Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Just months after it debuted, Riverfront Park’s Stepwell art installation fenced off over chronic graffiti

Fencing surrounds the Stepwell art installation in Riverfront Park on Friday.  (Emry Dinman/The Spokesman-Review)

In April, Spokane unveiled Stepwell, which the city referred to as Riverfront Park’s signature art piece.

Designed by internationally renowned architect, designer and educator J. Meejin Yoon, the structure was intended to provide expansive views of the natural formations in the park, as well as a quiet, contemplative space to read, eat a meal outside or rest in the middle of the 100-acre park.

Since September, however, the roughly half-million dollar structure has been surrounded by a chain link fenced and locked up at night as the city attempts to address rampant vandalization.

Crudely drawn genitals, acronyms promoting self-harm, initials written in pen all mar the structure’s wooden panels.

Graffiti had been anticipated. The interior of the structure is not visible from most angles outside, and Stepwell’s laminated Alaskan yellow cedar was coated with a stain meant to make the structure easily cleanable.

But that precautionary measure has not worked, said Fianna Dickson, communication manager for Spokane Parks and Recreation.

“The fence went up in September when we were getting tagged repeatedly,” Dickson said. “We put it up to give us a couple days to catch up with graffiti removal, and what we learned was the wood was absorbing the paint in a way the artist didn’t intend it to – we’ve had to sand it down to remove those tags.”

There have also been some gaps cropping up between the paneling, Dickson added. Yoon, cofounder of the firm Höweler+Yoon and the dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University, was brought to Spokane to examine the structure and figure out a way to repair the gaps and address the graffiti, but the onset of cold weather interrupted that effort.

Yoon could not be reached for comment.

Dickson said the difficulties maintaining Stepwell have been a “learning experience on all sides.”

“Obviously that solution of a fence is not a good long-term option, so we’re in talks about what that next step is,” she added.

Stepwell was a project five years in the making, delayed during design tweaks to make the feature, inspired by similar structures in western India, more accessible to those with disabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic also slowed down construction by interrupting the supply chain of the cedar used to build the structure.

The public art piece, selected from four original sketches Yoon submitted in late 2017, was designed and built using about half a million dollrs from the $64 million in taxpayer bonds approved in 2014 for the park’s redevelopment. Stepwell was opened to the public with a ribbon cutting on April 30.