room occupancy hotels and are structural survivors in a city that has razed many of its old brick rooming houses.

Today, the upper floors and spacious interior of the Montvale are vacant.

Only two street-level businesses - Stark’s Vacuum Center and Music City Spokane - occupy the building.

From the outside, the Montvale and its dark red brick cast an unassuming presence, like an old man sitting on a park bench.

The third-floor windows are decorated with joined arches, and the name is displayed in relief brick from a parapet over the central windows.

The inside has the feel of the Old West. Rooms on the second and third floors enter to an atrium, which is capped with a rooftop skylight.

Montvale tenants shared common kitchen areas and lavatories on each floor.

The balconies are decorated with turned balustrades and posts. All of the woodwork, including the floors, is done with vertical-grain Douglas fir.

“The best part of this building is the interior,” said Brewster.

The Montvale was last used as a youth hostel during the world’s fair in 1974, when one of the tenants posted the now-faded peace sign as a political statement.

In the years since, water leaked through the broken skylight and roof and damaged the floors and plaster walls.

Clearly, any renovation is going to be costly, but Brewster hopes the building’s character makes it worth the money.

Even so, he faces a lot of obstacles, not the least of which is the depressed commercial real estate market downtown.

Like other cities, Spokane has suffered from the public’s flight to the suburbs, making it hard for city-centered businesses to succeed.

But Brewster is convinced the public’s love of the past will only grow as time goes on. He believes the investment in the Montvale will pay off.

He said one of the things missing in Spokane is a vibrant night life that in other cities is largely fueled by the spending habits of young adults.

Too many young people leave Spokane because there aren’t enough professional job opportunities here, he said.

Brewster believes another key to downtown’s future is making the core area an attractive place to live, especially for people with jobs and disposable income.

Brewster’s passion for renovation is shared by one of his downtown neighbors - Paul Sandifur Jr., president and chief executive officer of Metropolitan Mortgage and Securities Co. Inc. The Sandifur family restored The Met theater.

Sandifur said he’s glad the Brewsters have taken over the Montvale and plan to restore it.

“I wish there more people like that,” Sandifur said.

Historic buildings in downtown Spokane provide an asset few cities can claim, Sandifur said.

“We have a treasure, but we have to figure out how to use it,” Sandifur said. “It’s one of the advantages we have, and we have it in spades.”

Renovations of the old steam power plant, the Whitten and Miller buildings into Hotel Lusso, the Davenport Hotel and the Carnegie Square area on West First are the kinds of projects that will help downtown in the long run, he said.

“If we sit here and tear down all of these buildings, we’re making a big mistake,” Sandifur said.

Brewster and other preservation advocates believe the restoration of buildings along West First will help link the arts and entertainment area near the Davenport Hotel with the Carnegie Square area to the west.

The Brewster family is building a track record in renovation.

The father-son team bought a row house near the Capitol in Washington D.C., and turned it into four townhouses.

“They were crack houses before,” the younger Brewster said.

Another project in the works involves the rehabilitation and conversion of a building to 11 condominium apartments on Logan Circle in the nation’s capital.

Brewster recently purchased Spokane’s historic and long-neglected Holley-Mason Building, 157 S. Howard, but he doesn’t have plans for it yet.

Brewster’s interest in historic renovation came after he tried his hand in politics and other careers.

He graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in 1988 and then Santa Clara University. After college, he took a several jobs, including a position in the office of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

He spent a year working for a non-profit organization helping build a women’s center in Panama and then enrolled in the master’s program in business at the University of Washington.

Brewster left after a year and went into his current line of work.

Brewster said his appreciation for old buildings came to him early in life. As a boy, he has memories of vacationing in lodges at Paradise on Mount Rainier and in Yellowstone National Park.

The family restored an old cabin at Spirit Lake, Idaho, into a vacation home when he was young.

“I’ve always liked old buildings,” he said, because he learned early the value of their craftsmanship and heritage.

Other people may not see their beauty at first glance.

“A lot of time, I think people appreciate them, but it’s in the back of their minds,” he said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos (1 color)

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