Spokane Falls Community College

  • By Jennifer Gorman
  • Posted 9/02/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21171

In the 1960s, Spokane business, trade, and community leaders began to prioritize the need for a two-year community college for vocational education, and in 1963 an application to convert the Spokane Technical and Vocational School into a community college was approved by the Washington State Board of Education. Thus the first campus of Spokane Community College was established at Mission Avenue and Greene Street. Fast-growing enrollment resulted in a second campus facility being opened in 1967 at Fort George Wright in west Spokane. This campus, named Spokane Falls Community College, was designed by Spokane architects Culler, Gale, Martell, and Ericson in a Modern design indicative of the mid-twentieth century. Although much of the Spokane Falls campus has been altered, some of the original buildings remain, including the library, the fine arts building (to be demolished in 2022), the communications building, and the gym. By 2021, the combined enrollment of the two Spokane community college campuses was about 30,000.

The Makings of Spokane

Spokane, and the Spokane Falls Community College campus, sit within the traditional territory of the Spokane Tribe of Indians. The Spokane spoke an Interior Salishan language, and their territory centered on the Spokane River. Their settlement pattern was of three types: permanent settlement along the Spokane River in winter, temporary summer fishing villages, and summer camps where they hunted, gathered plants, and explored for minerals and lithics.

The first non-Native settlers in the Spokane area were fur traders and missionaries in the early part of the nineteenth century. In 1810, the Canadian North West Company established the Spokane House, a fur-trading post about 10 miles west of present-day Spokane. Missionaries Elkanah Walker and Cushing Eells set up the Tshimakain Mission, about 25 miles northwest of Spokane. Subsequent to the establishment of these sites, more non-Native settlers arrived over the next several decades, drawn to the area by the Spokane River falls and its potential as an economic hub.

By the 1880s, Spokane Falls, renamed Spokane in 1891, was the main trade center of several industrial, commercial, and institutional activities in the region. Gold, silver, and other valuable minerals discovered in the Coeur d'Alene region of northern Idaho enticed mining prospectors and settlers to the Spokane area as early as the 1870s. The booming timber and mining industries brought the Northern Pacific Railroad to Spokane in 1881. Fertile soil and wheat fields to the south of Spokane generated an agriculture industry that continues to the present day.

The establishment of these industries made Spokane the trading center of the Inland Empire. Seven railroad companies laid tracks through Spokane, which accommodated the mining and lumber industries and connected Spokane west to Puget Sound, south through the Palouse, and east toward mining country. Spokane's downtown core was bustling with activity and prosperity with approximately 5,000 passengers traveling to and from Spokane every month. By 1886, the population of Spokane reached 2,000. Education in Spokane became a priority. In 1887, Gonzaga College (now University) was established, and Sacred Heart Hospital opened. Downtown businesses included flour mills, brick manufacturers, saw mills, general office buildings, lodging and hotels, banks, and mercantile establishments.

Education for the Community

Through the twentieth century, Spokane retained its role as the Inland Empire's trading center. The first vocational education program was operated by the YMCA as early as 1907. It was called the Jenkins Institute, endowed by Col. David P. Jenkins, a local philanthropist and Civil War veteran. The Jenkins Institute was exclusively for young men who could not afford to attend high school classes, as their help was needed in the work force to provide for their families. By 1916, North Central High School operated a print shop, the first vocational training course to be offered by the city's public schools. Over the next several decades, more vocational courses became available through public education programs at North Central and Lewis and Clark high schools. Students could be trained for apprenticeships in baking, plumbing, machine work, and cosmetology. In 1940, the Spokane Trading School opened at Hawthorne Elementary School, which had been remodeled using $70,000 in state matching grants. 

The U.S. entry into World War II created a rising demand for personnel with vocational skills in machining, aircraft fabrication, electrical systems, welding, and other skills for the war effort. As this demand grew, the city's Department of Vocational Education began searching for a permanent site for the Spokane Trading School, renamed the Spokane Technical and Vocational School (STVS) in 1953. In 1954, STVS Superintendent John A. Shaw negotiated the purchase of 9.4 acres of land at Mission Avenue and Greene Street as the new location for the vocational school.

