Asbestos Saves Historic Landmark From Wrecking Ball

On the eve of the First World War, the Pacific Northwest was still largely a hinterland, cut off from the rest of the world by formidable geographic barriers. However, the recent arrival of the railroads had been bringing industry, investment, and people; the rich land provided food and raw materials in abundance. The Great Northwest was about to step onto the world stage. Spokane, “Queen City of the Inland Empire,” was at the center of it all. Although it was a boom town, it was cut off from the cooling rains of the Puget Sound area by the Cascade Range, however, located on the edge of the dry Columbia River Basin–making for long, hot summers. Las Vegas was a tiny jerkwater stop for the railroads, and other bustling desert communities of today were primarily made up of orange groves and cattle ranches. Small wonder it was that Spokane should have been home of the first hotel in the U.S. with central air conditioning.

The historic Davenport Hotel–named for its designer, builder, and first owner, Louis Davenport–opened its doors in 1914. One of Spokane’s most famous sons, Bing Crosby started out playing drums at a vaudeville house across the street and frequently appeared at the Davenport over his fifty-plus year career. By the time Crosby’s career ended with his passing in the 1970s, the Davenport was also on its deathbed. The hotel’s doors closed in 1985, 71 years after they had opened.

The Davenport was slated for demolition, but there was an expensive problem: asbestos. According to local historian Tom McArthur, asbestos was what saved the Davenport. “They couldn’t blow it up because of the asbestos. It was too expensive to tear down. So they closed the doors and walked away,” he said. In 2000, developers Walter and Karen Worthy bought the defunct Davenport Hotel for $6.5 million. Bringing this grand old hotel back to life has not been a cheap proposition; restoration took over 2-1/2 years and cost upwards of $38 million. Asbestos was used extensively in buildings of a century ago in order to prevent damage from fire. However, as readers of this column have discovered, many old asbestos-filled buildings go up in flames regardless. The asbestos has been removed from the Davenport now. Ironically, this destructive substance has saved a vital piece of U.S. history, though perhaps not in the way the original builder intended. “There is a little good in all evil…” – Wilson Rawls