From a stunning historic hotel to Bing Crosby’s boyhood home, Eastern Washington’s big city has plenty that pleases.
Just outside the Davenport Hotel’s Marie Antoinette Ballroom hangs a photograph of the first formal party thrown there, at the Spokane hotel’s grand opening more than a century ago. The ornate ballroom, its chandeliers (which cost $10,000 each — in 1914) asparkle, is crammed full of elegantly dressed Spokaneites, with scarcely room to breathe between them, let alone to fox trot. Some beam with excitement; others look apprehensively at the camera; one man grimaces, as if his high collar might be a bit tight.
None of them, surely, could have imagined that 100 years later, curious visitors to Spokane would be gazing at that photograph; let alone using smartphones to take pictures of the ballroom, and sipping Starbucks in the lobby while happily soaking up the atmosphere. Each of those people is part of the Davenport’s story — and, for a quick and lovely weekend last month, a friend and I were, too.
Saved from wreckers
The hotel’s story isn’t without drama: The Davenport, designed by Spokane architect Kirtland Kelsey Cutter, almost didn’t make it to this century. Though a glamorous center of Spokane society for decades after its opening (Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Clark Gable were among its many famous guests), the hotel struggled after the 1945 retirement of its owner/manager Louis Davenport. After years of decline, it closed in 1985 and came near to being demolished. In 2002, new owners Walt and Karen Worthy reopened the hotel after a massive renovation reportedly costing $30 million, complete with a companionable statue of Mr. Davenport on a bench near the check-in desk.
And surely I’m not the first guest to enter, stop in my tracks, and greet the smiling desk clerk with a gasping “OOOHH.” The lobby, with an ever-burning fireplace and elegant marble fountain, has a high ceiling with what looks like miles of elaborately carved and painted beams (cleaned, during the restoration, with an endless supply of Simple Green and soft toothbrushes). Squint and you’ll see gentlemen in hats and ladies in floor-sweeping skirts, in genteel conversation.
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The ornate ballrooms — four, by my count, but there might have been another lurking somewhere — are all different, each more stunning than the last. My favorite, the insanely grand Hall of the Doges (yes, it’s inspired by the Palace of the Doges in Venice; just try to stop staring at its frescoed ceiling), is in fact a flying ballroom; it was picked up and moved by crane from another part of the building during the restoration.
Guest rooms are spacious, serene and well-appointed, with exceedingly comfortable old-school beds (so old-school that there’s a footstool stashed in the closet, in case you have trouble ascending and descending). Bathrooms have large showers and separate soaking tubs. For all this luxury, the price can be quite affordable: In late January I paid an AAA rate of $161/night.
History around town
If you can tear yourself away from the Davenport’s delightful hallways (everywhere you look, there’s a vintage photo that demands perusal, such as the one depicting a World War I-era car show in the lobby), Spokane offers other treats for the historically minded.
Within a block or two of the hotel are two grand former movie houses. The Fox Theater, a glittery art-deco palace opened in 1931, was almost demolished to make way for a parking lot in 2000, but was saved, restored and reopened in 2007. It now hosts the Spokane Symphony and many visiting performers. Nearby, the Bing Crosby Theater (originally the Clemmer Theatre, and opened as a very early movie house in 1915) was restored in the 1980s and is also a performing arts center.
On the other side of the River Park Square shopping mall, a short walk from the hotel, is Riverfront Park, home to the beloved 1909 hand-carved Looff Carousel (closed for maintenance when we visited; reopening in March) and the 1902 Clock Tower, all that remains of the former Great Northern Railroad Depot. The station surrounding the tower was demolished to make way for Expo ’74, of which traces remain throughout the park. You can still take a mildly harrowing gondola ride over Spokane Falls ($7.50), visit the IMAX Theater and stroll through the Riverfront Park Pavilion, currently home to a skating rink (through Feb. 28; amusement-park rides will replace it in the spring).
A grand home
Stroll over (or, if it’s freezing, take a short cab ride) to the historic neighborhood of Browne’s Addition, just west of downtown, to get a sense of turn-of-the-20th-century life in Spokane. Campbell House, an 1898 home operated by Spokane’s Museum of Arts and Culture (the museum was built, decades later, on the house’s east lawn), is open for tours Wednesday through Sunday, and is a meticulously restored pleasure — Spokane’s Downton Abbey, if you will.
Designed by Cutter, years before the Davenport, the house feels grand yet intimate, with a magnificent wood-paneled staircase, a library with cozy inglenook fireplace, a gilt-edged jewelbox of a parlor, a gracious dining room with a blue-and-white tiled fireplace, and a kitchen that looks as if Downton’s Mrs. Patmore might be perfectly at home. The upstairs bedrooms look as if the Campbell family might pop back any minute, with teacups and magazines momentarily abandoned.
The furnishings, though not those originally owned by the family, date back to when the house was new, with bright (some might say garish, but I wouldn’t) William Morris-ish wallpaper in the central hall and a vintage car in the carriage house. Renovations continue, with plans to eventually restore the third floor servants’ quarters.
Bing Crosby, too
A different kind of history can be found just across the river, in a pleasant but unassuming middle-class bungalow. This is the childhood home of one of Spokane’s most famous denizens, Bing Crosby, who was born in Tacoma, but whose family moved to Spokane when he was 3. His father and uncles built this house in 1913. Now the home, on the Gonzaga University campus, is a trove of Crosby memorabilia, with gold and platinum records lining the walls, an Oscar gleaming from a showcase, and recordings of that familiar croon perpetually playing.
I learned there that Crosby, born Harry, got his nickname as a child from a character in the comic strip “The Bingville Bugle,” that he was a paperboy for the Spokane Spokesman-Review, and that he was originally a drummer but, according to the friendly gentlemen greeting guests to the house, he wasn’t that good. He was also an altar boy at nearby St. Aloysius, a stunning 1911 Romanesque-style church that welcomes visitors for self-guided tours.
Back at the hotel, enjoying a cocktail at the Davenport’s lusciously wallpapered Peacock Lounge, I thought again about those guests at that 1914 ball. How many, perhaps, had known the Campbells, or the Crosbys? How many moved away, but came back for one more visit to the Davenport? How many dreamed about that ball for many nights to come?
It’s a place, then and now, that inspires dreaming.
If you go
Spokane is approximately four to five hours from Seattle by car (or more, depending on traffic/weather), or less than an hour by plane. Alaska Airlines has multiple flights daily; my roundtrip was around $190.
The Historic Davenport Hotelwas all I dreamed it might be; rates in February start around $169, depending on date.
10 S. Post St., Spokane; 509-455-8888 davenporthotelcollection.com
If your vacation fantasies tend toward the more contemporary, there’s also the Davenport Grand and Davenport Tower, as well as the smaller, historic Davenport Lusso, all part of the Davenport Hotel chain. davenporthotelcollection.com
Campbell House, at Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, 2316 W. First Ave., Spokane. $10 museum admission. House is open for guided tours Wednesday-Friday and Sunday at noon and 1, 2 and 3 p.m.; open house format Saturdays noon to 4 p.m. 509-456-3931 or northwestmuseum.org/exhibits/campbell-house.cfm
Bing Crosby House is at 508 E. Sharp Ave., Spokane. Open Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Saturday 1-4 p.m. Free admission. 509-313-3847.