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

Could Mary’s Place be saved? As demolition nears for the historic South Hill home, its fate remains uncertain

Mary’s Place owner George Alex fields phone calls during an estate sale at Mary’s Place in April 2023 in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

From nearly anywhere in Spokane, the towering campus of Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center is visible.

But the home of a stubborn woman that sits in the heart of the buildings is hidden in their shadows.

The property is known as Mary’s Place, named after Mary Gianetsas, who staunchly refused offers from Providence to buy her 1906 home.

Around 80 years ago, the Cliff/Cannon Neighborhood was home to Gianetsas and many neighbors. But only Mary’s Place remains.

“That was a very wealthy neighborhood. A lot of great things were taken down,” said Dave Shockley , executive director of the Spokane Preservation Advocates. “Louis Davenport’s home was also there, which was demolished.” Davenport was the magnate whose namesake hotel franchise spreads across downtown Spokane to this day.

After his mother’s death in the hospital next door in 1991, her son George Alex has owned the property at 104 W. 8th Ave.

But this week, it became official: Mary’s Place was purchased by Diamond Inc., a giant in the parking lot industry.

As part of the $4.5 million deal, Alex agreed that Diamond could submit demolition and construction plans under his name in December. This move was to ensure commercial development would be allowed by the city – a risk management measure for the company.

“Demo plans were sent off so the city could look at the project and see if they are in accordance with code, is all,” said Dan Geiger, regional vice president at Diamond’s Spokane office.

Though development plans submitted to the city show a simple parking lot with around 50 stalls, Geiger said they are still evolving.

The roughly 5,000-square-foot home has garnered the attention of history buffs because of its unique architecture and its symbolism of how someone small can make big changes, according to Megan Duvall, the city of Spokane’s historic preservation officer.

Developers who designed the hospital buildings changed the original plans because of Gianetsas refusal to sell, which forced them to build around her instead, Duvall said.

“It’s amazingly intact and tremendously original,” she said. “And because of her refusal, Mary literally changed the skyline of Spokane.”

Duvall said the property has all the criteria to be placed on the Spokane Register of Historic Places, but that process must be initiated by its owner.

“It would definitely be a loss if it does get demolished,” she said. “I just wish someone would’ve elected to put it on a register. We would have been able to deny demolition.”

She had the opportunity to see the home in person during an estate sale in April of last year.

“I looked past the things for sale,” she said.

What first jumped out to Duvall was the almost 120-year-old original wallpaper in its dining room and also the sandstone used for its porch columns and mantel.

The historic designation would have prevented it from ever being torn down, but neither Alex nor his mother, were ever interested in that kind of nostalgia, he said.

“I never considered it because I’m a businessman,” Alex said. “So was my mom.”

Alex recalled a meeting on the front porch between Gianetsas and Sister Peter Claver, former president and chief executive officer of Sacred Heart Hospital, who offered his mother $200,000 for her home.

“My mom wanted $215,000,” he said. “She was a real businesswoman.”

His mother, a first-generation Greek immigrant, got started in real estate after her husband died. The railroad company he worked for gave Gianetsas, who could barely speak English at the time, a death benefit worth $1,500.

“We went to Yakima, she bought an old beater, fixed it up, and rented some rooms in there,” he said. “That’s where she started her business ventures.”

Four years later, she remarried, and the family moved to Spokane where they acquired an old apartment building on Seventh Avenue and Washington Street, he said.

“We lived there until I was 11 years old,” he said. “In 1944, she bought the big house, and we moved in. She had it paid off in five years.”

Like his mother, Alex also owned and managed his own properties in Spokane, in addition to his day job teaching art at Shadle Park High School for 25 years.

“I sold all my rentals, the last one a couple months ago,” he said.

Beyond their business acumen, Alex and his mother had a lot in common.

“She wasn’t the huggy-kissy kind of mother,” he said. “But for some reason, I understood her. I knew exactly where she was.”

Despite his decision to sell the home, Alex is sentimental about it.

“I learned so much there about renting property and about people because of everyone who would live there – I just don’t marry my properties,” he said.

Alex stopped and pointed to his heart.

“I feel it here, but I don’t expound it from there.”

Though crews can theoretically begin demolishing the home at any time, Duvall said there will be plenty of warning before the home is touched.

“Looks like the utilities are disconnected,” she said. “The next thing to look for would be the trees to come down.”

