The Rookery Building

A lost architectural gem

The destruction of the Rookery Building was a turning point in historic preservation in Spokane.

The Great Depression plunged the United States into an economic downturn unlike any it had seen before. Spokane was not immune. Workers lost their jobs quickly and the local unemployment rate shot up to twenty-five percent. Even though the local situation was grim, men flocked to Spokane looking for work. Many ended up living in hobo jungles and in shanty towns of cardboard and wood scraps. But not everyone was building shanties. In the midst of the depression one of Spokane’s most famous buildings was constructed, The Rookery.

The Rookery Block was originally home to four buildings that made up a haphazard cluster of businesses, ranging from banks to physicians offices. As Spokane grew, speculators eyed the block as a potential investment but the existing buildings did not meet the needs of a rapidly modernizing city. In 1933, Charles Sweeny, a Civil War veteran turned businessman and aspiring politician, purchased the lots to tear the existing structures down and build something grand in their place.

Undeterred by the depression, Sweeny began construction of the new Rookery Building, completed in 1933. It was an instant hit. According to the Spokane Historic Preservation Office, the Rookery “was the premier Spokane example of terra cotta artistry employing Art Deco design elements.” Designed by Gustav Pehrson, the building had a “horizontal emphasis and stylistic design elements, including floral patterns, starbursts, chevrons and fans.” Although there were hundreds of Art Deco building in town, “high style Art Deco commercial buildings like the Rookery are relatively rare in Spokane.”

Though it had a beautiful debut, the Rookery did not age well. By the 1990s, Tenants were regularly complaining about the condition of the building and the owner was losing patience. In 2006 The Rookery was torn to the ground, to the dismay and anger of many Spokanites. An Inlander article from 2005 captures the frustration, “surface parking lots have spread like lesions across the face of downtown Spokane. Even though it's a ridiculous, inefficient use of land in an urban core, these parking lots, like smallpox scars, tend not to go away.”

Though the Rookery was lost, its destruction marked a turning point in Spokane's attitude towards historic preservation. The Spokane Preservation Advocates, a non-profit organization that advocates for historic preservation, were able to use the emotional lessons learned from the loss of the Rookery to lobby the city council to pass a demolition ordinance. This ordinance prohibits the “removal of historically eligible buildings without a plan to replace them with new structures.” This ordinance has halted the spread of surface parking lots but it cannot stop real estate developers from tearing down 100 year old buildings in favor of modern high rises.