Forum Bulletin

Spokane Unbounded 

07-12-2012 00:00

Spokane’s preservation community invites you to attend the 2012 National Preservation Conference. This western mid-sized city is using the tools of preservation to accomplish downtown revitalization, successful adaptive use projects, award-winning rehabilitation projects, and game-changing grassroots advocacy. 


The tools are a tradition of volunteer action, creative developers, and local government policies and incentives that encourage private investment as the most effective way to encourage historic preservation.

The successes can be seen throughout the city in large- and small-scale rehabilitation projects. These include the return to grandeur of elegant landmarks like the Davenport Hotel and the Fox Theater, but also the transformation of unlikely candidates for rehabilitation, like the obsolete Steam Plant Square and Spokane Inland Empire Railroad Car facility, into award-winning landmarks.

A History of Boom and Bust

The city is dominated by the Spokane River and Falls which have influenced every phase of its history, beginning in prehistoric times as an important center of trade and fishing and up through the rise of industry and commerce.

In the early 1880s, Spokane was described as a “village” with a population of 350. With the arrival of the Northern Pacific line in 1881, the town was on its way to becoming a major rail center. Within 10 years, the population had jumped to nearly 20,000. By 1910, the population was over 100,000, and the village had become a busy city. The combination of resources, railroads, and the river, which allowed early innovation in electrical power generation, fueled many industries and helped the city grow.

The development and expansion of the electric streetcar helped establish the many distinct residential districts that ring the downtown. These include Browne’s Addition with large homes and elegant mansions that tell the story of Spokane’s late 19th and early 20th century mining and timber wealth, and Nettleton’s Addition, a classic streetcar suburb that is the largest National Register district in Washington. While many of these districts are known for their architectural diversity, Spokane is particularly well known for its early 20th-century Craftsman architecture. Bungalows are particularly well represented, perhaps reflecting the popularity of this new “modern” lifestyle as much as an architectural style.  
In 1889, 32 square blocks of downtown Spokane were destroyed by a fast moving fire. Within a week, the city council took action, prohibiting wooden buildings in the core downtown area. Reconstruction with fireproof materials occurred at a fast pace. One year later, the newspaper reported that 150 brick buildings had been completed. 

The rebuilt city included sturdy warehouses that lined the railroad corridor and all manner of residential and commercial buildings artfully constructed with brick, stone, terra cotta, and tile. In many cases, the building materials were manufactured from the exceptionally high quality local clay deposits at significant brickworks like the American Firebrick Company and the Washington Brick Lime and Sewer Company, which was eventually acquired by major ceramic innovator Gladding McBean.  

The city’s many remaining Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels are a reminder of the post-fire boom. These hotels served as modest working men’s housing during Spokane’s population boom. Characterized by ground floor commercial space, the 3-5 story brick hotels offered small rooms with a bath down the hall to workers.

Commissioned by the City in 1907, a comprehensive park plan developed by the Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architectural firm of Brookline, Mass., facilitated Spokane’s development into a modern, progressive city. Still evident and enjoyed today, the plan’s system of designed green spaces reflected the enduring Olmsted vision that parks were a necessity in an “advanced” city and served as “important aids to the improvement and preservation of the health of the people” today.

Volunteers: Making Preservation Happen in Spokane

In Spokane, volunteers have played leading roles in many of the most important accomplishments in preservation. 


In 1978, the historic preservation committee of the Junior League saw the need for a comprehensive inventory of historic sites. The League contributed to its funding and organized the volunteers who surveyed the city and recorded historic sites. Although commissioned by the City and led by a professional consultant team, the survey is still referred to as “The Junior League Survey.” Over the years, neighborhood and community volunteers have continued to support survey efforts in Spokane, but the Junior League’s volunteers deserve credit for laying the groundwork for many of Spokane’s historic districts.

The Historic Preservation Committee of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture organized volunteers in support of broader, community-level historic preservation goals, including advocating for the museum’s landmark Campbell House, hosting lectures and educational programs, and calling attention to Spokane’s heritage through historic house tours, award programs, and historic signage. The committee’s annual Mother’s Day historic home tour remains a hugely popular Spokane tradition.

