Spokane’s downtown once was home to an economic anomaly, a presence so powerful that for decades it embodied the very essence of Christmas gifting.
Imagine at its zenith, a seven-story department store on West Main Avenue that had a doorman who would remember repeat customers’ names and would open car doors as consumers arrived to shop.
The store had elevator attendants, who would announce what was on each floor so shoppers never had to guess where to get off.
The business built its reputation on everything first class, from the way packages were wrapped to the head of the shoe sales department who treated every female customer like she was Cinderella receiving a glass slipper.
The store boasted 101 departments and had a purchasing department that would send employees to New York and Los Angeles to secure the same trending fashions sold at Bloomingdale’s.
Other stores like the Bon Marche, JCPenney and others ringed its location, but during the holidays, the Crescent turned visiting the Lilac City’s downtown into a social event.
“It was like an enchanted land during Christmas,” said Lucia D’Angelo, 81, who grew up in Spokane. “It was elegance and charm. Everybody dressed up to go shopping.
“You would never go downtown without being fully dressed to the nines.”
D’Angelo’s mother would take her six kids each year to see Santa Claus at the Crescent.
In the windows, the store always had elaborate displays of mechanical marionettes, massive decorations and toys as Christmas carols played on a public address system.
“You’d pick out what you really wanted for Christmas, and of course, never get it,” she said. “I liked it more as a teenager. We loved the clothes there.”
‘The meeting place’
Friends would converge on the store.
“Everyone would meet under the Crescent clock,” D’Angelo said.
Paddy Shannon, 80, remembers doing the same thing.
“Probably from the time I was 3 or 4, we had our picture taken with Santa Claus and all the little elves,” she said. “We always wanted to go down and look into the windows. They would have all these little animals.
“It was something that we always loved and looked forward to.”
When she got older, the store became the social hub.
“We would go down and meet our friends under the clock,” Shannon said. “That was the meeting place.
“You would always go there and see people waiting against the counter. They were waiting for somebody. Then we would go do our Christmas shopping.”
What eventually became the Crescent opened in 1889, the day before a great fire gutted Spokane’s downtown.
But the fire didn’t take out the original store, Spokane Dry Goods, which was located on Riverside Avenue next to The Spokesman-Review building.
Owners James M. Comstock and Robert B. Paterson reportedly did not raise prices to take advantage of those suffering from the disaster. It began the store’s customer-friendly tradition that continued for more than a century.
They moved the Crescent to the 700 block of West Riverside in 1899.
The store sold automotive parts, clothing and farm tools, but became a true shopping landmark with the opening of their large building on Main Avenue in 1919.
Expansions in 1949 and 1973 eventually spanned from Riverside to Main avenues. At one point, the store had 5.2 acres of floor space designed as a gathering place and elegant shopping experience.
It also opened satellite stores in NorthTown Mall in 1959 and University City in 1969, with warehouses all over Spokane to serve them.
The company eventually sold the Crescent to Chicago retail giant Marshall Fields in 1962.
That company was bought in 1982 by an even larger group that spun off the Crescent and Frederick & Nelson stores in 1988, which then all took the F&N name.
They closed for good in 1992.
‘A special experience’
But before it was diluted by mergers and eventually closed, the store set a standard that few could match, Renee Rolando said.
She was working at Spokane’s Bon Marche, located across the street from the Crescent, when she was invited to join the larger store’s staff as a fashion buyer.
Originally from Butte, Rolando, 67, said the Crescent didn’t offer the money she sought, but management said they would provide something else: Prestige.
“When I first started at the Crescent, I bought the juniors. It was all the junior clothing that was trendy,” she said. “We had an amazing display department. It changed all the time.”
The company sent her to Los Angeles and New York, sometimes for days, to feed customers’ ever-changing appetites. Customers would come to the Crescent before a big social event.
“We would go to New York to buy dresses specifically for people to wear for that event,” Rolando said. “And, we would make sure we had only one to make sure nobody else would show up at the event with the same dress.”
