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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Built immediately after Great Spokane Fire, Genesee Block Building transforms from pawnshop to upscale

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 12, 2018

The Genesee Block in downtown Spokane is one of 15 buildings constructed in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1889 that remains standing.

But a little-known fire in 2016 nearly subtracted the Genesee from that total.

Now, with nicely appointed apartments and space for up to two retail spaces, the Genesee, on the 800 block of West Riverside Avenue, has a new lease on life.

“We wanted to keep the history of the 125-year-old building but give it a modern design,” said Michael Hart, project manager for the building’s renovation being done by the Craven Company. “It was a journey just to get to the brick.”

As Hart suggests, the 20 coats of paint, chicken wire and plaster were impediments to uncovering not just the brick but the building’s history. Cleaning up after a suspected arson nearly destroyed the building in November 2016 was something else altogether.

Though Hart can see the remaining signs of fire all too well, they’re not that obvious to a newcomer.

The banister heading upstairs to the four apartments, for instance, was recovered from the ground floor mezzanine, charred and surely trash for a different developer. Not Hart or his mentor, Mike Craven; its dark stain and smooth finish look purposeful.

At the top of the stairs, the face plate for the old basement boiler is on display, emblazoned with its maker – Portland’s Steel Tank & Pipe Co. – and a gold tag listing its serial and catalog numbers.

The four apartments are at once sleek and modern, and historic and rustic. Fourteen-foot ceilings stretch high, but go even a few feet farther beyond the lattice of joists. Old brick is freshly exposed on the walls, hardwood floors expand around the space and new appliances fill the kitchen and laundry room. Storage space in the basement will be available for each tenant.

Two larger loft apartments face Riverside. At 960 square feet, the spacious studio apartments will run $1,850 a month. The smaller, 925-square-foot units in back, also studios, will go for $1,700. Hart is looking for tenants.

“We’re looking for that niche,” Hart said. “These aren’t like the M or Chronicle apartments. These are for people who’ve already made a little bit of money.”

Downstairs, the retail shells are still under construction, but Craven said they hope to have leases signed by the end of the year and tenants in place next spring or summer. It’s delayed from the original planned opening date, but the arson changed everything, including the color of a few of his hairs, he said.

For now, some of the exposed joists on the ground floor are dark from the fire. A tin roof was also damaged, but Hart said it’s been removed and cleaned.

“Our plan is to put it back in place,” he said.

In all, the ground floor has more than 8,000 square feet, which includes a mezzanine and spacious basement. It could lease for one larger retailer, or be split up for two. Hart said the space has yet to be leased.

It’ll be a few months before the building is filled with life, but when it is, it will join a long line of commerce in the location, beginning before the Great Fire.

The lot the Genesee stands on was vacant in 1884, but by the time the fire raged through the city core and destroyed 32 blocks of buildings in four hours, a building had been built there to house the Cincinnati Carriage Shop – as well as a shop that sold hay, grain and feed, and a gunsmith who sold arms and ammunition.

But after the fire destroyed much of downtown, new buildings sprouted. The Germond Block, Woodward Building and Bennett Block were all constructed within a year of the fire. The Genesee Block came in 1892, and it’s one of just 15 buildings that have survived from the construction boom following the fire.

The year of its construction – 1892 – is still memorialized in the building’s facade near its top, but it was first made known to Spokane in an 1891 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, listed as “being built.”

According to the book “Spokane’s Building Blocks,” the first occupant was a grocer named Eugene Bertrand, but he only remained a year. Documents filed with the city during the process to protect the building on the Spokane Register of Historic Places, however, cast doubt on Bertrand’s occupancy, and noted that the building’s architect and reason for its name are lost to time.

By 1895, a Spokane branch of the Portland-based Fred T. Merrill Cycle Co. moved into the space, which it occupied for years. The shop sold Rambler bicycles, early examples of the “safety bicycle,” a new type of machine that we refer to simply as a “bicycle” nowadays. The shop also sold livery, rented bikes and ran a “riding academy,” presumably to teach people how to ride the strange new contraptions. Thomas Overman, who opened the shop, did well, and a 1900 “Illustrated History of Spokane County” said he had “an immense stock of up-to-date bicycles, repairs and sundries.” The book called Overman “a very successful business man and his record as a citizen is above reproach.”

Between 1899 and 1907, the Spokane Cloak and Suit House occupied part of the block. In 1910, CG Staples & Sons Confectionary Store and Factory occupied the building. From 1915 to 1927, Bartlett’s Women’s Clothing occupied part of the building.

Over the decades, myriad stores followed: CE Carlson Company Furs, Osborne Millinery Store, the Musician’s Club, Wolper’s Ladies Shop, the Western Hair Co. Beauty Shop, Mister Lee’s Spokane Beauty School, the Spokane School of Hair Fashion, and later Mr. J’s Academy of Cosmetology, Binyon Optometrists, H.L. Men’s Clothing, and the Tom Crowley Shoppe for Men.

By the 1980s, a Hallmark card shop occupied by the building, and then a Subway sandwich restaurant. Until Craven purchased the building in June 2015 for $700,000, it was occupied by a musty pawn shop.

The must is gone, replaced by what Hart and Craven describe as a new type of high-end, downtown Spokane living.

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