Spokane recently played host to the prestigious National Preservation Conference, put on by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Heritage advocates from all across the country, including the storm battered East Coast, made their way to the capitol of the Inland Empire. It was a chance for Spokane to show off its preservation efforts and architectural legacy, which has been key to revitalizing its downtown.
Spokane boasts an enviable stock of wonderful buildings, such as the historic Davenport Hotel designed by local folk hero Kirtland Cutter (in Seattle, he did the Stimson-Green mansion and the Rainier Club). The hotel was closed for years and faced the wrecking ball. That it has been impressively restored is a triumph for both the city and the possibilities of restoration and revitalization of city landmarks. It has also spawned a 21-story high-rise hotel tower across the street.
Attendees, more than 1,600 of them, had the opportunity to go on tours of Spokane's wonderful Craftsman neighborhoods and taste its mid-century modern moods (who doesn't enjoy the anachronistic wonder of the downtown concrete Parcade?). They also had the opportunity to go on tours farther afield to see Palouse barns, Hanford's B Reactor, even Grand Coulee dam, which was surely eye-opening for those who might regard Eastern Washington as little more than wheat fields and "Coug Mom" license plates; a not untypical Seattle view.
The technical term for such historic riches is "cultural resources," which sounds like something to exploit. And to a degree, that's true: heritage tours and the like can be good business and lead to sprucing-up projects that have wide benefit (see Walla Walla, Dayton, Ellensburg, Ritzville). But the exploitation is not designed to abuse or use-up the "resource." Rather restore, preserve and manage it for the long term.
I participated in the conference as a speaker and panelist. My panel was called "Landmarks of the Future: The Heritage, Legacy and Promise of World’s Fairs." I talked about the 1962 Seattle World's fair, and my co-presenter was Professor J. William T. Youngs of Eastern Washington University. Bill Youngs wrote the definitive book on Spokane's Expo 74, The Fair and the Falls: Spokane's Expo 74: Transforming an American Environment (1997), which is one of the best books ever written about a modern world's fair and its impact on a city. The headquarters of the conference was at the Spokane convention center, which is located on the former fairgounds, which are now the beautiful Riverfront Park.
Seattleites' brag about the legacy of Century 21 fair because of the massive cultural complex it left at Seattle Center. Few fairs leave such a gift, and it was intentional. The purpose of the Seattle fair was to build a civic center, it was no afterthought. Spokane acted with intention as well. Expo 74 left an amazing legacy too. A central park along the river is just one of them.
As Youngs laid out in his presentation, Expo 74 was designed to boost re-development of downtown Spokane, partly in response to the draining of business to a suburban mall. But unlike Century 21, Spokane's expo was focused on restoring the environmentally damaged Spokane River and falls, which are in the middle of the city. Photographs show that 19th and early 20th century development had overwhelmed the river, first with mills and then with railroads trestles and bridges. The falls became nearly invisible. There was even a proposal to pave over the river to create a parking lot. The falls, Youngs told us, were visible from only a single bridge, and it was illegal to stand there to look at them!
The falls, of course, are why Spokane came to be; an important gathering place for Native Americans, attractive to early settlers looking for trade, then to generate power for mills and factories. Early on, they were a scenic wonder. In the 1870s, Youngs told us, some travelers compared it to the wonder of Yellowstone's falls. Youngs is also an expert on National Parks, and he says the original falls were impressive on that scale.
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