By Marla Meekhof
Above, Santa arrives at the Crescent in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.
A hot and muggy day welcomed the business people of downtown Spokane Falls when they opened shop on August 4, 1889. The West wind blew through the pioneer town stirring up the summer dust that coated the wooden sidewalks. Suddenly, a dark haze rose with the dust into the sky: Smoke! Within minutes, the streets rang with cries of “Fire!” and with alarm whistles from engines on the Northern Pacific railroad track. The alarms did little good, however, for by the end of the day, nearly the entire business district lay in smoldering ruins.
Nearly, but not quite. Because the winds had swept the fire east, one business block was left standing. That one block, the Crescent block running from Lincoln to Monroe and from Sprague to Riverside, contained a tiny 16-by-90- foot dry goods store that had just finished being stocked for its scheduled Grand Opening the following day. As young Robert B. Paterson and his wife stared out from the storefront at the ruins surrounding them, they must have wondered, “Can we go through with this?”
They did go through with it, and The Crescent Dry Goods Store opened “bright and fresh” on August 5, exactly as had been advertised in the previous day’s newspaper. As the rest of the downtown smoldered around it, a cramped store room became the unexpected phoenix to rise from the ashes of Spokane Falls, Washington Territory.
Paterson’s first customer that morning was a barber named Fred Zahn. He rushed in and explained that he had pulled a chair and razor from his burning shop. “Sell me some towels and I’ll be in business again!” he said. Paterson sold him what he needed, then sold out virtually his entire stock by the end of that first long day. That night, he frantically wired Marshall Field and Company of Chicago, saying simply, “Duplicate our first order in full, Comstock and Paterson’s Crescent Store, Spokane Falls, Washington Territory.”
The merchandise began rolling in, and four days later, the Spokesman-Review ran a prophetic advertisement. It read, “Proprietors of the ‘Crescent’ dry goods store in the Crescent block, are receiving new goods daily and are selling at regular prices. They have the only stock of dry goods in the city at present and the ladies will do well to call upon them. They should be encouraged, as they have come here to stay and will build up a first-class trade.” Because of its commitment to sell at ‘regular prices’ regardless of the golden opportunity to do otherwise, The Crescent did indeed build up a first-class and long-standing trade in Spokane.
Helping Robert Paterson in those first days were his wife Henrietta and two hired lady clerks. Within six months, however, he knew he needed more help to manage the rapidly expanding business and all the ladies who certainly “did well to call upon them.” In January 1890, business associate James Paine arrived in Spokane. Just a few months later, astounded by the continuing growth of his little dry goods store, the man behind the entire venture – Captain James M. Comstock – severed his business ties in the Midwest and brought his wife and two daughters to settle permanently in Spokane Falls. In November 1891, Comstock sent for Gene Shadle, and with his arrival, the legend of the “Men of The Crescent” was born.
Paine and Shadle poured themselves into the fledgling store, going so far as to sleep there at night. After the doors closed for the evening, they pulled a few blankets from the stock and laid out beds on the counters. Their hard work did not go unnoticed, even by the Spokesman-Review, which reported one day that the two businessmen were literally “buried in silks and satins,” after mountains of cloth fell off the shelf they were stacking and completely covered them!
When Comstock arrived in Spokane, it was already obvious that the store needed room to expand, so just one year after its dramatic opening, it moved to larger quarters at the corner of Sprague and Post, in the Whitten block. Even though this removed the store from the Crescent block, the two had become so intimately connected that The Crescent moniker moved with the store. Three years later The Crescent moved again to the Golden Gate block at Riverside and Lincoln, where it persevered through the panic of 1893, which leveled many Spokane businesses as the fire had done four years earlier. True to its tradition, The Crescent emerged from the rubble an even greater store, now located in the Lindelle block at Riverside and Washington.
The store continued to grow alongside its city, which had ballooned from a frontier village of 8,000 in 1889 to a small city of 29,000 in 1897. In 1898, the men of the Crescent finally purchased their own building. They paid $42,000 for the 68-foot frontage at Riverside and Wall, which would eventually expand to dominate several blocks of downtown Spokane.
