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Rob Curley: You have to go back in time (not too far) to relish in iconic, downtown clocktower sights

The letters, emails and phone calls probably started in June.

One of my favorite things about Spokane, and especially our subscribers, is that people here pay attention to the smallest details. They also aren’t afraid of sharing their observations about those things – especially any changes they don’t especially appreciate.

“You know your clock is broken, right?”

As soon as I heard the caller, I instinctively looked at the clocks in our newsroom and then at my watch. Everything seemed OK, but it should be noted I’ve never really been any good at time, despite a career that is built around the concept of deadlines.

I’m late. A lot. I have a few interesting skills, but being on time isn’t one of them.

That’s why this phone call didn’t seem all that unfamiliar to me. Let’s just say I have a lot of life experience dealing with variations of the topic of time and my inability to understand it.

“You’re going to need to get the clocks in your clocktower fixed. It’s driving a bunch of us crazy.”

Now this was interesting to me. Especially since I wasn’t the one who was driving him crazy.

I might not have the best relationship with clocks, but I sure do love the clocks at the top of The Review tower. I went outside to take a look for myself.

Yep. They were broken. Totally the wrong time. In all three directions.

This brings up another of my favorite things about our readers. They almost always begin their conversations by telling me how long they’ve subscribed to The Spokesman-Review.

“I’ve been a subscriber to your newspaper for 54 years and before that, my parents were subscribers, and before them, my grandparents were subscribers,” he told me. “I grew up here and ever since I was just a kid, every single time I am downtown and near your newspaper, I look up at your clocktower to see what time it is.

“Except for now. Because it’s broken. Fix it.”

Jesse Tinsley

Lots of people assume the editor of the newspaper is the boss of the entire place – that everyone and everything at The Spokesman-Review reports to me. Most are surprised when I explain that the editor is more like a department head and there are a bunch of other leaders in our company who sit at the exact level that I do on the organizational chart.

The difference is that I’m the one of those department heads whose phone number is the easiest to find. That means I get the majority of the phone calls.

Like most newspaper editors across the country, the only part of The Spokesman-Review that reports to me is our newsroom. The advertising department doesn’t report to the editor. The circulation department doesn’t report to the editor. Heck, even the opinion pages in most newspapers – including ours – don’t report to the editor.

But, more important for this exact situation, it also means that building maintenance doesn’t report to me. So, as much as I wish I had some say over the clocktower – hello, coolest office in all of Washington – I don’t.

So, first, I thanked the caller for being such a loyal subscriber. Then I apologized about our building’s clocks and said our company was trying to find someone to fix them. I explained that in 2018 the only thing harder than finding a newspaper carrier who will put the paper perfectly on the porch is trying to find someone to fix huge clocks that are on the side of buildings that look a little like a castle.

“So you used to look at our clocktower to get the time when you were a kid?” I asked.

“Of course. That’s what they were there for,” he said.

This is where I was in a bit of a pickle. Did I correct him or not?

In my unofficial – though highly important, at least to me – secondary job as this newspaper’s modern-day historian and caretaker of obscure information, I knew that wasn’t possible. The Review tower hasn’t always had clocks. In fact, for the vast majority of our iconic building’s life, it told time about as well as I do.

Meaning it didn’t.

This caller was experiencing revisionist nostalgia. It’s why our parents or grandparents explain in vivid detail walking to school everyday, uphill both ways, in the snow.

Or me explaining to my kids what life without cellphones was like. Except I’m being truthful and physics tells us that grandpa was totally fibbing … which is much easier to call “revisionist nostalgia” when Thanksgiving dinner is just around the corner.

All of this meant there was literally no way the person I was talking to on the phone could have seen the time from our clocktower when he was just a sprout because those clocks weren’t installed until the early 1980s. Technically, it wasn’t even a clocktower during his youth.

I decided against telling him that. Along with politics and religion, it’s also pretty good advice to avoid conversations about bogus childhood memories with people who are already yelling at you.

So, how is it that in a town loaded with iconic clocktowers, the most-handsome clocktower of them all wasn’t even a clocktower for most of its existence?

It’s not as crazy of a story as you might think.

Many of us have experienced it before. And if we haven’t, we certainly have heard about others who have.

Working with an architect on your dream building or fantasy home, you design everything you’ve always wanted, finally done exactly how you envisioned it in your mind.

Then as it starts to get built, maybe life changes a bit, maybe there are a few cost overruns, maybe you get some unexpected bills … then the next thing you know, some of your favorite parts of your perfect building are being scrapped because the money just wasn’t there to do it the way you wanted.