Spokane Preservation Advocates

Important volunteer groups have formed around specific preservation issues in Spokane (the Friends of the Davenport and the Friends of the Fox, for example). But an independent group of preservationists formed a new and different organization in 1997. Distinct from the groups who were affiliated with institutions or supported specific issues, Spokane Preservation Advocates (SPA) took on a broader preservation mission: to provide advocacy to preserve Spokane’s historic buildings, neighborhoods, landscapes, and character. It found a broad base of support and played a major financial and advocacy role in the Fox Theater rehabilitation. With proactive activities like a local grants program and a “Doing It” committee that encourages hands-on preservation volunteer projects (bring your own work gloves), SPA has been a part of every major preservation action or accomplishment since it was established. This tradition continues today as SPA advocates against the demolition of the National Register-eligible Jensen Byrd warehouse building. 

Local Government Preservation in Spokane 

In 1986, the City and surrounding County established themselves as the first two Certified Local Governments in Washington State. Today, the city includes more historic districts (17) than any other city in Washington, including the largest historic district in the state. Two districts cover much of the downtown, with more than half of the downtown consisting of historic warehouses and mixed-use commercial buildings reflecting the history of the city and region. 

The City has also made full use of national and local register programs. Many properties are listed on both, allowing layering of available financial incentives for redevelopment. Spokane’s use of Multiple Property Documents (MPDs) to develop contexts for thematically related properties has been especially effective. The MPDs help streamline the process for historic designation and incentive eligibility, which in turn, stimulates redevelopment. Spokane’s best example might be its Single Room Occupancy hotels. Thanks to Multiple Property Documents, many of these mixed-use buildings have been listed on historic registers and redeveloped as affordable housing projects, offices, bars, and restaurants. Others await redevelopment. 

Local ordinances and policies continue to respond to changing conditions. Many demolitions in downtown Spokane resulted in surface parking lots. With the support of planners, preservationists, and developers, the City recently passed an ordinance prohibiting stand-alone, surface commercial parking lots as an approved use in downtown. The ordinance is expected to halt the loss of developable historic buildings in a way that the demolition ordinance has not. In many people’s minds, the ordinance is an anti-demolition ordinance rather than an anti-surface parking lot ordinance, since many ordinance supporters so closely tied the need for the ordinance to the loss of downtown historic buildings.

From the local government perspective, the future of preservation in Spokane means continuing to look for ways to accomplish preservation where the support is strongest.  The City is currently looking at ways to encourage rehabilitation of its historic buildings as part of a broader streamlined approach to issuing building permits. One possibility is creating a special interdisciplinary team trained in solving code-related barriers to rehabilitating historic buildings. A Certified Local Government grant will fund a workshop to support this effort in 2013. 

Once the work of supporting the National Preservation Conference is done, it will be time to engage the community in updating the city and county preservation plans, which generally reflect the values in the comprehensive plans. Part of this effort will entail looking at the local historic register to see if the authentic character of the city and county are “in focus.” The resources of these areas are interrelated but distinct. It is especially challenging to support preservation in the small rural communities outside of the city. The biggest boost in this area has been the inclusion of 31 Spokane County barns on the state’s new and innovative Heritage Barn Register. Developing interpretive materials about rural heritage and these iconic and much loved structures could provide important economic development benefits for rural communities.    

Spokane by the Numbers
Washington’s second largest city may be less well known than its cross-state sister, Seattle, but it is well known for its success at employing historic preservation as an important part of revitalization. The following are some other numbers that tell the story of preservation in Spokane:
  • 355 Number of local, Spokane Register Landmarks
  • 4 Number of local historic districts
  • 17 Number of National Register districts
  • $200 million Approximate amount of historic rehabilitation investment tracked through the local rehabilitation incentive
  • 2 Number of National Trust for Historic Preservation Honor Award projects in Spokane: The Steam Plant Square (2001) and the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox (2010)

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Author(s):Kristen Griffin

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