While there were several four-year universities in or near Spokane, including Gonzaga, Whitworth, Eastern Washington (Cheney) and Washington State (Pullman), advocates saw a need for a two-year community college that could offer either a terminal-type of education or transferable credits to a four-year institution. A community college would give high school graduates an alternative to high tuition payments at a four-year institution, boost the local economy with the increase of jobs at the college, and prepare thousands of people with technical and vocational skills for the workforce.

In 1961, the first attempt at petitioning the state government for funds to start a Spokane community college failed, but in 1963 a new application was approved, and the Spokane Technical and Vocational School was renamed Spokane Community College, with Dr. Walter S. Johnson as its first president. Enrollment the first year was 1,298 students. In 1964, the enrollment jumped to 2,065, after which voters approved a $1.8 million bond for construction of a new facility on 118 acres of government property at Fort George Wright in west Spokane.

Home at Fort Wright

Fort George Wright (commonly known as Fort Wright) dates to the nineteenth century. In 1896, Congress passed funding to establish a new military post in Spokane that would replace Fort Spokane, Fort Walla Walla, and Fort Sherman in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Despite local hopes, the fort never grew into a large regiment, never housing more than 500 men. During World War II, it became a convalescent home for the U.S. Army Air Corps (later renamed the Air Force). After the war, it served as housing for Air Force personnel until it was abandoned by the military in 1957. In 1960, a portion of the grounds was taken over by the Sisters of the Holy Name convent. In 1990, that portion of land was obtained by Mukogawa Women's Academy, a Japanese girl's college, which continues to manage the property today [2021]. To the east of this position at Fort George Wright is the site of Spokane Falls Community College. 

Construction on the campus began in 1966 from plans drawn by the Spokane firm Culler, Gale, Martell, and Ericson, which operated during the 1950s and 1960s. The firm changed names several times over the course of its existence; it was commonly known as Culler, Gale, Martell, Norrie and Davis, Architects and Engineers. When a Spokesman-Review reporter visited the construction site in August 1966, they observed: "At present the 118-acre former Army fort seems little more than a construction engineer's battlefield. Heavy equipment and mounds of earth dot the grass prairie overlooking the Spokane River. The projected architectural drawings seem to have little relation to this big, empty field" ("SCC Expanding ..."). 

The original campus featured eight new buildings, for administration, physical and natural science, library, social science, business science, communications, fine arts, and gym. Outlined footprints for four more buildings were included in the 1965 drawings, and seven extant buildings from the old Fort Wright campus remained on the plans, including what would later become the Photography Building. The eight new buildings were constructed to look similar, featuring a Modern architectural style indicative of the mid-twentieth century. Features such as repeated bays, brick walls with aluminum window surrounds, and wide and wavy concrete eaves were featured on the new buildings. 

Classes began in 1967. By this time, the combined SCC campus facilities accommodated 4,500 students. The development of two campuses resulted in a 15-point reorganization policy presented by SCC president Johnson in which he advocated for the separation of the campuses into separate college entities, each offering students different training courses, thus giving students a wider variety of course offerings. Johnson advocated strongly for accessible community college education, saying in 1970: "It is the best chance for some Americans, the only chance for some and the second chance for those who have tried other educational programs and given up. The acceptance of the responsibility to serve all persons -- regardless of their social, cultural or educational background -- with relevant, low-cost, high-quality education has brought the community college a widening recognition as a truly comprehensive institution and the well-deserved title of 'people's college'" ("SCC Division ..."). 

Follwing a vote by Spokane's school board in 1970, Spokane Community College retained its campus name at the Mission Avenue location, and the Fort Wright campus was renamed Spokane Falls Community College. According to the Spokesman-Review: "At their April meeting, the trustees proposed the name College of Mount Spokane, but the proposal received strong objection from faculty, students and spectators. When trustees proposed and voted on the new name Thursday, there were no comments offered by board members or spectators. Trustee Eldon Reiley said the board had considered many suggested names and the historical implications and geographical relationships. He said Spokane Falls Community College relates to the early name of the city of Spokae, that river beautification is an integral part of city development, and that it points to the Indian contributions to the community" ("It's Spokane Falls ..."). 

