A Very American Hotel

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Forty years is a long enough stretch, but it seems far less than half a lifetime ago when, as a surly British teenager, I found myself clutching an all-day pass to the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane, Washington.  I was there on my summer vacation from Cambridge, and it seemed to me an almost satirically unglamorous spot, particularly judging from the postcards I was getting from some of my peers in the course of their travels in the Arctic Circle, or Nagasaki, or even an alleged opium den in Chiang Mai.  There are those who go to Spokane for the climate (bone-dry from May to October), the Native American artifacts, or the agreeable inhabitants.  It also has an extraordinarily pleasant riverside park, home to regular classical concerts and other attractions, including a hand-carved fairground carousel created in 1909.  But I was there because my grandfather had taken the trouble to drive me the 300 or so miles from his home in Seattle where I was spending the long annual break.

The journey itself hadn’t been without incident.  My grandfather, who was then in his early 80’s and still active as a university professor, was at the wheel of one of those old, big-finned Cadillacs, which was roughly the size of an average family home in suburban London.  I remember it as being bright red, though others tell me it was actually a tasteful shade of salmon-pink, with gold trim.  It certainly had a vanity license plate emblazoned with the family name, and a bumper sticker from the 1972 presidential election proclaiming “Nixon’s The One.”  Car maintenance was not among my grandfather’s priorities.  Two-and-a-half hours outside Seattle the vehicle simply ceased to work, and we had to be towed into the small town of Moses Lake, where, it being the evening of July 3, we spent the night in a roadside motel accompanied by the noise of incessant, if premature, Independence Day fireworks.

The next afternoon there was a municipal picnic to celebrate American deliverance from British tyranny, and so we naturally joined in.  Sometime on July 5, a Friday, my grandfather eventually contacted the mechanic now attending to the car.  After two nights of deafening pyrotechnics, amid a general ambience of pot-fueled anarchy, I confess our temporary lodgings had begun to lose their charm for me.  There was also the matter of my grandfather’s snoring.  The mechanic announced that both the Cadillac’s cooling system and several other of its key functions had “just died” thanks to protracted negligence, which was the moment of my hideous disillusionment.  We were in Moses Lake for a total of five days and nights.  Time in that particular retreat can hang heavily.  When we left again we motored solidly through the most arid landscape, with rolling brown hills on either side and dust clouds eddying up on the horizon.  In retrospect, I was glad we had broken down in a place where there were at least tow trucks and soft beds.  Finally the road came down into a valley, and suddenly there were green fields, and a river, and a rather dusty gray town that, but for the traffic, looked exactly like the set of an old Western.  As we tried to find the site of the World’s Fair, we passed a low stone building with the irregularly written word Saloon swaying on a sign above it.  A tumbleweed blew down the street.  At last, I thought, I had glimpsed a real America underneath the neon.

Perched on the side of the Spokane River, the so-called World’s Fair was a rather modest enterprise.  A total of seven nations had erected pavilions, among them an almost unbelievably ugly, plastic recreation of the Sydney Opera House.  The crowds were not oppressively large.  Most of the United States pavilion was taken up by the world’s first IMAX movie screen, which was buried in a sort of vinyl grotto, with rock slabs instead of seats to sit on, looking like something out of The Flintstones.  At some stage in the proceedings a troupe of rather obese Native Americans dressed in loincloths performed a vigorous dance on the central lawn.  The announcer told us that this was a recreation of a “sacred fertility ritual” that had been practiced hereabouts for many years before the white man’s arrival.  We all clapped politely along.  The chief dancer brandished a spear, and occasionally he waved this menacingly toward the audience.  As he did so, several of the back-line performers would start shouting maniacally—one or two of them were rather attractive young women who, I later learned, doubled up in our hotel’s cabaret.  Some of the others played bongo drums.  It really was all quite entertaining, if not exactly the “global extravaganza of 1974” promised in the tourist brochures.  I was sorry to have missed President Nixon, who had taken time away from his other duties to open the fair two months earlier.  By the time it closed again in the fall, he had resigned.

