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

How an ‘unbelievable’ $55 million gift brought Gonzaga’s Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center to life

The Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center is seen on the campus of Gonzaga University on Friday in Spokane.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Johnathan Curley The Spokesman-Review

Five years after opening its doors, the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center at Gonzaga University has continued to demonstrate how a facility dedicated to the performers of today and tomorrow can succeed under one roof.

“You can have professional artists who have mastered their craft and come here and perform, but you can also have students, and it’s so wonderful to experience a student just beginning their artistic career,” said Myrtle Woldson director Stephen Cummins. “That’s what’s really special about an academic performing arts center.”

Located in the west portion of Gonzaga’s campus, the center hosts two venues: the 755-seat Fr. Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J Theater and the Martin and Edwidge Woldson Recital Hall, which doubles as a space for music and dance, in addition to classrooms.

The facility’s namesake, Myrtle Woldson, was the daughter of a prominent railroad contractor who became a disciplined businesswoman as well as an avid supporter of the arts and Gonzaga basketball.

At the time of her death at 104 in 2014, she had gifted $3 million to the restoration of the Fox Theater (renamed for her father, Martin), more than $1.2 million to the Moore-Turner Heritage Garden at Edwidge Woldson Park (formerly Pioneer Park) and a $55 million endowment to Gonzaga University for the performing arts center and a scholarship in her name.

“If you look at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, the restoration of that project that they were involved in, and then this beautiful facility, I think it’s a wonderful legacy for the family, and I’m thrilled that it’s supporting the arts,” Cummins said.

Woldson’s $55 million contribution to the university after her death not only established the performing arts center, but also a scholarship fund that continues to send dozens of students to Gonzaga in her name.

It is still the largest private gift in Washington state history, according to a Gonzaga article on her life, and is further sustained by Woldson’s three Seattle parking facilities, with all funds going back to the scholarship and theater upkeep.

“The modernness of the facility, the state-of-the-art equipment, it just makes you feel like you’re on the cutting edge of the industry,” said Myrtle Woldson production manager Jon Carlson. “Students pick up on that, and they get excited about that.”

“There’s just much more of a positive attitude that we are going to build up the arts here, and we are going to highlight the importance of the arts to education and to life in general,” Carlson added.

In return, Gonzaga memorialized Woldson by reconstructing three rooms from her South Hill home in exacting detail and a museum known as the interpretive center at the center.

“Campus photographers came in and photographed everything, architects went in and measured everything. They really looked at all of this and said, ‘We’re going to capture this exactly as it was,’ ” Cummins said.

“At any given time, there are about 20 or 30 students on campus who are recipients of the Myrtle Woldson scholarships, so they’re obviously very familiar with it,” Cummins said. “When they go to the interpretive center and start reading about her, basically, it becomes a snapshot of Spokane during an era.”

With a long list of items from Woldson’s collection, the interpretive center regularly updates its displays to share new insights into her life.

“We have so many things from her home and her collection that we can tell a different story in one of the exhibits, or put out a different dress,” Cummins said.

Woldson’s gift allowed the university to spare no expense in the way of technical performance in the theaters. The venues exclusively use LED lighting fixtures for greater energy efficiency – a greener alternative to traditional incandescent theater lighting.

Each performance hall has retractable curtains that absorb sound, influencing the acoustics within the room to suit the style of performance.

“The fact that we can convert this from a beautiful-sounding symphony orchestra in a nice reverberant space to drying up the hallway with acoustic shades and bringing in a live band and having a rock show, we can do that in one day,” said Myrtle Woldson lighting and audio/visual specialist Adam Orens.

The surrounding nature, which includes Lake Arthur, rolling hillsides and the Spokane River, is also honored in its architecture.

“The design, first of all, is so thoughtful in the way that they wanted this to reflect Spokane,” Cummins said. “The Spokane River, you can see it just as you look at the carpeting, and the flow of the staircases down to the front of the house, the cliffs on the sides, and then also the canopies of trees that we have in here. … They brought the outdoors indoors.”

But there’s perhaps no greater marriage of the highly technical and highly tactful in the building than realizing that in the replica of Woldson’s neoclassical sitting room, there’s a window facing south that points toward Woldson’s former residence on West Sumner Avenue.

“She’s given a gift to this community that’s unbelievable,” Orens said. “And the things that we’re going to be able to do here are amazing.”