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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Owners past and present mourn after famous Spokane Valley tower house damaged in fire

UPDATED: Sun., April 25, 2021

On a narrow street, in Spokane Valley’s unassuming Orchard Avenue neighborhood, there’s a house unlike any other.

Its multiple roofs are green. The second-story windows are circular portholes, like you’d see on a ship. At the top of the asymmetrical marvel is a third floor, a tower with eaves like a Japanese pagoda.

This house – known as the tower house or Funkey House – has been the source of admiration and consternation for decades, ever since Charlie Lee started building it at the beginning of the 1990s. Some call the house a beautiful, unique work of art, but it has been a frequent source of frustration for building code enforcers and some neighbors.

The controversial house’s days may be numbered. On April 12, white Spokane Valley trucks sat parked in front of the boarded-up home while the high-pitched whine of buzz saws carried throughout the neighborhood. The city was removing structures that violated city code.

The Funkey House burned on Nov. 8. It’s still standing and looks structurally sound and relatively undamaged from the outside, but the fire scorched all three floors of the interior.

“It pretty much broke my heart,” said Lee, who no longer owns the house and only learned of the fire a few weeks ago. “I put in 31 years of my life on something that ended up getting torched down in one night.”

Labors of love and building battles

Lee moved into the house in 1979. He started fixing the one-story place up right away but didn’t attract too much attention during his first decade in the neighborhood.

Then in 1989, Lee made a fortuitous purchase. He found a man in the neighborhood with an old tugboat on sale for $100 that had been used as a fishing ship in British Columbia.

The boat was sitting on blocks in the man’s backyard. If no one bought it soon, the man was going to burn it. Lee said he had to buy it – he couldn’t let something so beautiful go up in smoke.

Lee added the boat to his house. He used it to build a bedroom for his son on the ground floor.

A few years later, Lee’s wife, Paige, wanted an art studio. So Lee stuck with the nautical theme and built her what he called a lighthouse – two small stories that rose above the original home.

The whole process was contentious, Lee said. He said neighbors and building officials often fought him or wrote him up for code violations whenever he added to the house. He maintains he never intended to build anything that didn’t comply with Spokane County code and when he did, he fixed it.

Still, some neighbors often complained about the one-of-a-kind structure. They didn’t like the way it looked, or worried it would hurt their property values.

“It wound up kind of being a neighborhood war,” Lee said.

Lee said he never intended to build anything complicated, but every time the building department told him he couldn’t do something – merely to harass him, in his opinion – he grew more determined to finish his house.

“I just wanted an art studio and a lighthouse and to be left alone,” Lee said. “I regret even starting to build in this city.”

At one point, Lee was cited for having an addition that jutted out too close to his neighbor’s property line. It wasn’t an especially small addition – it was his third floor – but he decided to move it rather than tear it down. He fashioned an elaborate beam and roller system to move the entire floor 5 feet west.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said.

A modern attraction

The home is owned by Bekha Davis through a nonprofit called the Fellowship of Art. Davis doesn’t live in Spokane.

Davis used the house as an Airbnb, which operated for several years. It was a popular place to spend a night and drew some rave reviews from visitors.

The house hasn’t been occupied for a few years, though.

According to court documents, Spokane Valley filed a Superior Court complaint in 2018 for two code violations at the property: operating a hotel without a business license and doing construction without permits. Spokane Valley Deputy City Attorney Erik Lamb said unpermitted construction also failed to comply with city setback requirements.

Spokane Valley posted a “do not occupy/unsafe structure” notice on the house – or “red-tagged” it – in 2018 due to those violations. Lamb said the city was abating the nuisances on the property a couple of weeks ago.

After people were precluded from living in the house, squatters moved in.

“Unfortunately the house was open to the wrong crowd,” said Davis, speaking by phone from Naples, Florida. She added that the house had been boarded up to prevent people from living in it, but squatters found an opening.

It’s not clear how the fire started. Lee is adamant that it wasn’t an accident.

“Whoever did it is extremely evil,” he said. “I really want answers. I’m madder than a wet hen that somebody would do this. I’m angry and hurt and sad and shocked. Whoever did this I hope burns in hell.”

Spokane Valley Fire Department spokeswoman Julie Happy said the fire appears to have been accidental and no foul play was involved.

Squatters had not been seen in the house at the time of the fire.

Unless a witness comes forward with new information, the investigation will remain open, Happy said. There are no signs that an accelerant – such as gasoline – was used to start the fire.

Davis said it’s been difficult to emotionally process what has happened to her house. She said she’d put her blood, sweat and tears into the home. Lee even helped her work on it at times.

“This was really a collaboration of hundreds of artists,” she said, explaining that people who stayed at the house as visitors often contributed to it artistically. “Throughout our time there, there were definitely incredible magical enhancements. … For us, art is a religion. It is our connection with God.”

Davis hasn’t done her own inspection of the damage yet. If the damage is minor, she wants to rebuild and have the house reborn like “the phoenix that rises from the ashes.”

The revived house would be a bit different from the original.

The rebuilt home would be surrounded by lots of bee boxes.

“We do want to turn this space into the first honey home,” Davis said.

Lee said he’ll always have good memories from his time living in the house with his family. But he said he’s devastated that his creation, that he built more than 31 years, has burned.

“I thought I won the war when (Davis) took it over,” Lee said, crying. “I feel like I’ve been shot.”

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