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Five Years after Spokane's Davenport Hotel Reopening,
 Caretakers Recall the Dark Days
By Peter Wagner, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Sep. 16, 2007 - Five years ago this month, Spokane's treasured Davenport Hotel had its grand reopening after 17 years of hibernation.

Thanks to a $30 million restoration by developers Walt and Karen Worthy, the once-vacant landmark is now a thriving luxury hotel. To some, the days when the old hotel sat vacant may seem like a distant memory.

But not to Evelyn Conant and John Reed, who were among those who took care of the building when the more than 500 rooms were unoccupied.

For five years, Conant was the only person who slept at the hotel.

"This hotel is engraved in my soul," she said.

After retiring in 1980, she first started working at the Davenport as head accountant. "It came by chance," she said. But the job didn't last long, as the hotel was closed for economic reasons in 1985.

Jan B. Smith, a former administrative assistant, became caretaker of the hotel and lived in the building. In 1990, when the Hong Kong-based Ng family bought the hotel, Smith moved on to Alaska. The Ngs asked Conant if she wanted to be the new caretaker.

"They called me, and I said I will be there in two minutes," said Conant, who is now 82. It was the beginning of what she calls "the most wonderful part of my life."

Together with her Persian cat, Misty, Conant moved into an apartment on the eighth floor and also took a seat in the office on the main floor. Misty had the run of the place while Conant walked the halls of the spacious hotel. "That was my exercise," she said.

Conant has a lot of stories from her time at the hotel.

"I remember a man ringing the doorbell on Lincoln Street. A little man, who became my most favorite visitor in all those years," said Conant.

He stood on the street and told Conant about his wife, who had recently died. It was the day of their 60th wedding anniversary. The day, when, exactly six decades earlier, the couple had spent their wedding night in the hotel -- in a room with blue flocked wallpaper and mirrors on the wall.

The man wanted to see the room once more.

"I thought: What am I going to do now?" said Conant. "I didn't recall the room -- although I was in every single one. So many rooms were already stripped off."

But then a room came to her mind again. "I remembered one on the ninth floor that looked a bit like that." They entered the elevator, walked to the door, and Conant took her bunch of about 30 to 40 keys to unlock the room.

They walked in, the man became silent.

"This is it," he said.

He wasn't crying, remembered Conant. "But one tear escaped out of each of his eyes."

Then the man turned his head and said, "She is here."

Evelyn Conant silently walked out and left the man alone.

Over and over in those years, people were ringing the bell, asking for access, asking for a tour. "Everybody remembered something. This hotel was made up with the memories of the people who loved it," said Conant.

She was in her office when Reed came along with a big group of third-graders. "There were 100 or so. They slammed on the brakes. Every little face went up -- ohh, if only I would have had a camera to grab the awe on their faces!"

Conant has her own idea about what the Davenport means to the area's residents. "The older want to tell their memories. The younger want to start their memories."

Although it was closed, said Conant, "people of Spokane used the hotel as their living room." Conant even hosted catered weddings and lunches in the lobby, but the rooms were kept shut. The Ng family tried to get the hotel restored and open again, but faced many setbacks.

Conant didn't lose faith that one day, the hotel might open again.

"I used to sit on the balcony, listening. And I could hear voices, music playing, laughter and the clinking of glasses," said Conant.

There were also times when Conant felt she wasn't alone in the vast, empty building.

One of the legends of the hotel tells of a woman who fell through the skylight and to her death in the lobby. Her last words, according to the tale, were: "Where did I go?"

Over the years, many housekeepers claim to have seen the glimpse of a lady in a black dress, saying: "Where did I go?" And Conant nods as she tells this. "I've seen shadows," she said, "and I felt the presence of something."

Other stories tell of the ghost of the hotel's founder, Louis Davenport, checking the halls floor by floor, as he did in life.

These sorts of ghost stories are the visitors' favorites when Conant gives tours of the hotel. She tells them with a mild smile on her face, in her eyes -- overall, she seems to be interwoven with the hotel's history. "Remember," she said, "the hotel's walls can talk -- but you have to listen with your eyes."

Another fixture during the 17 years the hotel was closed was John Reed.

Reed, 77, started working at the Davenport in 1943. He was just 13 years old and had a special working permit. He worked for one year and came back in 1957, and has worked there ever since.

"The first five years after the closure, I was the one to keep the hotel clean for potential buyers." Many of those suitors were seen in the lobby until the Worthys bought the hotel in 2000.

Reed checked the boilers, kept the building heated in winter, and checked for water leaks. "Especially," he said, "I had to protect the Hall of the Doges."

Reed, mostly working as a bellman, also has plenty of memories.

He recalls Johnny Cash and the whole Carter family stepping in and taking over the 14th floor; he remembers Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Hope and Rock Hudson. Reed met Nat King Cole and also John F. Kennedy, before he became president. "He just sat down and relaxed in front of the fireplace. He was an interesting, very likeable person."

But he can tell about the effect the hotel has on its visitors: "When people come in the beautiful lobby, they are tending to automatically relax."

Reed, who also worked at the front desk for some time, became a sort of an institution. People even called him at home to make a reservation, to get the same room again.

And Reed is one of the few hotel employees who has met Louis Davenport. "Oh yeah. He showed me how to set up the tables. If I did one wrong, he wanted me to take the whole table down again and start it all from the beginning.

"Davenport was very particular," reminded Reed.

But this particularity, said Reed, doesn't include his appearance as a ghost. "I never experienced something like that," he said. "At night, sound travels from everywhere."

Definitely no ghosts were in when a livestock show took place in the lobby in 1983. "Back when we were open ... a top of the line breeding-stock show took place. We had a fence around the fountain and carpet on the floor. And then the parade and auction going on -- they called the cattle The Ladies of the Lobby."

One cow was auctioned for $50,000. "You have to see it to believe it," said Reed, his hat on, sunken in a soft lobby armchair, awash in his memories.

"And one special cow, they brought in a limousine."

These days, Reed works as a doorman. "I am more of a greeter now," said Reed, who opens car doors for guests and tips his hat. "It gets me out of the house," he said. With his red coat and top hat, Reed is a popular photo subject. How many has he done? "Oh, it's got to be in the thousands," he said.

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To see more of The Spokesman-Review, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.spokesmanreview.com.

Copyright (c) 2007, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.

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