40 for 40: Spokane County
The Fox Theater

By Elizabeth Godlewskiprevious story | next story | all stories

The Fox Theater renovation is one of Spokane’s greatest preservation success stories of one of the city’s most significant historic buildings. Built in 1931, the theater is an Art Deco treasure listed on the National, Spokane, and Washington Heritage registers. When threatened with demolition in 2000, over 1300 community members rose to the challenge to save the building from becoming yet another parking lot in the heart of downtown.

Designed by nationally-renowned Seattle architect Robert C. Reamer, the theater’s exterior reflects the function, economy, and futuristic design characteristic of Art Deco. Anthony Heinsbergen’s one-of-a-kind Depression-era murals cover the walls of the lobby, mezzanine, and lounges. The illusion of moving through a fantasy undersea world into a forest of dense foliage is illuminated by the theater's most significant feature: a 350-light sunburst in the ceiling above the auditorium. Sunbeams radiating from the 60-foot wide plaster and glass sunburst cascade down the side walls where they meet with green foliage, simulating sunrays striking a forest canopy.

The theater opened in 1931 to a crowd of over 30,000 people who thronged the streets to see Hollywood celebrities arriving to view the opening movie, Merely MaryAnn. At 2300 seats, it was the largest theater in Spokane, and a venue for both live stage performances and the newest Hollywood invention, talking pictures.
For more than four decades, the Fox held its own as a first-run movie house in a bustling downtown. As suburban malls and multiplexes began to lure shoppers and moviegoers away from downtown, however, the theater began a period of decline. Neglected and ill-used as a budget tri-plex, the theater was a far cry from its elegant days as the “Place to Go” where first-run movies played and national figures such as Katherine Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, and the Bolshoi Ballet performed. The fantastic Heinsbergen murals were obscured by layers of cigarette smoke, grime, and red paint, and the balcony had been converted into two theaters, hiding the magnificent sunburst. The surrounding neighborhood was a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, and the City had all but given up on that part of downtown. By 2000, the Fox was slated for demolition to make way for a parking lot for a nearby athletic club.

Spokane Preservation Advocates, the local non-profit preservation advocacy organization, publicly opposed the demolition, and when the Spokane Symphony bought the building, was the first organization to financially contribute to its renovation. Grants from the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, Save America’s Treasures, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Trust kick-started a $31 million capital campaign, which included historic tax credits and the first use of the New Markets Tax Credits in Spokane. Reopened in 2007 after meticulous restoration, the Fox is today a multi-use performing arts facility and the home of the Spokane Symphony. The painstaking project included the removal of years of dirt and restoration of the theater’s original murals, marquees, light fixtures and interior finishes. In 2010, the Fox was honored with the National Trust’s Preservation Honor Award.

Preservation of the Fox has rescued an entire city block and reenergized a formerly crime-ridden and unsafe neighborhood which continues to experience significant investment in revitalization. Its presence in downtown was a large factor in the decision to bring the National Preservation Conference to Spokane in 2012. A boutique hotel, restaurants, and several clothing stores occupy nearby historic buildings, and a mixed income apartment building is under renovation. The success of the Fox Theater rehabilitation is a source of great pride to the Spokane community, and its success continues to generate interest in investing in downtown’s historic building fabric.

This story is part of a series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. This story highlights one of our most popular programs, the Valerie Sivinski Washington Preserves Grant Program, and shows just how much grassroots organizations can accomplish with a small amount of financial assistance. If you would like to support this grant program and spur more projects with positive outcomes, please consider making a special gift to the Washington Trust Valerie Sivinski Washington Preserves Fund. Each dollar contributed to this fund goes directly to funding projects around the state. You can also make a restricted contribution to the Valerie Sivinski Endowment to promote the long term stability of this grant program. Continuous stewardship is needed to protect that irreplaceable legacy for future generations – we appreciate and look forward to your ongoing participation and support.

Here's to 40 more years of saving places that matter across Washington! Please sign up for our special weekly e-newsletter to recieve stories like this in your inbox all year long.

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