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

Downtown Spokane’s Madonna holiday lighting display in storage amid construction

An iconic display of Madonna and the Christ Child lighting up a corner of downtown Spokane during the holiday season will remain in storage for a second year.

Unless a miracle happens.

Downtown Spokane Partnership, its new caretaker, has reached out to public and private entities to secure a new site following the downtown Macy’s 2016 closure. So far, that location and the funding needed to rebuild the display’s framework haven’t materialized, said DSP president Mark Richard.

Annually, workers hung the sign that’s nearly 50 feet tall, at first on the southwest corner Bon Marche, which later became Macy’s, during most holiday seasons since 1957.

“We certainly know folks have talked about her,” Richard said. “That’s why we asked Macy’s, frankly, to donate it back to the community, because we know it’s important. It’s part of our history. We certainly would like to see her rise again.”

DSP leaders have hoped some person or entity would help shoulder the estimated $42,000 cost of building some kind of framework sturdy enough to hold the massive display, along with lighting hook-up and installation required the first time.

“We have reached out to a handful of key downtown stakeholders, but at this point, we don’t have anybody who has stepped up,” Richard added.

“We reached out to a couple of significant property owners of sizable buildings in the downtown area,” he added. “Unfortunately it wasn’t something they were able to fit in their budget, but we’re wide open to that, just as it was like before on Macy’s building, and privately-owned.”

In talks for its relocation, Richard said he’s also had an informal discussion with Riverfront Park officials about the possibility of putting it in that downtown space, which has had other religious displays in the past.

Park leaders seemed receptive to considering the idea after Riverfront construction wraps up, he said.

“We thought it would be a beautiful location, because so many people visit Riverfront Park during the holidays, especially now with the ice ribbon and so forth,” Richard said.

“There would be details that would have to be worked out. If it weren’t there, maybe in a public-private courtyard.”

Jonathan Moog, Riverfront Park director, said DSP did approach them last year when Macy’s donated the Madonna.

“Traditionally, we have had other religious use in the park,” Moog said. “Rabbi Hahn has his menorah at his own expense in the park every year. We have a holiday tree every year.”

However, major construction in Riverfront Park has put any such consideration on hold. Several steps would be required before the matter could go before the park board, he said.

“One would be to get a consideration from our legal team whether it would be compliant with state law regarding religious freedom and expression on public land,” Moog said. “We have to investigate further before we could commit, but generally speaking Riverfront Park wants to be a park of inclusion and we want to offer opportunities to many religious faiths to come to Riverfront Park.”

Any such step would also require a private party to take on the expenses to display the Madonna, he said.

The backlit, painted plastic display, a modern- and Cubist-influenced image was built by Spokane’s Baldwin Sign, where the display remains in storage. The sign company has installed and maintained the display since it first went up, including a refurbishment in 1973.

The decoration went up annually, even as the storefront changed from the Bon Marche, or “The Bon,” to Macy’s in 2005. In 2013, the sign company was commissioned by Macy’s to update the display with new panels and LED lights, replacing 500 incandescent bulbs with 1,000 LED lights, cutting the operating cost by 90 percent.

Last year, Macy’s donated it to DSP for safe-keeping and gave a one-time contribution to move and store it at Baldwin Sign. But Richard said the framework built into the original Macy’s for mounting the decoration came down with reconstruction still underway for The M, a mixed-use building owned by Centennial Properties, a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which publishes The Spokesman-Review.

Elisabeth Hooker, DSP marketing manager, said she’s heard people are asking this year if the decoration will go up, mostly inquiring about it among River Park Square retail workers.

“We’re certainly hearing that people at River Park Square are getting questions about it,” she said.

“It’s definitely something that comes up because it is so iconic of Spokane holidays, and especially the downtown holidays. You kind of wait for it to go up, and you know it’s the season. We really want to continue that tradition.

Relocation will require a foundation or at least “heavy-duty hardware” to mount the weight and size of the display, she added.

“With the Macy’s being converted to The M and apartments, they’ve taken out the entire front of the building, so there’s no structure to put the sign back on,” Hooker said.

“She will come back. We just have to find the right space and the right investor. If we hear from members of the community who want to make this happen, we welcome that conversation. I think we’re really going to make an effort to get it back out in 2018 in time for the holidays.”

“We’d love to keep her downtown. That’s our main goal.”

Richard said after a framework is created, annual installation is expected to cost about $13,000.

“We think this is not only an amazing piece of art, but it’s also very well revered by the community,” he said. “We would be ecstatic to have someone, or an entity, consider sponsoring it and getting the display up — maybe even taking over ownership and taking care of her.”

He encouraged people to call or email the DSP with suggestions.