From a $2,500 start, the restored Fox theater was brought back from the brink
By Mike Prager
When Spokane’s 1931 Fox Theater was threatened with demolition in 2000, the volunteer Spokane Preservation Advocates put up $2,500 to save it.
It was a small amount compared with the $31 million cost of bringing back the theater, but the money came early and set a tone of generosity.
Myrtle Woldson offered an initial gift of $1 million, and then a fundraising challenge gift of $2 million that had to be matched with other donations as the Spokane Symphony launched a broad funding campaign, said Pete Moye, a symphony board member who was president of the organization during the restoration project.
Now, 10 years after it reopened, the theater has become an unparalleled community resource that has earned national recognition, Moye said.
“It has lived up to its hype as a community stage, a community living room,” he said. “I think it’s a great, great asset.”
In 2000, the Spokane Club had gained control of the property with an eye toward demolishing the Fox for club parking.
Moye said that when the property became available to the symphony, he and other board members jumped at the opportunity. It was a perfect medium-sized space that has become the symphony’s home, officially known as the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox in honor of Myrtle Woldson’s father, a pioneer railroad builder. There are 1,727 seats on the main floor and large balcony.
The careful restoration brought back the luster of the art deco masterpiece that was built for both live performances and movies. Its original fire screen protecting the audience from fire on the stage remains intact.
A “Save the Fox” campaign drew 1,100 individual contributions, including Woldson’s.
In its heyday, stars such as Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn, Boris Karloff and Bing Crosby – naturally – took its stage. The Bolshoi Ballet made the Fox a stop on its first North American tour.
William Fox of Fox West Coast Studios, later to become 20th Century Fox, presided over construction of nearly 280 Fox theaters around the country in the day, using teams of designers and artisans in each city. Fox theaters in Atlanta, St. Louis and Stockton, California, are among others that have been restored.
The Fox motif in Spokane is derived from a Hollywood interpretation of art deco style, which was a distillation of modernist and art nouveau movements in Europe in the late 1800s.
The theater’s Dutch-born designer, Anthony Heinsbergen, combined the flowing classical forms of art nouveau with the rectilinear geometry commonly associated with art deco in the United States.
Experts from EverGreene Painting Studios Inc., based in New York, restored Heinsbergen’s design schemes which depict underwater foliage and heavenly bodies in the sky, including the impressive sunburst and starburst chandeliers.
Carpet, drapery, upholstery and curtains take their cues from mural colors. Heinsbergen relied heavily on metallic finishes from light fixtures to aluminum seat row end
State lawmakers appropriated $6 million for restoration through the Fox Theater organization, a nonprofit affiliated with the Spokane Symphony. Another $9 million was raised through other public and private sources.
Moye said the Fox restoration took advantage of a historic tax credit and a new markets tax credit, which was a ground-breaking move in funding a nonprofit community project.
“It has put the symphony on the map,” he said of the results.
Walker Construction, the general contractor, erected scaffolding to support the ceiling while it dismantled ceiling support wires to install enclosed heating and air conditioning systems. Sound insulation was part of the work to keep the building quiet for the frequently delicate sounds of symphony performances.
Moye said the building was designed originally to breathe with the sounds of performers so that its structure reflects accurate acoustics. Even when the symphony is in full performance, it is possible to hear each instrument individually.
“The acoustics in that building are amazing,” Moye said.
The stage area was enlarged to the west with a donation of land by the Cowles family, which publishes The Spokesman-Review, he said.
A hole was cut into the south side of the building so that new steel structural beams could be brought into the attic space. New concrete bulwark was installed on the west end of the theater. The original rotating Fox sign was rebuilt.
The construction involved removing walls and structures that were used to divide the theater into a series of movie spaces.
Installation of an inner lobby reduced seating from 2,350 to 1,727.
In 2010, a delegation from Spokane traveled to Austin, Texas, to receive a national preservation award at the annual National Preservation Conference.
Susan Kim, who previously created stained glass art for the Davenport Hotel and Davenport Tower, headed up a group of artisans in restoring the theater’s two giant light fixtures – the starburst in the lobby and sunburst at the head of the stage.
Restored sections of the leaded glass were removed from the theater for rebuilding, and scaffolding gave workers access to the lobby ceiling.
At the time, Kim said that typical leaded glass is mounted vertically, using gravity to support the artwork inside a frame. But the Fox fixtures are hung horizontally, so that the weight of the glass and lead had pulled downward over the years.
Kim, who operates Reflections Stained Glass in Spokane Valley, said she remembers going to movies at the Fox years ago and noticing that makeshift repairs had been done to the 45-foot-long fixture. Never did she imagine she would be hired to fix them.
In a news story at the time of restoration, Kim said that out of about 120 individual pieces of glass, 30 had to be replicated with a combination of techniques. Some pieces needed a crackled pattern created by applying glue and then removing it. Much of the metal framing had to be restored and the original glass scrubbed to remove oily residue. The fixture uses a shiny zinc instead of lead for a reflective look consistent with the art deco motif, she said.
In a recent interview about the 10-year anniversary of the restoration, Kim said she still marvels at what she and her team accomplished. “It is very fun to think about,” she said. “It is a little surreal.”