Mission accomplished, Friends of the Davenport Hotel disband
April 27, 2017 Updated Thu., April 27, 2017 at 9:16 a.m.
Former Mayor Sheri Barnard, left, led the fight to save the Davenport Hotel from the wrecking ball and Davenport doorman John Reed, who has worked at the Davenport his whole life, knows more about the place than anyone alive. He first met Louis Davenport when he was 13-years-old and says "that man changed my life." Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Terry Novak’s phone jangled. Frank Bartel, business editor of The Spokesman-Review, got right to the point. Sources had told him Spokane’s historic Davenport Hotel – closed, shabby, burdened with debt, its glory gone – was going to be demolished.
“Sheri!” As soon as he ended the call the Spokane city manager stood up from his desk and called to a blonde woman seated nearby. “Sheri, Frank Bartel says the Davenport’s owners want to tear it down.”
“Well,” said the City Council member and future mayor of Spokane, “I guess I’ll have to form a group.”
So she did. And that was how Friends of the Davenport began.
Last week, the group disbanded.
Thirty-one years have come and gone. Years marked by cutthroat business competition, some of most divisive political battles the city of Spokane has ever experienced, and, in the end, a triumph – a victory not just for a much-loved building, but also for the spirit of a community, a city of people who each considered the Davenport Hotel to be theirs.
In that hotel, local soldiers slept on their way to world wars. Young people danced at high school proms, presented engagement rings, honeymooned. Folks from outlying towns feasted on waffles before a day of shopping at the Crescent department store.
In that hotel, people of all political persuasions found a unifying cause, fighting for a vibrant city center instead of a dead one. Spokane, like other U.S. communities, was very nearly hollowed out by the flight to suburbia, by the spread of inner-city crime, and by the slow decay and demolition of historic architecture.
Sitting in the Davenport’s lobby last week, with spring sunlight pouring through the Tiffany glass ceiling of a hotel that is very much alive, Sheri Barnard thumbed through a photo album, pointing at the faces, naming the names.
She is 80 years old now. Her sharp memory teems like a Dickens novel with stories of the characters who shaped Spokane.
Her photo album shows smiling guests at a Christmas party held during the Davenport’s darkest days.
After the hotel closed in 1985, after its mortgage holders considered demolition, after 1986 when Barnard organized a dozen or so friends to save the hotel, none of them knew how much support they would find.
But on a cold December’s day, Barnard walked into the darkened building and in the silent lobby saw a Christmas tree, freshly cut and sparking with lights. John Reed, now the hotel’s 87-year-old doorman and then one of the hotel’s only remaining employees, had gone out into the woods and cut down the tree himself. It was a gesture of respect for the hotel’s founder, whom Reed met when he started work there at age 13. “Louis Davenport,” Reed said last week, resplendent in his scarlet doorman’s coat at the hotel’s entrance, “that man changed my life.”
Barnard remembers that tree as a sign of hope.
Her newly formed group put out the word: Spokane was invited to come and see the closed hotel. To remember. To help save it.
But the building was dingy, treated unkindly by a series of owners who operated the building after the founder sold it. Those owners nailed shag carpet to the marble floors, glued wallpaper to the ornate oak paneling. A few years earlier one would-be savior had raked in donations ostensibly to remodel the building – then went to prison for securities fraud.
Did the community remember only the bad years, or did it recall the glory years, when presidents and movie stars stayed in the Davenport’s rooms? Would anybody accept the invitation from Barnard and her friends, to see the building and join the cause?
Two thousand people showed up.
During the 17 years the hotel stood closed, Christmas parties became a way for Friends of the Davenport to remind the community and keep their hopes alive. But that was not all they did.
Ellen Robey, for many years the group’s chairwoman, helped prepare information packets extolling the investment potential of the 1914 hotel and its downtown location. A packet went to Prince Charles. One bold member donned a mink coat and rode the elevator up to Donald Trump’s offices in New York City, packet in hand. She nearly made it, Robey recalled last week with a laugh.
Dorothy Powers, a charter member of the Friends and a crusading columnist for The Spokesman-Review, wrote frequently about the hotel’s storied past and the need to save it from demolition.
But the 1980s were a time of booming suburbs and fading downtowns, and Spokane was no exception.
Seattle developer David Sabey, hyped by a gushing news media as the Northwest’s own Donald Trump, rolled into Spokane in 1988 and announced he would buy the suburban NorthTown mall and double its size. In 1989, Sabey bought the Frederick & Nelson Department Store chain – operator of Spokane’s former Crescent department store, a downtown institution that was, in its day, just as beloved as the Davenport. In 1990, Sabey bought the downtown J.C. Penney store.
Chamber of Commerce leaders praised the newcomer’s investments. Newspaper stories mentioned rumors that he might buy and save the Davenport.
Later in 1990, Sabey closed the downtown J.C. Penney and announced it would reopen at his Northtown mall.
In 1991, Sabey’s Frederick & Nelson filed for bankruptcy.
In 1992 Sabey closed F&N’s historic store in downtown Spokane.
Smaller stores, from shoe stores to fabric stores, shut down in a chain reaction across the city center. “Sabey killed downtown,” declared George Bailey, then the owner of a women’s shoe store.
