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

The mystery of the Perry Street stairs may be solved, and the neighborhood resident behind the clues now hopes for a historical marker there

The Perry Street stairs are photographed Nov. 16 in Spokane. The stairs connect South Perry Street with Overbluff Road.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

There’s some mystery to an old, steep stairway on the South Hill.

The Perry Street stairs connects South Perry Street to Overbluff Road in one of Spokane’s early neighborhoods.

The concrete staircase easily could be missed – one side is tucked among trees near a dead end of Perry at 20th Avenue. On top, a concrete path leads to Overbluff – once called 21st Avenue – lined with Rockwood Terrace Addition homes built in the early 1900s.

Today, those stairs still get regular use by residents, fitness fans, sports teams and kids shortcutting to school. And though portions of the 63 concrete steps show deterioration, the stairway has held.

Yet its history has remained elusive.

“The steps are well-used in a neighborhood at the end of a street, and not a clue in the history of where, why,” said Gene Cohen, a neighbor who only a month ago found early newspaper briefs on the stairway’s 1911-12 construction.

Now, the mystery may have been solved.

Cohen regularly researches Spokane history for his online newspaper, Spokane Falls Gazette. Long curious about the Perry Street stairs, he’s searched for decades to find out when and who built them.

“There isn’t a historian in town that could ever find anything on the stairs,” Cohen said. “That was a true statement up until about a month ago, and then I found two statements in the paper. Those statements are pretty much giving me the only clues anybody has.”

In October, he spotted a mention in the Spokane Daily Chronicle from Aug. 21, 1911, that said, “city commissioners awarded three street grading contracts,” including “Perry street, Twentieth to Twenty-first avenue, estimate $2,400; to Dennis P. Woods at $2,500.”

Cohen believes Perry from 20th to 21st, or to today’s Overbluff, was too steep at that time for an actual road at roughly a 16% grade, so it became a stairway.

A May 30, 1912, Chronicle article apparently backs that, describing Rockwood Terrace Addition improvements: “The long drive under the bluff, and the 10-foot wide stairway that slopes up the face of the rise, with the decorative stone work at the sides, are all completed.”

Cohen recently sent a letter to more than 100 residents proposing a stairway historical marker and perhaps forming a group to put the Perry Stairs into a historical district.

“Those steps have sat there in that neighborhood for 110 years. If we don’t get a plaque on those steps, it will be another 10 years from now,” Cohen said. “Then, no one will remember.”

Early use of the steps still isn’t entirely clear, but Cohen’s theory is that they provided passage to people for the trolley system on Perry. The Washington Water Power streetcar routes included one through what is now the South Perry Business District.

Other residents think the stairway served mainly as a nonmuddy pathway for servants who lived near Perry and worked in the mansions on the higher bluff.

Cohen’s find could be eligible for a grant application toward a history marker, said area resident Karen Dorn Steele, a former Spokesman-Review reporter. She lives near the 20th and Perry intersection.

“I knew they were part of Rockwood Terrace Addition, but Gene’s research is great, because I didn’t know they’d been completed that early, 1911-1912,” Dorn Steele said.

The steps have deteriorated some, she said, and the decorative basalt pillars along the sides are crumbling.

“I think the plaque idea is great, and I also think some renovation is needed.”

People often ask about the origins of the stairs, Dorn Steele added.

“The stairs are heavily used – whole high school track teams run up and down them all the time. When people are getting ready for Bloomsday, a lot of times they park in the neighborhood and train on those stairs.”

Jack Heath, Washington Trust Bank president, said neighbors have long asked about the busy pathway. He lives at the corner of Perry and Overbluff.

“It’s always connected everybody to the Perry District,” Heath said.

“Living across the street from them, those stairs are in continuous use. It’s a path for people out walking or walking their dogs. We see just a continuous steady stream – a huge walking path and many times throughout the day, we’ll see groups of people or individuals doing their intensive cardio workouts on those stairs.”

There’s even a system used by many people who break tree branches into even stick sections to use for counting the number of runs up and down, he said.