Preservation activists will likely not be caught off guard by the demolition, but the clock is ticking for those who want to save the home.

“I want it,” said Austin Storm, a lover of historic buildings.

Storm doesn’t want to buy the property, just the house.

“I’d say I’m 95% sure I can move it,” Storm said. “It won’t be easy, it’s not the kind of house you can scoot down the block. We’ll probably have to cut it into more than six pieces.”

Austin and his wife, Laura Storm, purchased the derelict, roughly 130-year-old St. Ignatius Hospital in Colfax in 2021.

Their ambitious restoration project has included stabilizing its caving walls while crews lifted the structure to replace its crumbling and sinking foundation, he said.

“So many people thought we were crazy for buying that property because of how bad of shape it was in structurally,” he said. “But you gotta be a little crazy to do these types of projects.”

And relocating Mary’s Place is no exception.

“It feels like I did all those other projects to be part of something like this,” he said. “You’d have to have an arborist cut back trees and the city to come in to move power lines. I’m not even sure they can be moved for any amount of time because they supply the hospital.”

The difficulty is exciting to Storm, but futile to Alex.

“It’d take half a year to tear that thing up and move it,” he said. “It’s a great house, but it’s not the greatest. Moving it would be hell. It would just be stupid.”

But some think the pain of saving the home is worth the effort.

“It’d be a shame to tear down the home,” said Jeff McCord, a house rescuer at perhaps the most prominent building moving company in Washington, Marysville-based Nickel Bros Inc., which often makes headlines for its ambitious projects.

In 2015, for instance, they floated a Seattle mansion across the Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island.

McCord said it is rare that a property cannot be moved.

“Old homes are surprisingly solidly built,” he said. “As long as the house is not significantly landlocked.”

McCord has a passion for saving old buildings, and he is hopeful Mary’s place can be one of them. But he has not yet set foot on the property.

Ryan Breithaupt has.

“I would have to get inside to say, but it’s not a project that I would want,” said Breithaupt, owner of Breithaupt and Sons, which also moves buildings. “And I’m not sure who would disagree.”

Breithaupt and Sons, a company founded by Paul Breithaupt in 1979, has moved hundreds of houses in the Spokane area.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we’re starting to move a house for the second time,” Paul Breithaupt said.

In 2011, they helped Nickel Bros pick up the Rose Apartments building, which sat on Third Avenue in East Central Spokane, and move it to Fourth Avenue.

Though it was a three-story building, the project was fairly straightforward, Ryan Breithaupt said.

“It was an open area, and it was on flat ground,” he said. “My goodness, I’d have nightmares about moving Mary’s Place on the South Hill.”

If the Breithaupts were to move the nearly 5,000-square-foot building, it would be their biggest undertaking yet.

They would need to purchase larger support beams, more jacks, and a larger truck to handle it.

But even if they acquired the proper equipment, the Breithaupts think it is impossible to move the building.

“I mean, it’s landlocked. Everyone built around it and on the South Hill, there are trees and retaining walls and all sorts of hindrances – there’s just no way,” he said. “I would sit and watch the whole thing happen if someone tried.”

Still, Storm said there is no good reason why an attempt should not be made. If successful, the home would save a historic property for generations to experience, and it would save Diamond money.

“They’d save on demolition costs, get paid for the home and earn some good PR along the way,” Storm said.

But relocating the home would take longer than demolition, he said.

“The benefit of saving an old house and saving a few hundred grand may not necessarily be worth the hassle on their side,” he said. “An objection to anything can kill the project. These reasons are not as compelling as you might think.”

McCord, of the Marysville firm, said that if the home cannot be saved, it should be salvaged.

He travels the country presenting a study he prepared for the City of Seattle that shows the overwhelming reasons to avoid flattening a home.

“Demolition shouldn’t be in our vocabulary anymore,” he said.

Historic homes contain stronger, more scarce materials that should be used for other builds, he said. He said an average home creates around 85 tons of trash when it is demolished and including debris from around 75 trees.

After buying Mary’s Place, Grieger is unsure whether the home will be scooted down the South Hill, stripped for parts or sent off to the landfill.

“We understand the value of historic buildings,” he said, citing that Diamond owns one of the most recognizable structures in all of Spokane, the Paulsen Building in downtown.

When asked about his interest in allowing time for someone to relocate it, Geiger said, “That would be very nice.”

“I haven’t heard all the details,” he said. “But I can say that we’re not in this business because we want to destroy things.”