The Crescent moved into its new three-story home on March 29, 1899, as Spokane prepared to move into the twentieth century. The dusty plank walls in front of the store gave way to brick streets, down which the first horseless carriages soon rattled. Street cars, railroads, and telephones began to connect Spokanites with each other and the world around them. Steel bridges shot across the Spokane River, and industrial plants rose along its banks.
As the city progressed and expanded, so did The Crescent. It expanded into a wholesale building behind the retail store, until the retail store expanded into the wholesale building, forcing the latter into an even larger structure. By this time, the store was 20-years old. The original staff of three had blossomed into staff of 300, and instead of being buried in silks and satins, executives Paine and Shadle were buried in paperwork.
The staff now included several style-conscious buyers, who in 1912 began traveling to Paris. In 1913, The Crescent’s buyer returned from France with the tango gown, a Parisian sensation that boasted Turkish harem-like trousers. A newspaper article summarized Spokane’s response: “Since the fashion of the day was long skirts that brushed the ground, The Crescent advertised that the tango gown would prevent women from scooping up dust and germs in their skirts. But Spokane wasn’t Paris and few were sold.”
The next year, however, the scandalous Directoire gown took the city by storm. When The Crescent displayed the skirt, with its side seam split nearly to the knee, the crowds outside the window blocked traffic on Riverside. Before long, up-and-coming young women were showing their lower legs at parties and even out on the street.
The Crescent raised eyebrows outside the city, too. In 1915, an eastern retailer visited Spokane and was so impressed by the city’s retail business, he wrote an article for The Dry Goods Economist, a national trade publication. In the article, he expressed amazement that in 26 years, The Crescent had risen out of a town of ashes to do $3,000,000 a year in business.
Paterson and his partners set down $125,000 of this revenue to purchase property at the corner of Main and Wall. Soon a two-story men’s clothing department occupied the spot. They immediately began planning a seven-story addition for Summer 1917, but before they broke ground, history decided to repeat itself: Instead of a fire, however, it was a declaration of war that threatened to thwart The Crescent’s plans.
Once again, the men and women of The Crescent plowed ahead, starting construction on May 1, 1917, as hundreds of Spokane’s citizens marched off to war. Construction moved slowly, but by the time the troops rolled back into the city two years later, a huge new store welcomed them and awaited their business.
In the frenzied prosperity that followed the end of the war, The Crescent got plenty of this business. All of Spokane seemed to be saying, “I’ll meet you under the clock,” referring to the huge four-faced clock installed in The Crescent in 1918. Spokane’s entire economy climbed to new heights during this period, and it was not prepared to come crashing back down in October of 1929. Business after business folded, figuratively reducing much of downtown Spokane to the smoldering ruins of 1889.
So exactly forty years after its first proverbial rise from the ashes, how would The Crescent weather this new challenge? In his golden anniversary history of The Crescent, Russell Bankson explains how: “Only businesses which were built well, upon the strongest foundations, were able to survive this cataclysm. And upon such a foundation The Crescent stood.” It stood upon its motto, “Be fair to everyone,” and upon its original proclamation the day after the Great Fire: “We are selling at regular prices.”
The Crescent refused to raise prices as shortages ran rampant and demand skyrocketed. It gave employment to hundreds who otherwise would have been forced into the bread lines. And when it was all over, it emerged even more firmly entrenched on its foundation and in the hearts of the people of Spokane.
In the thick of the Depression, The Crescent announced plans to modernize the entire store. President Paine told the Spokesman-Review, “While The Crescent is proud of its pioneer associations, it has always tried to keep abreast of the times and anticipate the wants of its patrons in the way of improved facilities for the conduct of its business.” He invested $75,000 in the alterations, which included the modern show windows that would become the pride of downtown Spokane.
