Fox Theater renovation breathed life into Spokane’s downtown entertainment scene
By Chad Sokol
Teresa Gonder doesn’t remember much about “The Champ,” the boxing flick she watched at the Fox Theater in spring 1979.
But the rest of that night stands out: It was her first date with the man who would become her husband.
While Gonder, like many other Spokanites, has a personal affinity for the Fox, for her it’s also a business consideration. She said the iconic theater played no small part in her decision to open a restaurant across the street in 2014.
The Tamarack Public House, at 912 W. Sprague Ave., often benefits from throngs of people stopping in for drinks or dinner before a big show. A couple of weeks ago, Gonder said, a symphony performance generated an “unbelievable flow” of customers into the Tamarack.
“We really love the Fox,” she said. “It brings in all kinds of people who are looking for a night of entertainment.”
The theater, built in 1931 at Sprague and Monroe Street, is celebrating the 10th anniversary of a major renovation that helped kick off a resurgence of economic development in Spokane’s downtown core. The formal title of the building, which is owned by the Spokane Symphony, is the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, named after a pioneer railroad builder whose daughter donated heavily to the renovation.
“It’s been a huge success in getting things moving downtown,” said Walt Worthy, who owns the Davenport Hotel. “It’s a lot more active than it was a decade ago, and that’s good for everybody. All you have to do is look at all the restaurants up and down the street that compete with mine.”
David Wells, an owner of Wild Sage Bistro, at 916 W. Second Ave., said the Fox and other nearby entertainment venues, like the Bing Crosby Theater and the Knitting Factory, have driven patrons to his fine-dining institution since it opened in 2006.
“When we first opened our business, there wasn’t a whole lot going on around here,” Wells said. “And now there’s all sorts of wonderful things going on. The Fox, the Bing, they’re all part of that.”
Juliet Sinisterra, the economic development manager for the Downtown Spokane Partnership, called the Fox a “treasure of the community” and said the theater attracts nearly 40,000 visitors each year, contributing to a nightlife scene that hasn’t always thrived in Spokane. That nightlife, she said, is one feature of the city that large employers look for when scouting new locations.
Sinisterra added that the Fox is a prime example of Spokane’s unique architecture. The art-deco building, with its austere concrete outside and colorful ornamentation inside, was hailed as beautiful and breathtaking but also “bizarre” and “futuristic” by one Spokesman-Review writer in 1931.
“I think it’s really something that we overlook and take for granted, the quality of our architecture,” Sinisterra said. “The Fox is obviously a beautiful part of that.”
T. Mike Miller, a broker with 4 Degrees Real Estate who’s writing a book on Spokane’s entertainment industry, said the updated Fox has served as a “catalyst” for other downtown building renovations.
Many of the properties surrounding the Fox are owned by Centennial Properties, a subsidiary of the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review. Those include the Review and Chronicle buildings, the printing press and parking garage building on Monroe Street, the Diocese of Spokane building and the old Greyhound station.
Since 2015, developer Jerry Dicker or his company has paid more than $6.3 million for buildings on West First Avenue, including the Bing Crosby Theater, the historic Ruby and Montvale hotels, the old Music City and Odd Fellows buildings, and the building formerly occupied by Dempsey’s Brass Rail bar, which is now his company headquarters.
Other major developments in the area include the purchase this year of the Otis Hotel. Curtis Rystadt, an Oregon poker player and former mortgage broker, paid $1.4 million for the building earlier this year and has announced plans to renovate it.
Gonder, the owner of the Tamarack Public House, said she often asks the Fox box office how many tickets have been sold for an event and staffs her restaurant accordingly. While the nearby theaters are a boon, she said, it can be difficult to predict when they’ll generate a hungry crowd.
“We’re a new business, so we’re still trying to figure out the challenge of bringing in 40 or 50 people all at once and then watching them leave all at once,” she said.