Well, that’s basically what happened when The Review Tower was designed and built in the early 1890s in the oddly shaped downtown lot at the corner of Riverside Avenue and Monroe Street.

FILE- In this 1933 file photo, The Spokesman-Review tower can be seen without a clock. (Photo Archive / SR)
FILE- In this 1933 file photo, The Spokesman-Review tower can be seen without a clock. (Photo Archive / SR)

The grandiose building plans for The Review always included clocks at the top of its distinctive round tower. That’s why the current clocks look like they were designed to go there. Because they were.

However, just like a lot of modern construction projects, things were costing way more money than they were budgeted for and some things had to be cut from the original plans.

That meant the clocks were out.

If you haven’t noticed, I keep referring to our historic building as The Review Tower.

The next time you walk by the front of our building, look up to see what name is across the top. Yep, The Review. Not The Spokesman-Review.

Construction began on the building began in March 1890, less than a year after the Great Fire of 1889. It was going to be the new home of the Spokane Falls Review, a newspaper owned in part by the same family that owned the Portland Oregonian.

The tallest building in town was built the way it was to, in part, intimidate its rival, The Spokesman.

With the onset of the financial panic of 1893, the fierce competitors found it necessary to combine if either were to survive. Of course, that meant moving the newly combined operation into The Review building. Why? Just look at it! It’s awesome. And it was way cooler than The Spokesman’s original building.

The paper was renamed The Spokesman-Review, with The Spokesman’s owner – W. H. Cowles – taking control of the entire operation.

Since that time, The Review Tower has undergone three major remodelings, in 1928, 1956 and in 1984. It was during the last update that the clocks were finally added.

Since the first time Jim Cowles, former Cowles Publishing Co. president, noticed that the original plans for The Review included clocks, he wanted to add them. Well, “add them” is probably the wrong phrase.

“I just wanted us to finish the project,” he told me last week. “We finally got it done.”

So when the clocks quit working earlier this year, it was Jim Cowles who wanted to make sure the company did all it could to get them running again.

That’s where Nat Williams and Otto Fauske from Spokane Clock enter the picture. You might have seen their shop on North Division, near Liberty Avenue. They don’t sell a lot of clocks, but they sure do fix a lot of them.

And fixing the clocks that basically anchor downtown Spokane is the kind of job you ultimately want.

The problem with fixing clocks is twofold: Can you first figure out what’s broken, and if you can, will it even be possible to get the parts you might need to fix them?

That was part of the problem with the clocks at the top of The Review Tower. One of the main parts that needed to be replaced wasn’t made anymore, Williams said. The solution was to try to convince the factory that used to make them to please make them again.

They would. Just not the three that were needed for our clocks. The minimum order was 10. The good news is that this particular part typically lasts around 35 years, so we’re going to be in pretty good shape for the next 100 years or so.

This past Friday morning, Williams and Fauske, along with members of our company’s building crew, climbed to the top of the tower to replace the clocks. By early afternoon, they were finally working again.

The faces of the newly-repaired clocks glow in the fading light of Friday, Nov. 2, 2018 on the Review Tower, which now has operating public clocks on three faces. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The faces of the newly-repaired clocks glow in the fading light of Friday, Nov. 2, 2018 on the Review Tower, which now has operating public clocks on three faces. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Jim Cowles climbed the stairs after they were done to see for himself if the clocks were now working. For decades, he was a member of the board of directors for The Tribune Company in Chicago. It pained him when he visited the Heartland if he noticed the clocks in one of this nation’s other iconic newspaper buildings had the wrong time.

He would ask how people could trust us to have the news correct if we can’t even get the time right. That’s part of why seeing the clocks not working on The Review Tower bothered him so much. Well that and because he was the main reason they were there in the first place.

“It’s why it was so important to fix these,” he said as he made his way up the narrow staircase.

From the first time I walked into this building, I couldn’t believe how much it meant to me to work in one of the last great newspaper buildings. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve taken a photo of our clocktower as I walk into work each morning because of how beautiful it always looks to my eyes.

Same with when I leave each night to go home. Seeing those slow blinking lights at the top and the huge lit clocks always made me feel proud. So I’d take another picture.

My phone has hundreds of photos of our tower on it.

For these past few months, I’d look up there each morning and evening, and it never felt right to me. It even made me a little sad, which is really saying something for someone who doesn’t pay much attention to time.

As I was leaving the building on Saturday night, I looked up and saw the clocks had the right time.

I took a photo.

And I’ll be ready to take your calls on Monday.

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