By Patti Redd
This article originally appeared in The Davenport Hotel, a book published by Nostalgia Magazine, and we share it here in memory of John Reed, one of Spokane’s beloved icons. (The Davenport Hotel is now out of print. Photo above courtesy of the Davenport Hotel.)
John Reed has been on a journey with The Davenport Hotel since 1942, and he remained along for the ride for nearly eighty years.
When he was just thirteen years old, John went to work at The Davenport as a busboy in the premier dining room of Spokane – The Italian Gardens. “I started there just after World War II broke out. The men were all being drafted, and they didn’t have any men to work,” said John. “Mr. Davenport got me a special work permit because, of course, I was underage.”
Working under hotel owner Louis Davenport, he learned about the art of elegance and expectation of perfection. “Mr. Davenport was a perfectionist and required the employees to be the same,” John recalled. “I remember he would come in and check the table set-ups. If they weren’t right, we’d do it again and again until it was right.”
John was in seventh grade the year he worked for Mr. Davenport. On evenings and weekends he cleaned the dishes off the tables, rolled the dirty dishes to the kitchen in a cart, and then reset the tables with their linens, place settings, and fresh flowers. He made about 35 cents an hour, plus the tips that were shared by the waitresses. His uniform was a white shirt, black trousers, clip-on black bow tie, and the obligatory white gloves.
“In the 1940s, The Italian Gardens was the place in town for elegant dining and dancing,” he said. “I remember fresh flowers everywhere all the time; it was just a beautiful, beautiful room.” Located in the northeast corner of the dining room was a lavish garden with waterfalls and a goldfish pond. Through the evening hours, musicians entertained restaurant patrons, playing tunes perfect for dancing or simply listening.
The grand old dame of West Sprague Avenue was a pivotal spot for Spokane’s downtown social life in mid-century. “Downtown was hopping until 4:00 in the morning every day,” said John.
Even though the hotel employed hundreds of workers, Mr. Davenport seemed to take a personal look at every employee’s performance and work quality. He wanted his hotel guests to have the best – excellent cuisine, perfect presentation, and outstanding service.
Fifteen years passed after John’s first experience as a Davenport Hotel employee. Then in 1958, while working another job, he received a telephone call from his cousin Gladys, who worked at the hotel as a switchboard operator: “Hey, John, The Davenport Hotel needs a graveyard bellman. Want to come back?”
“You bet,” John agreed.
So he returned, working for a starting wage of just over one dollar an hour. As a Davenport bellman, John had to take an oath – a vow of silence. “We were to keep our eyes and ears open and our mouths shut,” he explained.
Greeting and assisting famous politicians and celebrities became commonplace for John. In the 1960s, he met President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and Hubert Humphrey during a political rally held in Spokane.
“I remember Mr. Humphrey came over to me, shook my hand, and introduced himself. I guess he wanted me to know who he was. …as if I didn’t,” John said wryly.
From 1958 until the hotel closed in 1985, The Davenport Hotel and John Reed provided the best in elegant hospitality to a blur of celebrities, such as Raymond Burr, Jim Nabors (a “pretty neighborly kind of guy,” according to John), Vincent Price, Jerry Lewis, Bing Crosby’s sons, Les Brown, Nat King Cole, Bob Hope, and many others. “I wish now I had gotten their autographs,” mused John.
During the 1980s, the hotel played host to a much more unusual lineup of guests, namely cattle and sheep. Strange as it may seem, “the ladies of the lobby” show was quite a hit. Cattlemen in the region brought their best cattle and sheep, blocked off First Avenue and Lincoln Street for the animals, and set to grooming and cleaning them.
After they were properly dolled up, the animals were led around through the lobby of the hotel and then auctioned off to the highest bidders, who paid as much as $35,000 per animal.
“Once they drove a small cow up in a limousine,” said John. “I thought it was a very beautiful presentation. Folks came in from miles around to see the show.”
When the hotel closed on June 30, 1985, John stayed on. Although he exchanged his traditional bellman’s uniform for a maintenance shirt, he arrived promptly at work every morning like always…and longed for the day the “grand old dame” would be returned to its former beauty and elegance.
“She has so much to offer and so much charm. It would be a blessing for Spokane to have her back as THE hotel again,” he said in November of 1999.
John finally got his wish in the fall of 2002, when a stunningly remodeled Davenport Hotel threw open its doors once again. John was right there, back in his bellman uniform, to welcome a new generation of guests to his grand old dame.