July 1, 2012

Gaining Steam

A Spokane Steam Plant's Transformation to Neighborhood Eatery

  • By: Gwendolyn Purdom

After a grueling day pitching coal, woodchips, and sawdust into the boilers that provided heat to most of the buildings in downtown Spokane, the sweat-drenched employees who operated Washington Water Power’s Central Steam Plant likely worked up a pretty mean thirst for a cold beer. The cavernous space where I’m now sipping a pint of house-brewed Huckleberry Harvest Ale has changed quite a bit since the plant closed its doors in 1986, but steel beams still crisscross the 60-foot ceilings, and its striking twin smokestacks, hand-laid with 333,340 bricks in 1916, still tower 225 feet above the historic city.

For a time, the hulking brick structure, which for 70 years supplied Spokane with 15,000 to 370,000 pounds of steam pressure per hour, stood empty. There was talk of razing the plant in the decade it went unused. But in 1996, Avista Development (formerly Washington Water Power Corp.) teamed up with historic restoration specialists Wells & Company to convert the abandoned landmark into a restaurant and office space. The 74,400-square-foot Steam Plant Square complex opened in December 1999, its anchor the Steam Plant Brewing Company & Pub, where I peruse the thick, regionally focused menu beneath a colorful tapestry of original pipes and machinery.

The restaurant’s quirky industrial charm (picture booths sectioned off in former boilers, a banquet room fitted with an old water pipe used as a fountain, and a massive white coal bunker overhead) fits right in with Spokane’s historic appeal. Between the rumble of freight trains traversing the city’s many bridges and the old power plants dotting the riverfront alongside the roaring Spokane Falls, the eastern Washington city is brimming with gritty character rooted in turn-of-the- 20th-century architecture and commerce. The restaurant’s revitalization is hardly the only project that has brought a Spokane building back from the brink in recent years. The grand Davenport Hotel was restored to its 1914 glory in 2002. The 1931 Art Deco Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox reopened in 2007 and now houses the Spokane Symphony. Steam Plant Square was recognized with a Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust in 2001, as well as the Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects’ Pacific and Northwest Region.

From my table in the sunken barroom seating area, my eyes are drawn up, and up, and up to the soaring intact tanks and catwalks that rise above the crack of a pool cue making contact. Much of the equipment that needed to be removed during the renovation didn’t travel far: Local artisans crafted pieces of piping and other parts into works that were auctioned off to benefit the local arts district. Patrons will spot tables fused with tubing and gears in the restaurant’s dining room, as well.

Polishing off my fruit-infused draft, I ask to try a hearty Double Stack Stout— the restaurant’s most popular beer by far, I’m told—with notes of vanilla and bourbon, for round two. I need something a little thicker to wash down the ale-brined free-range chicken I’d ordered for dinner. Slathered in Huckleberry Harvest Ale BBQ sauce, my meal is substantial, a mountain of meat flanked by seasonal vegetables and garlic new potatoes—more than enough to feed an exhausted steam plant worker in the building’s original heyday, I’m sure. But as it’s my first visit to the Evergreen State, I can’t very well call it a night without tasting some homegrown Washington apples. The bartender suggests the Apple Delight dessert, a decadent warm cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream and caramel, and I’m happy to oblige. The plant may no longer be generating heat for nearby buildings, but as I spend an evening amid the forest of long-retired machinery, a satisfying meal in my stomach, it’s clear the energy never left.

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