The sales staff knew the merchandise and could tell customers if they looked good.
“They made sure everyone felt special,” she said. “It wasn’t just that you go in to buy something. When you walked out, it was wrapped in tissue paper and put in a box or a beautiful bag. It was a special experience. It was elegant.”
One of her fellow fashion buyers, who was the same age, was from Lewiston.
“We were walking down the street in New York saying, ‘Who would ever think we could be 26 years old from Idaho and Montana and being able to do this?’ They fully trusted us to do the best job and we did.”
But that same service ethic went everywhere.
Shoppers could drop their car off to get serviced as they shopped. The Crescent had a candy department where kids could watch it get made. It had its own fur department and another crew that did professional alterations.
The store would even store furs for customers in its cold storage in the summer, next to the gourmet meats.
D’Angelo, the Spokane resident, said she remembers the beautiful woman who was in charge of the store’s makeup department.
“She would be on a bus,” D’Angelo said, “we would stare at her like she was a celebrity. The people would be the same sales people for years.”
Rolando said she remembered one time when a couple came to look at the Christmas display and asked to buy a large tree that was part of the decorations.
“I remember the display department looking at it, asking, ‘How are we going to get this out of the store? How are we going to wrap it to make sure it’s perfect?’ ”
They ended up wrapping the entire artificial tree with Saran Wrap.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it was delivered the same day,” Rolando said. “They probably spent the day making sure everything was plugged in and displayed perfectly.”
‘Part of Spokane history’
Barbara Vadset, 79, is a retired teacher who mostly grew up in Spokane before graduating from Gonzaga University.
Her late father, Howard Schneider, came to Spokane in 1952 to work at the Crescent as the display manager.
It was Schneider who made annual trips to New York to find the mechanical marionettes and unique displays that made the Crescent’s iconic history, Vadset said.
“They did not put one thing up until after Thanksgiving,” Vadset said. “They honored the holiday.”
Vadset said she was both proud and in awe, like most other Spokane kids, at the annual creations.
“We got to take the elevator to the seventh floor and wind through all the creative things that were there,” she said. “It was so exciting.”
Some of Schneider’s purchases may be living on.
Over the past few years, the Downtown Spokane Partnership has been gathering remnants of the Crescent displays as they are discovered in storage, the partnership’s Elizabeth Hooker said.
“When Macy’s closed in 2016, we received a phone call at the office,” she said.
The caller informed her that the building had a storage room stuffed with decorations.
“I went into the storage place. It looked like Christmas had been crammed into this 20 x 10-foot office space,” Hooker said.
“We pulled out animatronics, figurines, Christmas trees, random backgrounds. I came to the realization that … some had hailed from the Crescent department store.”
Sometime later, she got a similar call from the manager of the Crescent Building who had no interest in the items in his basement. There, she found boxes and boxes of similar items.
And then another call from a partnership board member who found even more items in a parking garage.
“Some had been through a flood,” Hooker said. “What we did in 2017 was lay everything out on the floor and figured out what was working and what matched.”
As the collection grew, an idea formed.
“In my eight years of working for the DSP, we always heard about how amazing the holidays were in downtown,” she said.
Hooker began asking around and found a partner with the management of the Davenport hotels.
“We tried to find large windows. The only available options were the bay windows in the Grand Hotel,” she said.
Engineers at the hotel, at 333 W. Spokane Falls Blvd., worked to provide boxes that look like the old display windows from the Crescent. Hooker and her staff then rebuilt the old displays.
“Some have water damage, some rust and really old motors,” she said. “But, we want to maintain the character of the figurines as we found them.
“We tried not to paint them. We want the flaws to be part of Spokane history.”
Santa Claus will be on hand at 4:30 p.m. Saturday as the display windows are revealed.
“We have five windows that are each about 20 feet wide,” she said. “It’s one of those core memories that those people who grew up in Spokane have of the holiday season.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled Renee Rolando’s last name.
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