Preserving state's heritage: Why Spokane is central

Spokane reclaimed the falls that made it a gathering place, created a new downtown, and began to look at a new idea: recycling.
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The Spokane River runs through the heart of the city.

Spokane reclaimed the falls that made it a gathering place, created a new downtown, and began to look at a new idea: recycling.

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.

Time and urbanization changed that, but it was the re-surfacing of the city's scenic soul, the city's raison d'etre, that was one of the biggest gifts of Expo 74. One can walk or jog along the river today, enjoy its green spaces, its skyride, hear the rumble of the water and the cries of water birds. The park creation and river restoration showed that an improved environment could encourage development that could successfully withstand the pull of sprawl and malls.

Spokanites are generally aware of this legacy; the rest of the world is not. But it is an important lesson about how the future and the past are not in conflict. Expo 74 was the first environmentally themed world's fair and it featured novel things like recycling, which was virtually unheard of in '62. The difference between 1962 and 1974 is the difference between a future envisioned as having unlimited resources and a subtext of disdaining the past to one of coping with potentially limited resources and embracing our heritage. Expo 74 would have embraced the challenges of, say, global warming, while Seattle's fair imagined new cars with individual nuclear reactors.

The rediscovery of the Expo 74 legacy is ripe because its 40th anniversary is in 2014. Wouldn't it be great if the folks at could find a sponsor to help them put out a fair history (by Youngs perhaps?) to join their two previous spectacular books for Seattle's two fairs? The Spokane fair reached beyond Spokane in pioneering environmental themes and consciousness, which became de rigeur at world's fairs held over the last four decades. Expos and green technologies are almost inseparable now.

Seattle can take a little credit: It created the post-World War II model for world's fairs. Seattle was the little city that not only could, but did. Seattle's fair made money, attracted significant federal investment and left a last physical legacy. After Seattle, everyone wanted a fair. Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia tried, but couldn't pull them off. New York did. And smaller cities entered the game: San Antonio, Spokane, Knoxville, New Orleans. All wanted to follow the Seattle model, and many of the prospective and actual fairs hired ex-Century 21 staffers to help.

Ewen Dingwall, who moved to San Antonio to help launch their Hemisfair '68, was the go-to guy for how to put on a fair like Seattle's. He quickly realized the Seattle story was not applicable everywhere, in part because the political culture of cities varied widely, and not all were conducive to cooperation (Dingwall became exasperated by the political divisions in San Antonio, for example). Seattle's unity of political purpose around Century 21 could not always be replicated. Still, for three decades, Seattle set the American fair model.

But Spokane was proof that while that model wouldn't work everywhere, it could work somewhere. Expo 74's kingpin, King Cole, was the prime driver of that fair, and he later took the Seattle-Spokane success to other fairs as a consultant. As Youngs points out, Spokane continues to impress expo organizers. In preparation for their own world's fair in Shanghai in 2010, the Chinese sent a film crew to Spokane to tell the expo story. Youngs says they told him that, of all the U.S. fairs they researched for their documentary series, Spokane's was the most impressive. They, too, were redeveloping their old industrial riverfront into a greener, modern urban zone. Shanghai was Spokane on steroids.

Youngs points out that Washington is the only state that has hosted two world's fairs since World War II, which is rather amazing. Spokane was the smallest city to host a modern fair. One of the things the state had going for it: Warren G. Magnuson and Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, both of whom were brilliant at getting federal benefits for the state. Spokane also had Congressman Tom Foley, who later became House Speaker.

Cash and clout helped too. One of the main attractions in Spokane was the Soviet Union pavilion, a Cold War appearance of the "Evil Empire" in the American heartland. Seattle tried and failed to get them to exhibit at Century 21. Giant busts of Lenin must have been something to behold in 1970s Spokane. A funny political footnote: The opening of Expo 74 was attended by the Watergate-scandal-plagued president Richard Nixon, in the twilight of his administration. At the opening ceremony, Youngs says he inadvertently referred to Washington Gov. Dan Evans as "Governor Evidence," which says something about his state of mind.

Fairs have died out in North America, and one reason, I believe, is that the driving force for many of them after WWII was Cold War propaganda. That was the driver for government investment, that was the reason to bolster attitudes on the home front about the power of capitalism, science, and technology. It was countering Sputnik, it was engaging the Soviets in contrasting exhibits, it was a government determination to win the hearts and minds of the world in an ideological struggle. All that was part of what enabled cities like Spokane to benefit, to reboot.

While it's popular to bash federal involvement in the states, from FEMA to Obamacare, there's no question that Washington state has benefitted enormously from federal attention: Columbia dams, irrigation and land reclamation, Hanford, military bases, highways, etc. But it's also true that, while fairs like Spokane's would not have happened without local business and community vision, leadership and investment, they also would not have been successful without extensive federal cooperation, financing, infrastructure investments, urban renewal and the larger mission of establishing America's position in the world.

Spokanites can truly look at their city and be proud, and we can all take a sliver of pride that we all helped them build that.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.