Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ferguson’s Café to Reopen This Spring.

Ferguson’s Café to Reopen This Spring

— or —

When life gives us Lemons, make mine a Limoncello

Photos and Essay by Wally Lee Parker

(all rights to this material retained by author)

(To see my article "Movie Shoots Next Door to Ferguson's" click here.)

January 4, 2012.

November 15, 2010.
During the shooting of "Camilla Dickinson."

            It was just a few minutes past 10 o’clock on Sunday evening, the 25th of September, when my wife, Patricia, interrupted me at the computer.  “You’ll want to see the news.  They say Ferguson’s and the Milk Bottle are both burning down!”
            Fire, likely arson set, was sprouting from the back of the Garland District’s landmark bit of programmatic architecture, the Milk Bottle Restaurant, and shooting out through the roof of next door’s Ferguson’s Café — suggesting that at least one of Garland Avenue’s historic eateries was already beyond saving.  Just that afternoon Pat and I had been on our way home from the Spokane Civic Theater’s matinée performance of ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ when Pat suggested we stop by Ferguson’s for supper.  We’d forgotten that the Café closed early on weekends, and drove away disappointed — but thinking a swing by for breakfast the next morning would even things out.
            As the television news droned on, comments from a fire department spokesman made it apparent Ferguson’s was expected to be a total lost, and the fate of the Milk Bottle was still very much in question.
            Over the prior year Ferguson’s (originally known as Sander’s Café) had become one of our favorite places — as it had been for a number of people in the community since the 1930s — including at least three, and possibly four, motion picture crews.  As for the Milk Bottle; built in 1935 and enlarged in 1940, it was one of those places that had seemingly always been there — to everyone now alive at least.  And that everyone expected to go on always being there.  Watching that evening’s television coverage — each interruption suggesting even less hope anything would be left standing — was a stark reminder that everything is temporal.  And that beyond a certain age, loss becomes something each of us should expect.
            Still, loss does hurt.  And to think that some sociopath had likely set a bundle of cardboard stored between the buildings on fire just for that momentary visceral squeeze depressed everyone who considered the historic Garland District something special — who thought of the district as a thin slice of small town America preserved within a much larger city’s urban sprawl.
            And as the freezing fog and occasional drizzle of a relatively snowless autumn slipped dully toward the official start of winter, that air of depression continued.  And then …
            Our weekly routine often finds us driving north on Wall Street as it crosses Garland Avenue.  After the late September fire we’d occasionally detour the few blocks west on Garland just to drive passed Ferguson’s — just to see if anything was going on.  At first all we saw were boarded up windows and a few blackened stubs representing all that remained of the roof.  The café’s mostly intact steel and neon sign had quickly been taken away for safe-keeping.  And not long after that, a blue tarp had been stretched over the top of the building to protect whatever was left inside.

November 15, 2010.
During the shooting of "Camilla Dickinson."