In 1934, Robert A. Paterson, who had grown up alongside the store as the son of its cofounder, was named vice president of the company. His father had passed away ten years earlier, leaving behinds a seven-story legacy, as well as fond memories of “a man of well-balanced mind, even temperament and conservative habit,” according to biographer N.W. Durham. Many dedicated men and women joined Paterson in carrying the store through another war. Shortly after World War II, The Crescent built a seven-story addition on Main Avenue. More expansion followed with the construction of a four-story steel frame building on wall and with the supplantation in 1956 of the “Marble Bank” (First National Bank) by another four-story addition and ceramic veneer.
Meanwhile, just as many changes were going on inside The Crescent. In 1939, it became the second store in the Pacific Northwest to offer charger “plates,” the predecessors of the modern-day charge cards. In 1945, the first nylons since World War II appeared at The Crescent, and 108 pairs sold immediately, even though the store did not advertise them (in order to avoid a stampede). In 1948, when the progressive store unveiled the only escalators between the Twin Cities and Seattle, police were called in to handle the crowds. In 1952, The Crescent installed the largest air-conditioning unit in the Inland Empire.
Not every big event in The Crescent was planned, however. On August 15, 1954, the famous four-faced clock malfunctioned and every face told a different time. Suddenly, “I’ll meet you under the clock” became very complicated. The Spokesman-Review reported, “You ought to hear the ladies! Nobody can tell who’s late….so everybody screams, just to be sure.”
The clock remained the favorite meeting place, but The Crescent once again decided to expand, this time reaching much further than the building next door. In 1962, The Crescent’s owners opened a neighborhood shopping center in Northtown Mall. While they scouted a second location, Robert A. Paterson retired as president and was succeeded by his son, Robert L. Paterson. They settled on the University shopping area in the Spokane Valley, opening their second satellite store in August 1970.
After 80 years as Spokane’s signature department store The Crescent came face-to-face with the national pressure of the chain store. Large chains had been eating up independent stores for several years when The Crescent’s stockholders decided to take advantage of an unprecedented offer from Marshall Field and Company of Chicago, which held the reputation of operating the most outstanding department stores in the United States. So, in 1969, the three quarters of a million square feet of The Crescent merged with the national power of Marshall Field.
In 1982, Marshall Field itself merged with London-based B.A.T. Industries. Then in 1986, while loyal Spokane shoppers continued meeting under the clock, enjoying Reuben sandwiches and milkshakes at the lunch counter, and gazing open-mouthed at the animated Christmas windows, a group of Seattle investors and two Spokane groups were engaging in a bidding war for The Crescent.
The Seattle group won the bid, and they also purchased the Frederick & Nelson department store chain. The new owners assured the people of Spokane in the Spokesman-Review, “We understand the special relationship between The Crescent and Spokane. Other than some fine tuning, we don’t plan to change things very much.” They acquired The Crescent at a time when sales added up to $45 million a year, a 5 to 6 percent sales increase and a 10 percent profit drop from the record-setting year of 1983.
Two years later, the new owners decided to extend Frederick & Nelson’s name to their Spokane store. So, in 1988, almost 100 years after it first went up above a 16-foot storefront, the “Crescent” sign came down from the seven-story, multiblock downtown department store. The owners told Spokane that changing the name would not change anything else, but as one woman responded in the Spokane Chronicle, “I like Frederick’s in Seattle but I want The Crescent in Spokane.”
Frederick & Nelson continued operations in Spokane until 1993, when it changed hands again and finally closed its doors on July 24. So ended the dynasty of The Crescent.
According to hundreds of thousands of satisfied customers, “The Crescent is more than a store; it is a tradition.” If you mention The Crescent to any longtime Spokane resident, be prepared to sit down over coffee and listen to a flood of fond memories. Some people will talk about the reasonable prices and the quality merchandise, but far more will tell stories about bridal showers in the tea room, first dates at the soda fountain, rendezvous under the clock, pictures with Santa, and crowds of children clustered around the electric train set.
The story of The Crescent is much more than a list of dates and names. It is a mural of faces and memories. It is the history of Spokane.