Plywood boarded up the windows of building after building.
As shoppers moved out, crime moved in.
Meanwhile, Friends of the Davenport had continued the search for a buyer. They found one. In 1990, Sun International of Hong Kong bought the Davenport for $5.25 million and began pouring millions into the building’s restoration. Sun’s workers ripped out the shag carpets and repaired the marble floors. Blackout paint, applied during World War II, was scraped from the building’s skylights – lighting up a lobby ceiling that was made of Tiffany glass but forgotten for a generation.
Disaster struck. Oil appeared in the hotel’s artesian well. Up the hill, tanks at the old downtown steam plant had been leaking heavy bunker crude into the ground. It was oozing north, a toxic underground threat. Sun International, and other threatened property owners, demanded a thorough cleanup. Avista Utilities, owner of the plant, resisted at first. Friends of the Davenport showed up at an Avista shareholders’ meeting and refused to be silenced.
Wells were drilled to suck out the oil, an underground barrier was constructed, and cleanup began.
As the 1990s wore on, city politics grew as toxic as that underground spill. The real estate arm of Spokane’s Cowles family, which also owns The Spokesman-Review, began to plan a $100 million complex of retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and parking. The goal, developers said, was to return jobs and vitality to the city center. But a firestorm of opposition arose over the project’s application for a federal urban renewal loan.
Sabey, the NorthTown developer, helped lead the opposition. He donated money to the 1997 mayoral campaign of John Talbott, a north Spokane advocate and critic of the downtown renewal project. Joining Sabey as a patron of Talbott and his City Council allies was Paul Sandifur, chairman of the Metropolitan Mortgage & Securities Co.
Talbott became mayor. A whirl of litigation engulfed the downtown shopping center project. The project, the critics said, was risky and an inappropriate use of public funds.
Sabey sold NorthTown, returning his focus to Seattle.
In August 1999, River Park Square opened for business. Lawsuits over the financing of its parking garage sputtered on for years. But downtown sprang to life. New stores and restaurants spread across the city center.
Sandifur’s company collapsed in an accounting scandal. Thousands of area residents who had entrusted savings to the firm lost an estimated $600 million.
The Davenport, still closed after a decade of effort by Sun International, had become a frustration for its owners, who, like the developers of River Park Square, needed downtown parking but found it difficult to create. Sun decided to sell, writing off several millions of renovation spending as a donation to the arts in Spokane.
In May 2000, nine months after the comeback of downtown nightlife and retail, the Davenport found a savior. Walt and Karen Worthy of Spokane invested their earnings from a lifetime in commercial real estate into a complete renovation of the hotel. They gutted its upper floors, filled them with modern rooms, hired artists and craftsmen to restore the Davenport’s ballrooms and lobby, and built a parking garage.
When the hotel reopened in 2002, Friends of the Davenport funded a life-sized sculpture of Louis Davenport, sitting on a bench and reading a newspaper. It sits near the entrance, where John Reed, at age 87, still serves as doorman, welcoming guests in the name of the hotel founder who taught him the business and changed his life.
Up the hill where that oil spill began, the old steam plant transformed into a distinctive restaurant.
A block from the Davenport on Sprague Avenue another relic from Spokane’s past – the art deco Fox Theater – was restored into into a home for the Spokane Symphony.
Betsy Cowles, chairman of the Cowles Co. and overseer of the River Park Square project, said she remembers the 1990s as a time when “downtown was on the verge of collapse. … It was a time of great uncertainty, but one where bold leaders like the Worthys turned the tide. Walt and Karen Worthy’s decision to breathe life back into the Davenport meant the downtown revival had real momentum. Today, the Davenport stands as a key anchor for the vitality of the downtown.”
Worthy remembers that the old hotel building itself, in the darkest years, assisted the Friends in staving off the wrecking ball: asbestos covered its original plumbing. To would-be demolition contractors, Worthy said, “removing the asbestos would have cost more than the value of the remaining lot.”
Last week when Friends of the Davenport held their final meeting, they donated the last of their funds to Spokane Preservation Advocates, and to preservation of Davenport memorabilia at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture.
Architectural designer Marian Evenson, who joined the Friends in 1986 as an idealistic 20-something advocate for historic preservation, said the Worthys’ project struck a balance between preservation and modernization. Many of the original hotel’s rooms had no bathrooms, she noted, and had to be updated. “Buildings need to evolve,” she said.
And now, with the Worthys’ empire grown into four hotels, Evenson, Robey and Barnard say they’re looking to a new generation to carry on the work of community building: the shuttered Ridpath Hotel may have found a future, the area surrounding Spokane’s downtown higher education campuses hold candidates for restoration and so do buildings south and west of the Fox.
Barnard says she no longer forms or joins committees. Her husband, Kim, passed away in February, and in May she plans a celebration of his life. It’ll happen at the Davenport.
Chatting in the Davenport’s sunny lobby, Barnard speaks of the “heroes” in her photo album – the friends, many now gone, who helped her wage the long fight, sometimes against discouraging opposition. “It was a great time to be alive, to be the mayor. Sitting here today is nothing short of a miracle. I’ve forgiven everybody for everything,” she said. “Anything worth doing is worth a battle.”
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