For many in Spokane, Ellen Robey will be remembered as the longtime leader of the Friends of the Davenport, a nonprofit founded in the 1980s that fought tooth and nail to save the historic downtown hotel from demolition.
But that was never her only focus.
Robey, who died on May 12 at age 81, was a prolific volunteer for more than four decades, helping lead numerous community groups while working as the business manager for a local architecture firm. Friends and colleagues describe her as a tenacious advocate for the arts and historic preservation, a talented consensus builder who never sought the spotlight.
“She was a lot of fun. She was bright. She was articulate. She was very detail-oriented,” said Mary Donohue, a longtime friend of Robey. “She was just a very involved lady. She worked almost her entire adult life.”
Robey spent 34 years managing payroll, benefits, client billing and other functions for ALSC Architects. She once chaired the local Goodwill Industries board and spent 37 years on the board of the Spokane Civic Theatre, including two terms as president. She lent her expertise to help preserve the Bing Crosby Theater in 2008, when it was called the State Theater and at risk of being demolished or repurposed.
“She went to a small high school, and they didn’t particularly have a great theater department. But she loved the theater,” said Rella Reimann, a sister-in-law of Robey who lives in Pasco.
Robey also volunteered as a docent at the Bing Crosby House Museum, served on the Rockwood Neighborhood Council and helped with bookkeeping for Cataldo Catholic School. Other groups she supported include the Spokane Symphony, the Spokane Lilac Festival, the Spokane Art School, Spokane Preservation Advocates and the local Junior League.
“As soon as someone finds out that you’re good with numbers, which she was, they want you to be the treasurer of this and the treasurer of that,” said Gail Mitchell, who worked with Robey for 32 years at ALSC Architects. “But I think she just felt like she wanted to give back to the community.”
Robey was raised in Ritzville and moved to Spokane after attending Washington State University. She had two older sisters and one younger brother. In 1960, she married Charles Robey, who spent most of his career in the advertising department of the Cowles Co., which publishes The Spokesman-Review. He died in 2015 at age 84. The couple had no children.
Robey’s most famous cause was the fight to save the Davenport Hotel. It was a cause so personal she named one of her cats Louis, after Louis Davenport, the hotel’s original owner.
Built in 1914, the hotel fell into disrepair and closed in 1985. Burdened with debt, the owners decided to sell the shuttered building, which many at the time regarded as a blight on downtown Spokane and ought to be torn down.
Sheri Barnard, then a Spokane city councilwoman, founded the Friends of the Davenport in 1986. Several years later, after Barnard launched her successful run for mayor, the reins of the nonprofit were handed to Robey, a close friend.
“I just remember her as being very tough and very determined,” Barnard said.
Robey and her peers went to great lengths to find a buyer for the hotel.
In a 2017 interview, Robey recalled how she had helped prepare information packets extolling the investment potential of the hotel and its location. One packet went to Prince Charles, and Robey said one member of the Friends even donned a mink coat and rode the elevator up to Donald Trump’s offices in New York City, packet in hand.
The Davenport remained closed for 17 years, with the Friends hosting annual Christmas parties to raise money and remind the community about the historical value of the hotel. In 1990 it was purchased by a Hong Kong-based company that spent the next decade pouring millions of dollars into renovations.
But the company became frustrated by a lack of downtown parking, and in 2000 the building was sold to current owners Walt and Karen Worthy. They gutted the upper floors, filled them with modern rooms, hired artists and craftsmen to restore the hotel’s ballrooms and lobby, and built a parking garage. The Davenport reopened in 2002.
“I had a lot of Spokane civic leaders that patted me on the head and said, ‘This won’t make it,’ but I never was discouraged,” Robey said in another interview in 2017, the year the Friends disbanded.
The group donated the last of its funds to Spokane Preservation Advocates, and to the preservation of Davenport memorabilia at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.
“She really did know how to build consensus on issues that affected our community, and she did it in a way that was just real subtle,” said Marian Evenson, a longtime friend of Robey who became involved with the Friends as a young architect. “She didn’t come in and bowl you over. She just kind of convinced you with the concept of the idea – that it was the right thing to do.”
Barnard said Robey also helped with her mayoral campaign, tracking donations and expenditures for public disclosure reports. Robey later did the same for successive Mayors Jack Geraghty and Dennis Hession, and helped with a Spokane Public Schools bond effort.
“She didn’t ever get partisan,” Barnard said. “She just did the work of accounting.”
Mitchell said Robey had a natural talent for that kind of work.
“I remember her telling me once, when other little girls would get dolls to play with for Christmas, she got her favorite gift of all, and it was a little red cash register,” Mitchell said. “She just was very good at numbers, and she thought that was really cool.”
In 2017, Robey was granted a lifetime achievement award from the Spokane chapter of the YWCA. At the time, she traced her community spirit to her childhood. She recalled that when she was 13, she watched as a group of men, including her father, rebuilt the Lutheran church in Ritzville.
“Nobody got paid. Farmers used their own equipment, their own trucks,” Robey said. “They just tore it down and built a new one.”
That sense of duty extended through her own volunteer work.
“These things that I do,” she said, “I do because I think they need doing.”
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