Expanding Catalogs

Through the 1970s, more courses were added to the schools' catalogs. Programs such as domestic appliances and vending machine repair, food market management, fire science, and fluid power technology were listed. In 1973, SCC added an optometric technician program, the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. Lloyd Stannard, SCC president from 1974 to 1977, wrote, "... the comprehensive community college is committed to a well-educated citizenry for a successful democratic society. That which is offered should be useful to both society and the individual. Thus, it is elementary that we arrange an educational environment in which it is possible for the student to find his own way toward full development. Decisions as to what should be taught and the method are made by reference to the usefulness of the knowledge of everyday life" (History, SCC website). 

By the late 1970s, concern among teachers about balancing a liberal arts education with vocational training was occurring at the community colleges. Said Ramon LaGrandeur, college president from 1977 to 1983, "I don't feel I'm a vocational educator. I'm interested in a comprehensive community college that includes both liberal art programs and vocational programs" (History, SCC website). With that, the colleges added more programs tailored to the needs of the community. Among them were trailer rebuilding and refinishing, personnel management technician, biomedical equipment technician, professional sales training, dietetic assistant, industrial mechanic, and corrections technology. 

Changing With the Times

In the 1980s, the state issued budget cuts for community college funding and enrollment was reduced, resulting in a reduction of staff hours. These changes prompted the colleges to reexamine their mission and image. By the mid-1980s, educational programs were turning toward "cooperative education," which had students working with businesses, industries, and government agencies in paid apprentice-type relationships, often resulting in full-time jobs for students. Computer science was an emerging industry with a wide array of studies, including math, computer technology, machining, electronics, robotics, management, communications, and CAD. Over the years, as programs were considered obsolete by the times, courses were cut, such as printing and watch repair.

Together, the Spokane campuses are under the jurisdiction of Washington State Community College District 17 (also known as Community Colleges of Spokane, or CCS), which serves six counties: Spokane, Pend O'Reille, Ferry, Stevens, Whitman, and Lincoln. Today [2021] the Spokane Falls campus includes 25 administrative, academic, and support buildings. Some 30,000 students are enrolled at SCC and SFCC. In addition to these two campus locations, the CCS serves six rural education sites throughout its district. 


David H. Stratton, editor, Spokane & the Inland Empire (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1991); N. W. Durham, History of the City of Spokane and Spokane County, Washington, Vol 1 (Spokane: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1912); "History of Community Colleges of Spokane," pamphlet, Community Colleges of Spokane, May 1983, on file in Northwest Room, Spokane Public Library; "Why Spokane Needs a Community College," pamphlet, unknown author, 1963, on file in Northwest Room, Spokane Public Library; "CCS Fast Facts," Community Colleges of Spokane website accessed July 1, 2021 (http://ccs.spokane.edu/About-CCS/CCS-Data-Central/CCS-Fast-Facts.aspx); Lee Nilsson, "Welcome to Historic Fort George Wright," Spokane Historical, August 1, 2018 (http://spokanehistorical.org/items/show/173); "Culler, Gale, Martell, Norrie and Davis, Architects and Engineers," Pacific Coast Architechture Database (PCAD), 2018, accessed July 1, 2021 (http://pcad.lib.washington.edu/firm/1084/); Michael Houser, "Spokane Falls Community College, Historic Property Inventory Form," October 1, 2003, accessed from WISAARD on August 8, 2018; "Spokane To Fix Old Clock Tower," Longview Daily News, May 1, 1973, p. 22; "Trustees Discuss New Courses," Spokane Spokesman-Review, April 20, 1973, p. 10; "Clock Repair," Ibid., February 15, 1974, p. 4; Bart Preecs, "WSU's Enrollment Declines to 16,300," Spokane Chronicle, October 4, 1983, p. 7; "SCC Campus Nearly Done," Ibid., July 23, 1976, p. 5; Harriet J. Connor, "Company’s Coming -- Are You Ready?" Ibid., January 16, 1974, p. 37; Phone interview with SFCC librarian, August 2, 2018, notes in possession of author. 

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