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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Home with a history

E.J. Roberts lived in this Browne's Addition mansion for years. After  an extensive renovation, it's now a bed-and-breakfast featuring grand dining and sleeping rooms. 
 (Photos by Brian Plonka/ / The Spokesman-Review)

When Mary Moltke purchased her historic Victorian mansion in Browne’s Addition, she did not realize how it would become an indelible part of her own history.

She knows now, nearly a quarter century later.

“It has really taken over my life,” she said during a recent tour of her grand 1889 residence at 1923 W. First Ave. “It’s my identity now.”

Moltke can’t help but think about all of the money and work that went into restoring the E.J. Roberts Mansion, but her years of dedication have earned her a national reputation for historic preservation.

The meticulously restored Queen Anne residence is featured on the cover of the February edition of Victorian Homes, a magazine that is currently available at newsstands. Moltke’s personal story and the story of the house are told in a 10-page glossy spread, including 13 color photographs.

The cover shot shows the home’s elegant entry and staircase with the headline: “Open House. When a Home Becomes a Business.”

Such display calls attention to what many Spokane residents already know. The Lilac City is architecturally rich in its history.

“It’s always a city we enjoy,” said author Donna Pizzi, who produced the piece for Victorian Homes with her husband, photographer Philip Clayton-Thompson.

“I think the size and magnitude of some of the homes in Spokane is something special,” she said from their Portland studio.

Magnitude is a word that definitely applies to the Roberts Mansion. It has 23 rooms spread over three stories, plus basement. Five chimneys protrude from a roof that is adorned with multiple gables and Victorian gingerbread. A bell-shaped turret rises from the west side of the house.

Moltke operates the home as a bed-and-breakfast and events facility. She and her crew specialize in outdoor summer weddings on nicely landscaped grounds.

At a Christmas party last month, Moltke wowed her guests by placing a chocolate fountain at the center of her large dining room table. It sent a cascade of melted Belgian chocolate falling down the outside for dipping with pieces of cake and fruit.

Cooking classes at the mansion are more likely to become adventures in theater, with Moltke and her employees playing parts in a Victorian-style spoof.

Her children’s birthday parties give girls a chance to dress up with white gloves, hats and feather boas.

Bob Bruce, one of three employees at the mansion, fills the role of “Chadwick” the butler, complete with his own English accent.

“It’s all in the presentation,” Moltke said.

But the real bread and butter are the wedding rentals. A one-day event plus rehearsal goes for $3,200. A two-night weekend package with lodging for guests and a post-wedding brunch goes for $7,200. A wedding coordinator is included.

Ceremonies can be held in the garden or indoors. Moltke hosted 16 weddings last year. She said her prices are competitive.

Running a house like the Roberts Mansion can be an expensive endeavor. Heat costs $600 a month on a year-round billing plan. Lath-and-plaster walls are attached directly to the granite and brick exterior, allowing heat to escape too easily. Moltke uses portable air conditioners to cool second-floor guest rooms during the summer.

Moltke estimates that she’s invested at least $200,000, if not more, into a home that originally cost her $115,000 when she purchased it in 1981.

Back then, the mansion had been used as a rooming house, group home and apartments. In the years since, it has gotten new plumbing, new electrical work, new roofing and a new furnace.

Moltke remembers dumping buckets of rainwater collected from leaks in the roof. Her second roof replacement cost $60,000 a few years ago.

Restoration has been complicated by the effects of age. The sheer mass of the building combined with its older design has caused walls and floors to settle and sag.

The mansion has survived two fires, one started by children in the Roberts family when they went on a “camping” trip in the attic years ago and built a small fire, Moltke said.

A professionally designed landscape was installed in the early 1980s to match the original plantings. It has matured to a quiet setting. The grounds include a secret garden hidden behind a hedge.

Inside the home, Moltke and her family redecorated the main floor and second-floor guest rooms, each of which has an individual decorative design. Walls are a combination of paint and wallpaper.

The work included installation of period fixtures. Two large chandeliers are surrounded on the ceilings by intricate carved designs that were hand-painted by Moltke and her daughters, Heather and Heidi. Moltke re-created stenciling on the upper walls of the study, and added a new bookcase that reflects the original décor.

A portrait of E.J. Roberts hangs over the study’s fireplace. Much of the original woodwork carries a faux wood grain finish, much of which was repainted during restoration.

Moltke occupies the spacious former servant quarters on the third floor.

Part of the funding for the purchase and restoration came from proceeds of the sale of Moltke’s former business, the Quilting Bee, now located in the Spokane Valley. She also owns adjacent apartments that provide a source of income.

“It’s been a tremendous cash outlay for the past 23 years,” Moltke said.

The mansion is included in the Browne’s Addition National Historic District and is also separately listed on the Spokane Register of Historic Places.

It was recognized in 1986 with the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation Award for best residential rehabilitation. It has been included on historic home tours in past years.

While the home is said to fall within the Queen Anne period of Victorian architecture, it also follows a uniquely American interpretation known as the Richardsonian Romanesque style. Rough-cut granite block and brick trim on the first floor are complemented by the use of brick with granite trim on the second floor.

The home’s visual weight, combined with its horizontal lines, rough granite and window arches, are consistent with the work of H.H. Richardson in the 1870s and 1880s. It is a style more often used in churches and larger public buildings of the period, according to the Buffalo (N.Y.) Free-Net site on the Web.

Pizzi said the architecture is more likely to be seen on the East Coast rather than in the West.

Also known as the Loewenberg/Roberts House, the mansion was designed by W.J. Carpenter and originally completed in 1889 for Bernhard Loewenberg.

Loewenberg was a Prussian immigrant and pioneer dry goods merchant in Spokane. When he encountered financial problems in the late 1890s, he traded houses in 1898 with Roberts, who was then living in a smaller residence at 2027 W. First Ave.

E.J. Roberts became successful as a civil engineer for the Great Northern Railroad and later as the chief engineer for pioneer magnate D.C. Corbin and his railroad enterprises. Later, Roberts became president of the Union Iron Works, which he founded along with Corbin.

The Roberts family occupied the house until 1959. Moltke has established friendships with family descendants and even acquired some of the original mansion china from a granddaughter of Roberts.

Handmade rugs and pieces of period furniture were handed down to Moltke from her grandmother.

The mansion still has a button in the floor of the dining room that was used to summon the maid. Original speaker phones connect the second-floor hallway with the first-floor service area. Moltke uses the mansion’s safe, which is hidden by woodwork.

“It’s been a long struggle,” Moltke said. “I always had a plan for it to be a bed-and-breakfast when I first moved in. What I didn’t anticipate is it would take 20 years.”

It takes a “completely dedicated person” to achieve what Moltke has, said author Pizzi.

“A hundred years from now they are going to say, ‘Thank God, Mary Moltke kept this house up.’ “