I mention all this only as the backdrop to our stay in the Davenport Hotel—the “Two Million Dollar Hostelry of Spokane,” as it was called on its opening in September 1914.  This strange and magnificent building, soaring up in the middle of town like a gaudy wedding cake, was evidently greeted by cries of wonderment and disbelief on its completion.  In the rural west of a century ago, the Davenport was the last word in luxury and refinement.  To quote the Spokane Spokesman-Review of the day:

Possessing all the mechanical modernity of structure that hotel builders know, and decorated with a greater degree of artistry than is often seen, the new edifice makes a startling first impression . . . The architectural period is Spanish Renaissance, fascinating because it has so much of the Moorish exuberance of color and design in it . . . Light comes into the lobby in day-time through a ceiling of tinted glass.  At night there is illumination from lamps set in alabaster shells mounted on four twisted bronze columns, ornamented with twining grape leaves and vines finished in dull red and gold.  In the center is a fountain in old Italian marble . . . It is probable the basement barber shop is among the most opulent in the world.  The seven arches, the walls and the columns are of white statuary marble, while the floor is white tile.  From each dome of the vaulted ceiling are suspended Grecian alabaster bowls on Pompeian bronze chains, which will diffuse a soft indirect light.  The eight barber’s chairs are in white enamel and are upholstered with red leather.

No wonder there were gasps of shock and awe when the Davenport opened its doors to the public on that Labor Day morning some 100 years ago.  Locally, the event eclipsed even the news from France, where the Germans came perilously close to their objective of capturing Paris and ending the Great War within a month of starting it.  There was said to have been “fanatical excitement” and “goodly crowds . . . drawn from as far away as Minneapolis and Chicago” on hand to witness the hotel’s dedication ceremony.  For days afterward, men and women stood in the street staring up at the Davenport’s 12-story, Spanish-mission façade, occupying an entire city block.  My grandfather, who had been selling insurance locally, told me that he had often walked around the site of the hotel in its early days just to people-watch.  “Everybody was gaping up at it,” he said.  “You could imagine the same expression on the faces of African tribesmen seeing a jet fly over them for the first time.”  He had a way with words.  In hindsight, the Davenport seemed to him to have fanned the dying embers of “that early 20th-century burst of American optimism.  Everyone convinced themselves [sic] that it was the most beautiful public building in the world.”  It may not have been quite that.  But it was certainly magnificent in an absurd sort of way, a vast American folie de grandeur of a kind rarely seen nowadays outside of Las Vegas.  It was—to anticipate a term—shamelessly camp, and utterly endearing in its campness.

By 1974, some of the gilt had all too literally flaked off the Davenport, which we found to be open but almost eerily empty.  The one visible clerk was only too happy to provide us a suite at a reasonable rate.  After 60 years, the hotel evidently remained the focus of a certain bemused pride in Spokane and the small neighboring towns.  On our first night there, my grandfather and I were taken up onto the roof gardens by a city councilman and shown the tangle of weeds that had replaced the baize-green lawn and formal flower beds where tail-coated waiters had once served English teas.  The lobby was still splendid in a faded, music-hall sort of way, but also cold, poorly lit, and, in certain visible places, none too clean.  A dead goldfish floated in the Italian-marble fountain.  A vast chandelier, tinted in blue and gold, hung above it at a drunken angle, like one of those ghostly photographs taken on board the wreck of the Titanic.  Off to one side, there was a restaurant dealing in hamburgers and canned fruit cocktails.  After our meal, my grandfather and I went downstairs to see what remained of the world’s most opulent barber shop.  All we could find was a small, closed travel agency.  Through the grille we could see that it advertised all the horrors of modern tourism, with posters proclaiming the merits of Reno and Vegas, and—a surreal touch—a recorded voice coming from a wooden effigy of an airline pilot: “Now I want to fly you to sunny California . . . Come on, folks, step aboard . . . Anybody for Disneyland?”  Later, we shared the hotel’s one working elevator with a hirsute young man wearing a T-shirt customized with a slogan indicating how positively he would react to President Nixon’s impeachment and imprisonment.  He  and his female companion, dressed in shorts of the most sparing cut, were accompanied by a large dog of dubious pedigree.  My grandfather was rather hard of hearing, and as a result sometimes spoke in a voice louder than he intended.  Even in his younger days, he had been apt not just to deny approbation of many of his fellow human beings, but to advertise an acute and unqualified dislike of them.  In the dead of night, I can still painfully recall the ringing tones in which he now assessed our fellow hotel guest, not so much murmuring as growling out his critique of the poor man’s dress code, among several other defects.  It seemed to me to be a very long ride up to the 12th floor.

