Magazine article Journal of Property Management

Rescue and Rebirth

Magazine article Journal of Property Management

Rescue and Rebirth

Article excerpt

Famous Properties

Grassroots effort returns glory to historic Fox Theater in Spokane

Once one of the finest Art Deco theaters in the United States, the Fox Theater was also one of the most glamorous entertainment venues built by Hollywood's William Fox in the early 20 century. The theater was designed by architect Robert Reamer, with interiors by Anthony Heinsbergen-two revered masters of the Art Deco Movement. When the building opened in 1931, it represented a new, promising future for Spokane and was one of the city's community treasures.

"It was the first building with air conditioning; they even put windows in the mechanical room so people could see how the air conditioning worked," said Brenda Nienhouse, executive director. "It was very much state-of-the-art."


The theater operated as a and performance theater for 70 years and served as the home for the Spokane Symphony from 1 968 to 1 974. After the Spokane Symphony moved to a different theater, The Fox was sold to another company that made significant structural and cosmetic changes. It changed the theater into a triplex, dividing the balcony in half and adding two movie screens into the space. Most dramatically, however, the new owner covered the one-of-a kind Depression-era murals with the company's signature red color - hiding the stunning, theater-defining artwork. By 2000, the theater fell into disrepair and was scheduled for demolition.

Recognizing that demolition would destroy one of the city's great architectural and cultural landmarks, leaders of the Spokane Symphony led a grassroots effort to save the building by setting up a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, which eventually took ownership of the building. The organization also funded and oversaw the capital project for the historic restoration, involving restoration experts in theater design, acoustics, technology, mechanics, HVAC systems and more. Some of the highlights included: recreating original marquees, installing carpets, light fixtures and decorative fixtures; expanding the lobby; upgrading mechanics and acoustics; and introducing cutting-edge technology.

One of the most lengthy and impressive aspects of the restoration was recreating the trademark murals with experts in historical mural restoration.

"They were able to clean out 'windows' to uncover areas and see what the original paint and design looked like," explained Nienhouse. "In some cases, they just cleaned up the murals. In other instances, they found the design and repainted it or created stencils and a canvas, and put the canvas up. It was a wonderful detective process of going in and finding out what was underneath there. It took a long time, but it turned out amazing."

As a performing arts theater, acoustics were naturally of the utmost importance. Updating them proved to be one of the most daunting challenges of the restoration. The key to first-class acoustics was installing large ducts above the auditorium ceiling to ensure air flowed quietly through the ducts.

"The building was designed for that ceiling and all these beautiful and ornate murals were attached to the roof by wires," said Nienhouse. "Figuring out how we would cut the wires to get the ductwork in without doing any damage to these murals was one of the biggest challenges."

The result involved scaffolding all the way up to the auditorium's ceiling to support the ceiling when the wires were cut and the ductwork was installed. But, the effort paid off tenfold. …

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