Expo 74 and the Creation of Riverfront Park

MAC 100 Stories: A Centennial Exhibition

The Spokane River gorge has undergone many transformations in the last century. Don't be distracted by the roar of the falls; look at the riverfront. Until 2011, the trees, shrubs, and concrete remnants you see here were the former YMCA headquarters. While that is not long ago, they are part of a story that began at the turn of the 20th century.

In 1914, the Board of Parks Commissioners hired the Olmsted Brothers, sons of journalist and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, to outline a plan for the city's parks. Their report called for four large parks to help calm the "continual strain of the nerves" among urban dwellers caused by the "multitudinous harsh noises and the vivid and eye-tiring sights" of the city. The centerpiece was a proposed Gorge Park, where in the face of continuing industrial construction, the brothers urged the city to "preserve what beauty and grandeur remains of its great river gorge." Unfortunately, their ideas would be buried under another fifty years of commercial development.

By the mid-1960s, the Park Board and Plan Commission began to call for "appropriate riverfront development, including landscaped areas, vistas, commercial recreation, cultural facilities, public buildings, parks, zoos or zoolets, river drives and paths, and encouraging appropriate offices and business establishments and apartments" along with "the removal of railroad trackage" from the riverfront and Havermale Island. At the same time, the YMCA of the Inland Northwest purchased land and built a new home on the northern edge of the island.

The vision of both the Park Board and the YMCA soon merged with the urban renewal plans of Expo 74. Its theme: "Celebrating Tomorrow's Fresh New Environment." The six-month festival brought 5.6 million people to Spokane, and its physical legacy includes Riverfront Park, the Spokane Convention Center and the INB Performing Arts Center. Expo '74 also restored access to Spokane's falls and gorge, breathing new life into the 1908 Olmsted park plan and reflecting a national trend of rediscovered urban waterfronts.

When the exhibitors left, the Park Board transformed the Expo grounds into the natural and artificial landscapes of Riverfront Park. The YMCA building had worked double duty as the fair headquarters and was now surrounded by saplings and lawns.

In 2006, as the YMCA prepared to move to a new location north of the river, they placed the building in Riverfront Park on the market. Developer Mark Pinch arranged to buy it in order to build a 14-story condominium tower, which he compared to San Antonio's Riverwalk. The city had right of first refusal but struggled to cobble together funding during the recession of the late 2000s. Proposals and counterproposals flew, ranging from turning the old building into a museum to using it as office space to allowing Pinch to buy it.

Finally, during the spring and early summer of 2011, fences surrounded the site and backhoes and jackhammers pounded concrete. The building wasn't being removed for office space, a museum, or a tower but for trees and shrubs to match those across the channel. Park visitors will one day be able to stand in a green tunnel opening to white water and black basalt.

MAC 100 Stories: A Centennial Exhibition is told on the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture campus in Spokane's Browne's Addition, with additional highlights at 15 sites in Spokane and eastern Washington. The exhibit experience (February 22, 2014 - January 2016) weaves stories and programs about Inland Northwest people, places and events by capitalizing on the MAC's extraordinary collection. www.northwestmuseum.org

Spokane Historical presents 15 regional and city tours in partnership with the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture and its 100 Stories exhibition.