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Getting There: A piece of forgotten history runs along North Monroe

September 17, 2018

Now that North Monroe Street is open, many motorists and pedestrians are probably enjoying the new view and the street’s wide sidewalks, smooth pavement, fancy landscaping, pretty streetlights and bright crosswalks.

But one part of the street that’s been around for 80 years is most surely ignored by most everyone – and it shouldn’t be, because it has one of the more fascinating stories in Spokane.

Told by local self-proclaimed “history nut” Chuck King in a recent edition of Nostalgia Magazine, as well as in a video, the story is one of those forgotten histories that dwell in many cities, one of city-making and -unmaking, and transformation.

And it’s about a wall. Specifically, the retaining wall on North Monroe, which begins just south of Glass Avenue on the west side of the street as it heads up the North Hill.

King calls the wall “possibly the largest unknown and unmarked landmark in town” and says it “quietly boasts an incredible history going back to the earliest days of Spokane.”

The extraordinary wall was completed in September 1938, and about 1,000 people showed up to celebrate. Would as many people show up today to crack a bottle of champagne on a retaining wall? Likely not, but Monroe’s wall had quite a story to commemorate.

By the late 1930s, Monroe had grown to become one of the primary routes of Spokane, and its widening carved into the North Hill, making it necessary for a wall to stop erosion and hold the hill back from spilling over the road. Monroe had first been graded in 1889, transforming a route that “was nothing more than a trail extending from the river to Five Mile Prairie” into a road for vehicles like carriages and horses. Twelve years later, in 1901, it remained an unpaved “sea of mud,” according to a 1955 article in The Spokesman-Review.

That quickly changed. Over the following decades, cars swamped American cities, and roads became a serious civic matter. The booming number of cars drove planners and engineers to widen the road in 1930. Spokane United Railways, the predecessor to the Spokane Transit Authority, swapped out its streetcars for buses in 1934.

Still, engineers needed a wall. The city had just the solution.

When the Great Fire of 1889 roared through the city’s core, destroying 300 structures, a new building had just started construction. Only the foundation for the Granite Building had been laid, and so the fire did little damage. In fact, according to Robert Hyslop in his book, “Building Blocks,” the unfinished building created a fire break and helped stop the fire from crossing Washington Street, destroying even more of the fledgling city. In the spring of 1890, the building was completed – five stories tall with arched entryways and windows, and with little ornamental flourishes.

Nearly 40 years later, the old “pioneer” structure was in the way. Spokane wanted a new skyscraper, and the Paulsen family was happy to oblige with the 15-story Paulsen Center, built using the latest technology of all-steel construction. And what a building it was – and is. The art deco behemoth still stands today, and it was the tallest building in Spokane for 50 years, until 1981 when the Bank of America building was completed, some 67 feet taller.

But the Granite Building was in the way of the Paulsen Center in 1928, so down it came. Demolished isn’t the right word. The building was built of, not simply faced with, massive blocks of granite that had been mined near Dishman in Spokane Valley. The building, which included a distinctive turret, was taken apart piece by piece, and its giant granite blocks hauled to a vacant lot at Heroy Avenue and Jefferson Street. Each block, King wrote, was different, and varied between 12 and 16 inches high, weighing 1,500 pounds each.

The blocks were originally slated to be used to build a new Catholic church near where they were being stored, according to a June 1928 Spokane Daily Chronicle article.

“We have no immediate plans for the new church, but secured the granite from the old building while we had the opportunity,” said Rev. Father Henry of the St. Francis of Assisi church, according to the article.

It was not to be. With the nation in the depths of the Depression, the church couldn’t get its new building off the ground. Those granite blocks sat there for a decade, 700 tons of them. Perfect wall-making material.

In 1937, the city’s public works department purchased the blocks with the intention of using “the material to build retaining walls wherever necessary,” the Chronicle reported in December 1937. “A portion of the massive pile of granite will be moved to the North Monroe hill.”

The Granite Building, the article noted, “is going back into service again.”

To this day, some of the building’s “decorative elements” can be seen in the wall, as King said.

Eighty years after construction of the wall, it has been in service longer than the building it was built from. While its unique story is one to celebrate, the process of making a city from what is easily at hand is not so unique, but still easy to appreciate.

For instance, before downtown Spokane was scraped of its natural elements, it too had knobby basalt thumbs poking up here and there, like those still to be found on the South Hill. But early city founders blasted them out of existence, and their remnants were used to lay foundations for homes and buildings – foundations that surely exist to this day.

And Cannon Hill Park was originally a brickyard. That South Hill earth, baked into red cubes, is on display not far from where the Granite Building stood. Just look at the Fernwell Building on the corner of Stevens Street and Riverside. All those bricks came from the old brickyard.

But the North Monroe retaining wall is the best of all. From the granite mine of Dishman, to the old pioneer building that showed Spokane would rise from the Great Fire’s ashes, to today’s wall, those granite blocks trace the history of Spokane.

Copenhagen or bust

In what is probably the greatest field trip ever taken by Spokane’s elected officials, Mayor David Condon, Council President Ben Stuckart and Councilman Breean Beggs went on a “knowledge exchange trip” to Scandinavia last week.

For purposes of this column, the highlight was Copenhagen, probably the most forward-thinking city in the world when it comes to transportation.

“Been a busy week learning about sustainability in Denmark. But lesson number one is we need to step up our game when it comes to infrastructure for all modes of transit. They built it and it did happen!” Stuckart wrote on his Facebook page, which was supplemented with photos showing hundreds of bicycles jammed into a parking area.

Beggs wouldn’t be outdone. “Studying Sustainability in Copenhagen this week. 60% of their trips are by bike. The parked bikes are numerous but take up far less space than cars,” he wrote on social media. “Their city planner says ‘Build safe and reliable bike infrastructure and riders will appear.’ Rush hour here has more bikes than cars and everyone is happier.”

Condon doesn’t do much on social media, but when Lime unveiled its bikeshare program a few weeks ago, he said he looked forward to the Scandinavian trip, saying he’d rent bikes in Copenhagen just as he had in Tokyo during another recent trip.

Regardless, only time will tell if the revelatory experiences of Spokane’s elected officials will lead to any significant changes in the Lilac City.

The delegation is in northern Europe looking at sustainable infrastructure, the green economy and smart cities. The trip is begin funded by ScanDesign Foundation, which awarded the city officials “scholarships” to attend.

Good Roads conference

The 120th annual conference of the Washington State Good Roads and Transportation Association is taking place this week in Spokane.

The conference – titled The State of Good Repair Today – will discuss the current status of preserving and maintaining the state’s streets, roads, highways and bridges.

The conference is being held at the Centennial Hotel Spokane (until recently the Hotel RL and Inn at the Park), 303 W. North River Drive. Registration is $50.

For more information, visit www.wsgrta.com.

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