To read the news stories of the Davenport’s opening and early years is to enter a world it may be difficult for a less historically sophisticated mind than that of the average Chronicles reader to imagine.  It is a world where social decorum, propriety, and the natural deference of the employee to the customer had not been tainted by spurious egalitarianism or a wholesale collapse of self-restraint.  Louis Davenport—“Mr. Davenport,” as he was always spoken of beyond his own household—had come north from Red Bluff, California, in 1889, at the age of 20.  By all accounts, he was of that classic entrepreneurial spirit so prevalent in this country a century ago.  By the time he left home, Davenport had already attended business school in San Francisco, worked in a series of cafés and saloons, and even made and lost a small fortune trading in dry goods.  “It was a heavy crash,” he recalled.  “And it was all because my partner, one of the finest fellows I have ever met, just couldn’t stand propriety.  Women and liquor got him, and our business as well.”  The dapper and rigidly self-disciplined Davenport was thought unlikely to succumb to any similar temptations.  When, a few months after his arrival, a fire destroyed nearly the whole of downtown Spokane, he rose to the challenge by swiftly assembling a canvas-roofed “Waffle and Coffee Foundry,” operating it 24 hours per day to serve the city’s emergency workers.  It was the prelude to his opening a full-scale restaurant and then the hotel that bears his name.  In the meantime, the waffle house (though necessarily limited in its fare), with its immaculately polished tables, gleaming cutlery, and mint-fresh change—every night, Davenport personally washed all the silver coins he had taken in that day—provided a foretaste of what the future might look like.

For the most part, the Davenport Hotel’s first 70 years of operation were, both critically and commercially, fabulously successful.  Davenport spent his whole professional life studying the art of hospitality.  Guests in the hotel would be saluted on arrival by a liveried doorman, and then escorted in one of seven gilt elevators to their rooms, each of which featured the miracle of unlimited hot water, a bed constructed of French walnut, and tastefully muted lighting which conferred a reverential, if not actively spiritual, atmosphere on the proceedings.  The hotel’s chef, lured away from Maxim’s in Paris, offered a bill of fare—including the original Crab Louis—not normally associated with the Inland Empire of 1914.  There were marble-walled corridors, art-glass panels to give the larger public rooms an atrium effect, and the only flying ballroom in the world—the Hall of the Doges—a startling splash of the baroque with its upholsteries of blue and rose silk, satin, and velvet.  For the business traveler, the hotel offered a stenographic department which included the latest in “typewriting, telephonic, and other modern technical conveniences.”  There was a baronial fireplace that burnt year round in the lobby, a billiard parlor that contained 11 tables and was said to “have no superiors in the entire country,” and a nook where homemade ice cream and pie could be enjoyed at any hour.  If you were a child staying at the hotel—less common an occurrence then than it is now—your destination was Room 708, where Davenport commissioned a circus mural as a greeting gift for his young guests.  As the proprietor later remarked in a rare interview, “A business . . . should not consist chiefly in walls, offices, employees, elevators and bank accounts, but mostly in a volume of intangible good will residing in the minds and hearts of satisfied customers.”

What went wrong, leading the “Two Million Dollar Hostelry” of 1914 to close its doors 71 years later as a rat-infested shell of its former glories?

One small but perhaps telling clue lies in a comparison of the Davenport’s regular celebrity clientele in the old days with the more modern vintage.  Back then, you might have seen the likes of Clark Gable, Mary Pickford, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Will Rogers, Bob Hope, and John Philip Sousa walking the hallways.  Had you dropped by for dinner one Saturday night around 1923, you would have likely been serenaded by a trio of brilliantined young men in white flannels and candy-striped blazers, one of whom went on to be Bing Crosby.  Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and Zane Grey all stayed at the hotel, and Dashiell Hammett namechecked it in The Maltese Falcon.  Monarchs, presidents, and other heads of government came and went.  One of the most poignant photographs in the gallery running above the hotel’s lobby today shows Teddy Roosevelt standing next to a petite young woman dressed, or perhaps dressed up, as an Indian squaw.  The former president gazes directly back at the camera, an ironic smile playing on his lips, as if already savoring the mild strangeness of the pose he finds himself in.

