The Sinto Senior Activity Center in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood is the oldest senior center in the city – having celebrated its 60th anniversary with a gala open house in May – and it has the distinction of being the second oldest senior center in the state of Washington.
According to Wayne McMorris, president of the center’s board of managers, it is perhaps fitting that they are located in an old historic building as well – the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company structure, built in 1905 at 1124 W. Sinto Ave. Originally a 5,000-square-foot brick building (which has been added onto since), it was one of the earlier buildings that provided telephone service to the community and was known as the Maxwell Exchange Station.
Telephone service first came to Spokane in 1886 when a telephone exchange was established in the Hyde Building downtown, according to accounts in “Thomas H. Elsom, Spokane’s First Telephone Installer,” a book by Dean Ladd (Elsom’s grandson) chronicling early phone service in the Inland Northwest.
McMorris, who has been active with the senior center for 20-plus years, recalled a connection between the building’s original use and one of the one members there. Hazel Anderson, who died earlier in the 2000s, worked as an operator in the switch room (now the dining room) during the later days of the Great Depression. Behind the north wall was a bunk room. McMorris said that as a young woman Hazel would be brought in from the Five Mile area, where she lived with her family, to work her shifts, staying overnight in the bunk room, and then picked up by family members to go home on days off – common for the women workers in those days, and creating a community feeling there, he said.
Back in the 1950s a group of senior citizens in the neighborhood had begun meeting in one another’s homes, but found themselves running out of space, McMorris said. The building was available, so they got together to buy it in 1958, paying off the loan by 1966, “and we’ve been debt-free ever since.”
The fact that they own the building outright, as well as the ground beneath it, makes them unique among senior centers in Spokane, he added. He credits their financial status to a dedicated group of volunteers among the members, people who donate their time and talent, as well as their treasure.
Member Marilyn Olson, 71, agreed to varnish the new cabinets that member Fred Nottier, an 83-year-old retired truck driver, built in the dining room. He also constructed the stage in the ballroom, a podium and hosts of other cabinets and structures in the center.
Olson started varnishing the cabinets, then it was suggested the walls could use painting, then the ballroom. It snowballed into her painting nearly everything. The project went from this past January until “I’m not quite done yet,” she said. She also donated the brushes, rollers and paint.
Member Mary Ann Tripp, 91, teaches a dance/exercise class in the ballroom. The late Joan Rhodes donated a new 24-passenger bus to the center in 1999. They also have a 14-passenger bus for the trips the center puts together to everywhere from whale watching on the coast to cherry picking at Greenbluff.
An addition that created a large ballroom was put on in the 1970s, and remodeling throughout has taken place over the years. They are completing two current projects, each costing approximately $80,000 – construction of a 50-foot by 30-foot storage garage for the buses and other equipment and a remodeling of the 1970s addition. The latter project revealed five early-days light fixtures and bulbs that were hidden above the false ceiling. These brass fixtures had been painted, but will now be a part of the annual fund-raising auction taking place Friday, with items including overnight packages at casinos, restaurant gift certificates and flags that have flown over the nation’s capitol building.
“We have a fundraiser every year,” McMorris said, adding that garage sales, renting space out to a church and special-interest groups, application for grants and the generosity of people, most of whom are in the 99205 zip code, make it all possible. Three years ago, the center purchased the triplex next door, to help generate income.
But not just neighborhood people are involved at Sinto. Olson’s twin sister, Carolyn O’Brian, lives in West Virginia, “and she finds us too much fun, so she’s coming to go with us on our British Columbia trip.” Even McMorris’ daughter, Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rogers, R-Wash., is a member.
“We all get along to make it work,” said Olson, a member of the board. “We compromise, and when we don’t, we growl a little at each other, and then we compromise.”
The days are long gone in needing structures such as this one, along with operators and switching equipment, to provide telephone service. But the Sinto Senior Activity Center still provides a community service in the historically significant building.
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