“The stairs are a real connectivity for our neighborhood,” Heath added. “It’s funny because everyone in the neighborhood always asks about the history of them, and we have never known, so it’s really fun to see that they’ve been around that long.

“They do show some wear and tear, and they need some tender loving care, but the amount of activity they get for people who are doing walks and exercise is amazing.”

Elizabeth Szombathy, who lives near the bottom, said she thinks the stairway’s safety and renovation are greater concerns. The city regularly maintains the steps and has done repairs over the years.

“They’re failing and they’re crumbling, because the concrete that they had 100 years ago wasn’t nearly as weatherproof or as strong and flexible as concrete is now,” Szombathy said. She said the stairs after repairs are now different heights and depths – “the criteria for falling.”

“I’ve seen lots of people fall, including myself, because our bodies calibrate a certain height every time we go up a stair,” she said. “I would rather see the city proceed in its plan to rebuild the stairs and to make them safer.”

An 11-year resident, Szombathy agrees the steps get heavy use.

“Almost every school on the south side trains on the stairs,” she said. “That’s been a given the whole time I’ve lived there. The best was the Gonzaga basketball team. They were here all the time; I felt so sorry for those guys. I haven’t seen them for several years now, but it was when they were making it through the Sweet 16.”

There’s some downside, she said. Multiple cars would crowd 20th’s narrow street and private property, as people used the steps, until the city’s “no parking” signage. Past drug trafficking quieted after police cracked down, she said.

A concrete barricade now sits on the roadway at the bottom of the stairway, to deter damage after drivers crashed into the railing twice this past year.

Sara Weaver-Lundberg lives next to the top of the stairs in the Christensen House, a mix of Tudor Revival and Storybook styling, on the National Register of Historic Places. She loves the stairs.

“I love the idea of putting up some sort of designation about the stairs,” she said.

“It’s really a special place. I use them almost every day. I can tell you that military personnel use it, track teams use it, football teams use it, mom and dads with kids use it. There is a little neighborhood cat that comes up and visits. I met a lady out there I happened to see every day, so I finally asked, “What’s your name?’ We’re kind of like pals on the stairs.”

Weaver-Lundberg said a historic marker could perhaps replace the newer concrete block. “They could put a beautiful basalt sign there and somehow make it low enough that it could be a barrier instead of the ugly concrete barricade. I thought it would be fun if someone could restore the basalt pillars, as well.

“The stairs are old, of course, but they’re really fun. Lots of people contact the city to say, ‘One of the stairs is crumbling,’ and they’ve done a good job at maintaining them. With the winters, they freeze and crack. They need to be taken care of just like the roads.”

Megan Duvall, Spokane city-county historic preservation officer, said she didn’t have information on the site beyond Cohen’s new discovery, other than an April 1910 city plat map for Rockwood Terrace, showing D. P. Woods as engineer of record.

She also emailed an Oct. 14, 1911, Chronicle notice for adjacent property owners regarding an assessment to be levied for improvements such as curbing, sidewalks and “building a stairway of Perry street, district No. 922, from the north line of Twentieth avenue to the north line of Twenty-first avenue.”

The city does have other early stairways, such as the wooden steps from Peaceful Valley to Browne’s Addition, dating perhaps more than 130 years. None of these old pathways has official historical designation, Duvall said.

The Rockwood Terrace Addition – with 19th Avenue to the north and Overbluff Road to the south – was adjacent east of the prominent Olmsted Brothers-designed Rockwood neighborhood. Rockwood Terrace Addition lots were sold to wealthy individuals who commissioned architects, designers and builders for custom homes.

A few lots sold by 1912, but transactions slowed for the next 12 years. Finally in 1926, an ad called for residents to buy remaining lots in an auction at reduced prices, and all sold, Cohen wrote in a column.

Dave Shockley, Spokane Preservation Advocates executive coordinator, said the group offers Heritage Fund grants for April and October applications, often applied to markers such as what Cohen proposed.

“It’s definitely something we’d be interested in helping with,” he said.