By contrast, the hotel brochure lists the following individuals as among its alumni of more recent times: Jerry Seinfeld, Samuel L. Jackson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Madonna, Cher, Sting, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen.

A perfectly respectable group, you may say, particularly in these economically challenged times when few of us can afford to be choosy in the company we keep.  But somehow I wonder if they will conjure up the same sort of warm and evocative images for our grandchildren to savor in the years ahead as a Gable or a Crosby do for us now.  A case could even be made for saying that you can trace the Davenport’s steady decline in the 1960’s and 70’s by the quality of its celebrity guests: from Hepburn and Tracy to Sonny and Cher in a single generation.  People like my grandfather who knew the hotel in its early days and then revisited at occasional intervals saw a huge change with each passing visit.  It wasn’t so much that the building itself was in decay, but that the whole concept of the decently dressed, self-restrained, instinctively friendly, and invariably courteous middle-class American appeared to have vanished without a trace somewhere between the midst of the Eisenhower administration and the so-called Summer of Love just ten years later.  In the old days, men walked through the Davenport lobby wearing suits and ties, rather than imitating in their dress, speech, and general conduct a pack of lewd-minded teenagers.  Clad in cutoffs and sneakers, nipping at the teats of day-glo bottles with a straw bolted to one side and a lubricious endorsement from Lady Gaga gummed to the other, they flop into the Davenport’s public areas, dragging their feral children behind them.  The latter, of course, have long been taught how to crave junk food, thrill to violent and pornographic programming, and interact with pedophiles in cyberspace.  They appear to have no appreciable social skills beyond their ability to interminably tap the screens of their iPhones, and judging from their behavior in invading the Davenport’s once-pristine hallways, they possess many of the less-endearing characteristics of the Vandals who so thoroughly sacked Rome in a.d. 455.  Needless to say, there is never a word of parental rebuke or reproach.  Scenes of self-absorption and cloaca-tongued rudeness that would once have been greeted with incredulity are now met with expressions of zombie-like vacancy and grunts of indifference.

In June 1985, the Davenport closed its doors for what was nearly the last time.  The hotel was bankrupt, and there were no offers on the table acceptable to its mortgage holders.  For the next 15 years, it became just another boarded-up downtown relic, its façade daubed with infantile scratchings and graffiti, like prehistoric paintings in our ancestors’ caves.  One day, a significant part of the Davenport’s roof fell into the street, which caused the city to close the area with barricades.  There was talk of its demolition.  Then a local Air Force veteran and businessman with the pleasingly Capraesque name of Walt Worthy sold nearly everything he owned and came up with the $40 million needed to purchase and restore what he called the “wonderful hulk” and “one of the most incredible buildings in the nation.”  This was clearly both a significant investment and a labor of love on Worthy’s part, particularly as he had no previous hotel experience.  He admits that neither he nor his wife was quite sure what would happen when the Davenport officially reopened for business in September 2002, 88 years after the original ceremony.  In the event, “it was better than I ever dreamed,” Worthy says.

Today’s Davenport Hotel is a magnificent tribute to the restorer’s art.  Each time I walk through the lobby I half-expect to encounter the ghost of Woodrow Wilson, or to hear the strains of Bing Crosby crooning “Just One More Chance” from the alcove over by the fireplace where he got his start.  It’s not the bricks and mortar, or the hotel’s sumptuous interior, that has changed forever.  It is the human factor.  Should you visit, I warmly recommend a short tour of the photographs displayed in the Davenport’s mezzanine gallery.  Glance at the men in their frock coats and the women in their black-lace dresses and elbow-length gloves of a century ago, attended by their train of servants in immaculate starched uniforms.  Then look immediately below you at the tide of garish, slovenly, and obese individuals currently infesting the lobby.  I am only glad my grandfather isn’t here to give his opinion.