Amanda Beck

Beyond the Housing Binary: 1900s Spokane

Amanda Beck, AICP, Planner II, 509.625.6500

Monday, February 6, 2023 at 1:27 p.m.

Beyond the Housing Binary: 1900s Spokane

Spokane in the early 1900s was popping. The City’s appeal is apparent in the population boom that occurred.

Even the 1899 Great Fire, which destroyed 32 blocks of downtown, didn’t slow down the pace of growth. Instead, and miraculously, on the one-year anniversary of the Great Spokane Fire the City had built back more than 500 buildings and was poised to continue growing. The untapped riches of timber, cattle, agriculture, and mining in the American West that helped draw Americans and recent immigrants westward added a helping hand to the City’s recovery, as many hands were needed to rebuild the commercial core of the City and work for the ever-growing industries and businesses.

Historic image of a pamphlet marketing the early city of Spokane to potential residents or businesses, calling it the "heart of the Inland Northwest." And, the December 1899 quarterly publication of the Spokesman Review announcing the sixth annual Spokane Industrial Exposition, featuring Miss Jean Goldie Amos, the "goddess of plenty."

The housing journey of new and existing residents in the “Heart of the Inland Empire” had to start somewhere, which is why housing diversity was so important then and remains so today with the housing crisis.

Getting back to our diverse roots, last year the City adopted the Building Opportunity and Choices for All interim zoning ordinance to increase development of townhomes, two-, three-, and four-unit residential structures. Updating housing policies in the Comprehensive Plan, and then corresponding updates to the development code, are being developed under the next step in this process, Building Opportunity for Housing. Updates will increase the types of housing allowed by development code, creating an opportunity for more housing diversity. Proposed changes mirror Spokane’s diverse housing history so that there are options for the variety of housing needs in our community.

1910 postcard show casing The Plunge, Spokane's Olympic-sized indoor pool that had 300 changing rooms and was located inside the Natatorium Park. Residents in bathing costumes swim and socialize along the second story balcony.

In 1900 there were 36,848 people living in the City. By the 1910 Census, the number had doubled to a population of 104,402. But where were all these people resting their heads at night? This was a time when housing was a much more fluid concept, and many in America called a single-occupancy room, or even just a bed, their home. While owning a home might have been a goal of many fortune seekers, a person had to start somewhere. Boarding houses, lodging houses, and other single-room occupancy buildings, which sometimes used the word apartment or hotel, catered to the influx of people moving to Spokane. And as people’s situations changed, they moved into other accommodations such as mansion apartments, or built duplexes to live in one side and earn income from renting the other unit, all as their housing needs or income allowed.

Picture taken in 1889 showing a group of Swedish- and Irish-Americans picnicing at Loon Lake with Mrs. Dempsey, wife of the sheriff of Spokane, Charles C. Dempsey.
Left: 1907 photo showing James Anderson and Company's clothing business at 9 South Post Street, with an advertisement for furnished rooms at 11 South Post street painted atop the brick building. Right: 1907 photo showing construction of the Kemp and Hebert building on the northwest corner of Main and Washington; highlighted behind it is the Hotel Dempsey on Front Street (now Trent Street) advertising steam heat and rooms by the day or week.

With maintenance, cleaning, and cooking taken care of by the building owner, residents living in these types of housing could focus on their employment and social lives after work. Rather than needing space in your living unit for a kitchen, you could walk a few blocks to one of the many restaurants or saloons in downtown, treating the central business district as an extension of your living space. Spokane’s downtown was a melting pot of people. And, just like today housing options were impacted by where someone was from, their educational background, profession, and income. Housing could range from just a bed, a room with a wardrobe and a shared bathroom for the floor, to a unit in a triplex or a single-family detached house.

1905 photo showing the 100 block of South Post, highlighting furnished rooms advertised for 117 Post, next to James Molls Cigars shop. These abundantly available rooms throughout downtown helped to house the influx of people moving to the city.
Left: 1895 photo of Charles C Dempsey and employees outside of Dempsey's Restaurant at 523 West Main Street. Highlighted is an advertisement for the hotel as the "cheapest house in the city" as well as the restaurant's menu. Right: 1897 photo of the inside of Dempsey's Restaurant full of male patrons sitting along the bar eating and drinking.

Whatever name they went by—boarding houses, single-room occupancy hotels, lodging houses— these buildings provided crucial abundant and affordable housing to the thousands moving to Spokane. As residents were able, they moved to their next residence in their housing journey, be it a duplex that supplied additional income or a single-family home that afforded them a view of Mount Spokane. And those workers fueled the industries and businesses that continued to build up the city over the next several decades.

Want to look at more historic photos, or read more about housing history?

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