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Doug Clark: Switching on neon sign may signify brighter days for Ridpath

“See it, yet?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Bad angle?”

“Yeah, I think we’re going to have to drive downtown and get closer.”

Tuesday night found my lovely wife, Sherry, and me searching the Spokane skyline for a rare and heavenly body.

We finally found what we were looking for as we cruised past the Davenport Tower.

Pulled over. Looked up.

There it was.

Seven large block neon letters glowing red from high atop the iconic and shuttered hotel where Elvis once stayed when he rolled into town.

“R-I-D-P-A-T-H,” spelled the letters.

Well, sort of.

The legs on the “R” were strangely out, alas. So the sign actually looked more like it was saying …

“D-I-D-P-A-T-H.”

That’s OK. It’s been six years since any letters have been lit up on top of the 12-story Ridpath Hotel.

Seeing them again gave us a warm and fuzzy feeling.

An Elvis stay is one thing. But the Clarks spent their wedding night in the Ridpath’s honeymoon suite.

Jan. 6, 1973.

I don’t remember all that much other than the garish purple bedspread and the room’s equally garish purple décor.

Sherry saved the receipt, which was $36.75 with tax, big money in those days. Without telling us, my father had paid the bill ahead of time.

Year after year, we celebrated our anniversaries by eating great dinners at Ankeny’s restaurant on the Ridpath Roof.

So with those memories in mind, I met Ron Wells and Ken Yuhasz outside the Ridpath’s Sprague Avenue entrance on Wednesday morning to talk about the sign and ongoing effort to save the once-grand landmark hotel.

Wells is a civic treasure, a champion for historic restoration like the nearby Steam Plant Square. He’s also one of the developers involved in the Ridpath project.

Without rehashing the legal battles, the current plan is to turn the Ridpath’s top two floors into posh condo units with the other floors devoted to apartments.

Yuhasz is a highly regarded neon artist and member of Light ’em Up! Sponsored by Spokane Arts, the civic group is dedicated to identifying, preserving and restoring the city’s vintage neon signage.

The Ridpath sign, which went dark six years ago, was an obvious candidate for resuscitation. It’s good to have those west-facing letters looming high above the downtown again, adding warm color to the night.

“I just happen to love neon,” said Wells, who was an easy sell for Light ’em Up! “Neon is an irreplaceable part of the history of Spokane.”

I agree. It pains me every time I look at that nondescript US Bank sign atop the majestic Old National Bank building.

The huge green neon “O-N-B” sign was a fixture to the Spokane skyline until the late 1980s, when the US bankers took over and yanked it down without ceremony.

Too bad Light ’em Up! wasn’t around back then.

Saving our neon is a noble cause and the $4,800 spent to revive the Ridpath sign was well spent.

Neon is so much more artistic than the current tacky (and cheaper) medium of backlit plastic, nervous electronic reader-boards and LEDs.

Yuhasz, who created the fabulous neon airplane sculpture at the Spokane International Airport, figured he’s one of only three old-school neon “tube benders” in town.

After our chat, next up was a trip to the Ridpath roof to eyeball those giant metal letters that were precariously installed on the hotel’s edge.

Getting there was half the fun. It took a ride up a dusty, carpet-covered service elevator to the now-gutted Ankeny’s space. Then a ladder climb to open air.

No wonder Wells asked if I was OSHA-approved.

“Sure,” I told him. I once went helicopter logging for a story. How dangerous can getting to the Ridpath summit be?

The panoramic view made the scramble worth it.

Under the bright May sun, the Lilac City never looked more fantastic. You can see everything: the Parkade, Washington Trust Bank, Paulsen Building, City Ramp Garage …

Look, there’s The Spokesman-Review.

“Top of the world, Ma!”

While we were there, Yuhasz decided the aberrant “R” needed another transformer. He made a call to get it fixed.

The letters are so close to a suicide drop that I can’t imagine anyone actually working on the neon side.

Yuhasz laughed. Old-timers, he explained, would prop a long ladder so they could hang dangerously to do their sign work.

Not me, brother.

This Ridpath restoration project is so vast that it gave me a renewed appreciation for Wells and his self-confessed passion for “the preservation of arcane objects.”

More than a few people advocated tearing the Ridpath down.

It won’t be too long, however, before the “R” is fixed and the Ridpath lives on, although in a different lodging format.

Which is fine with the Clarks.

Not all Ridpath Hotel memories are worth preserving.

Take our morning-after when a maid barged in on the, um, active honeymooners.

We’ve always suspected that some prankster flipped the sign we put on the door handle from “Do Not Disturb” to the “Maid … Please Make Up Room Early” side.

I never bothered to investigate.

Too busy screaming and diving for covers.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.