            During one of our recent detours Pat said.  “I think they’re doing something to the roof.”
            “It looks the same to me.”
            “No, no,” she insisted!  “There’s definitely something different about the roof.  I think they’re fixing the roof.”
            And within another week it was clear she was right.  Bright, unpainted two by sixes could be seen rising above the charred walls.  And then, on December 23rd, the front page of the Spokesman-Review announced that both Mary Lou’s Milk Bottle Restaurant and Ferguson’s Café were coming back.
            Last Thursday, just before the final weekend of the year, we were driving in the area again.  And this time — just in case — I’d brought my camera.
            “I think I’ll get a few shots of the exterior,” I said.
            Parking near the intersection of Garland and Post, I walked north on Post to get a view of Ferguson’s from the back.  From this angle it was clear that the shell of the restaurant had been roofed over.  Though not yet complete, the new roof already appeared able to divert any subsequent rain, as well as hold whatever snow the rest of the winter might bring.
            A head popped up from behind a small car parked near the building, and with a wave, the restaurant’s owner, Dave Jones called me over.  It was apparent he recognized me as a regular.
            “I’d heard you were going to rebuild,” I explained.  “So I wanted to get a few pictures for my blog.  I expect a lot of people besides just me and my wife are happy to hear about this.”
            “Yes.  A lot of people have been bugging me about making a come-back.  The truth is I really like the place too.  It was a fun business.  So all along I’ve been thinking that if there was any realistic way of getting it back, I’d be considering it.  The problem was that even though I owned the business I didn’t own the building.  It didn’t make much sense for me to rebuild something I couldn’t be sure I’d be allowed to keep.  But when the owner agreed to sell what was left of the property, I figured that would make rebuilding a financially sound investment.” 
            And then he asked, “Do you want to take a look inside?”
            “You bet!”
            I was expecting much, much worse.  And it probably looked quite a bit sadder before all the charred materials had been removed.  But looking at it from a structural viewpoint — especially now that the roof has been framed — it really doesn’t appear that bad.  Not only is the floor intact, but the vinyl tiles haven’t been scorched to any noticeable degree.  My suspicion would be that the quick response from the Spokane Fire Department, plus the flood of water being shot through the front windows, largely insulated the floor from damage.  The floor will get a new covering, but, as Dave explained, only after 75 or so years of noticeable settling and sagging has been jacked-up and leveled as much as possible.
            Other than several holes possibly chopped by the fire department, the walls are intact.  Again, the extensive charring one would tend to expect is absent.  Even the rather funky wallpaper covering part of the interior east wall is little damaged — as is the small blackboard once used to chalk out the daily specials.  As for the original movie posters and antique photos from the restaurant’s early years — Dave reported that heat, smoke, and water had done their worst to the fragile movie posters.  The antique photos, though damaged, appeared salvageable.
            Dave noted that part of the reconstruction will be to pull the siding off the exterior of the building where possible and add insulation from the outside.  The hope there is to raise the energy efficiency of the building while retaining as much of the interior wall’s tile work as practical.
            As for the rest of the interior, all the booths and such have been stripped away.  Dave was able to save the original bar, and the original, stainless steel ice-cream fountain.  Those have been covered in plastic.  A protective framework of two by fours has been erected around the ice-cream dispensary.  As Dave said, “We don’t do much with the ice cream, but the fountain is original to the café.  It made it through the fire with little damage.  If I let the construction crew drop a roof-truss or something on it now, my customers would skin me alive.”
             Dave noted that even though a lot of the café’s older, non-conforming construction is grandfathered in as far as building codes are concerned, “With something this old, there’s usually a few things it makes sense to change.”
            He points to the floor plan he’s using to gauge the impact of each change on everything else.  “We’re thinking about installing a second restroom — making things more convenient for my patrons.  And I want to relocate the grill forward so I can visit with the guest while I’m cooking.  We want to move the counter back a little so we can put booths along the front windows — replacing the little tables and chairs we had there before.  Of course moving one thing six inches one way squeezes six inches out of whatever space was on the other side.  So it’s a give and take puzzle.”
            One thing Dave indicated he was very definitely going to change was the venting over the grill. “I’m putting in a high-volume hood to keep the smoke down.”  He said he’d noticed on one occasion that my wife had asked to move to a booth farther away from the grill.  “She said the smoke and heat was making it hard for her to breathe,” Dave recalled.  “Those kinds of complaints I take special note of.  A good hood should take care of that particular problem — and probably wouldn’t be bad for the cook’s health either.”
            “Other than things like that — moving things around a bit to get a better traffic flow and such – we’ll be trying to return things pretty much to what they were before.”
            With a contractor that specializes in restaurant rebuilds and an original staff that have indicated with only one exception their intention of returning to Ferguson’s, Dave expects he’ll be ready for business sometime in April.  For customers that have become dependent on Ferguson’s bacon and eggs at least once a week, that’s still much too long a wait.

Alcove - January 4, 2012.

Alcove - November 15, 2010.
Soda Fountain - March, 2011.
December 29, 2011.
The soda fountain under it's protective cage just to the right.

March, 2011.
Dave Jones at his grill.

December 29, 2011.
The same general area after the fire.

March, 2011.

December 29, 2011.

January 4, 2012.
From the southeast corner of Post and Garland.

1 comment:

Jeffrey R. Bunch said...

Great post! Read the news in the S-R, too, and it made my day. Dave is one of my favorite people and my wife and I love Ferguson's. The plans sound great. Thank you.