In praise of imperfection

Tirrell’s chicken and what makes Sandpoint great

By John T. Reuter
Reader Editor Emeritus

The cafe next door to the Panida Theater had caught fire. As firefighters rushed to put out the blaze, they caused water damage to a small, lower section of the Panida’s neighboring wall. Mr. Tirrell, a plasterer, was hired to make the repair.

While the work was structurally sound, theater proprietor F.C. Weskil was not satisfied with Tirrell’s finished product. He wanted the Panida’s elaborate mural, including one of its phoenixes, restored.

“No bird, no pay,” Weskil declared over Tirrell’s objections that he was not a painter.

John T. Reuter. Courtesy photo.

The result was Tirrell’s chicken. Despite bearing only a vague resemblance to the phoenixes otherwise gracing the Panida’s walls, Weskil was satisfied after just a brief glance and immediately paid.

Over a decade ago, I remember sitting in a Panida board meeting talking about restoration and being shocked when someone suggested painting over Tirrell’s now locally infamous creation to bring back the original design. The proposal was immediately dismissed, as everyone else in the room felt as I did. But this brief conflict illustrates the terms of a longer debate that’s been going on for decades about Sandpoint’s ideal future.

One side is powered by the belief that Sandpoint is on the cusp of being another great small-town destination. It has so much promise, so much going for it, and it just needs a bit of tidying up with the right vision applied. Perhaps a few more amenities and a new entrance with a welcoming arch built hundreds of miles away but obscurely referencing some bit of history — if you look at it from the right angle and have it explained to you.

On the other side are those of us who celebrate Sandpoint for its untidiness. Who fervently believe that what makes Sandpoint great is its imperfections, its quirks, its grit. We delight in a town whose only “five star” establishment is a “dive bar.”

In the case of the Panida, this struggle could be understood as whether we ought to think of the theater as a palace or Sandpoint’s living room. The reality is that, in their own way, both of these are true, but it’s a matter of balance and emphasis. To me, the “living room” mindset must always win out.

Perhaps the most important advice I can provide is to be wary of giant transformative projects. We certainly did our share of significant projects when I was on the Sandpoint City Council, but when we did them well it was usually because we remembered that the old and loved is more important than the new and exciting.

For example, preserving the Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail was certainly a big project. But the vision was humble: ensure people can continue to enjoy a walk along the shore as they have for decades.

The same is true of keeping the historic train depot in operation: preserve Idaho’s last Amtrak stop in a place where you could run directly from a downtown bar as you heard the train pulling in and still catch your ride (an act I saw pulled off more than once by the current management of this publication).

The truth is that greatness takes time. It is rarely built or even conceived overnight. It comes about through accidents and stubborn small business owners and brilliant plasterers-turned-painters.

Greatness can also be fragile at times. A bit of paint and the wrong idea can mean the loss of something special forever.

On the other hand, we can’t simply freeze things in time and expect to keep what we love. Affordability, for example, demands new and more housing. But we should be cautious that alleged progress doesn’t sweep away what we treasure in search of something new.

Progress must be rooted in who we uniquely are rather than mimicking the generic dreams of others. They must make room for humble individual actors to imprint their own quirks. We must protect the chicken.

John T. Reuter is the former president of the Sandpoint City Council; former chair of the Panida Theater; former president of the Downtown Sandpoint Business Association; and co-founder, former-publisher and editor emeritus of the Sandpoint Reader.

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