European-American settlement began on the shores of Commencement Bay in the 1850s with Swedish immigrant Nicolas De Lin’s sawmill providing what little industry the settlement enjoyed. Although blessed by a deep natural harbor, the 1870 the United States census counted only78 people in Tacoma, which took its name from the Puyallup Indian name for the mountain (Mt. Rainier today) that loomed over the bay. Like many a 19th-century American frontier town Tacoma’s fate would be determined by the vagaries of the railroad.
In the 1870s Tacoma hit the jackpot - the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad’s transcontinental railroad across the America’s northern tier was headed for Commencement Bay. Tacoma became known as the “City of Destiny” and the population between 1880 and 1890 increased from a few heads more than 1,000 to over 36,000. In 1888 alone more than 1,000 buildings were erected in town.
In every census since then the population of Tacoma has grown, to over 200,000, a statistic that belies the sometimes dodgy fortunes of the town. When gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1898 Tacoma lost its early rivalry with Seattle as the dominant city of Puget Sound. But there was enough growth to go around and Tacoma experienced its greatest building boom between 1902 and 1912 as its waterfront was lined with over a mile of wheat warehouses and the city port became one of the busiest on the West Coast. The Depression hit Tacoma harder than most and after the boost from war-related industries around World War II faded downtown Tacoma declined more rapidly than most similar mid-sized industrial cities. At its low point in the 1970s mayor Harold Moss famously described his city as looking “bombed out.”
But as its misfortunes may have been magnified compared to other towns so to has downtown Tacoma’s revival been more energetic. Our walking tour of the City of Destiny will dip back to see buildings from those original days of heady optimism and we will start above the town’s greatest natural asset, Commencement Bay...
A Street between 8th and 9th streets
Bewitched by views of Commencement Bay and Mt. Rainier, Tacoma has been sprucing up this ground since about 1894 when Ebenezer Roberts spread some elm seedlings on the hillside beside Engine House No. 6, constructed in 1891 as the town’s first brick firehouse. The elms mingled with the original fir and cedar trees that had been retained along the city’s eastern boundary. This is what remains of the park after intrusions from the Schuster Parkway. The totem pole has been a fixture in downtown Tacoma since 1903 when a deep-pocketed businessman commissioned it. Totem poles were not on the artistic repertoire of Puget Sound peoples and an Alaskan carver was commissioned to craft the ceremonial pole that describes a tribal succession of the Eagle Clan of the North. Billed as the “World’s Tallest Totem Pole,” it was originally sited a block away on 10th Street but was moved here in 1953.
WALK TO THE NORTHERN END OF THE PARK AND EXIT ON 8TH STREET. WALK UP TWO SHORT BLOCKS TO PACIFIC AVENUE. ACROSS THE STREET IS...
Pacific Avenue between 7th and 9th streets
This slice of the Victorian Age began as a high-end shopping district in the 1880s but came to gain notoriety for its saloons, bordellos and gambling dens, known familiarly as “Whiskey Row.” Most of the architecture features the Italianate style, the design of choice for most downtown commercial buildings in late 19th century America. Hallmarks of the style include window hoods and roof brackets. The activities on Whiskey Row were not winked at and after years of crusading Washington put Prohibition into law in 1915 - four years before alcohol was banned nationwide. Other standouts on Whiskey Row include the Olympus Hotel (815 Pacific Avenue), a respectable joint built in 1909 by Olympia Brewing Company founder Leopold Schmidt. Before that, however, it was Harry Morgan’s Gambling House and Comique Theater that was considered ground zero for anything immoral that took place in Tacoma. Harry Morgan was of Maryland stock who showed up in Tacoma in 1884 when he was in his mid-thirties and straight away established himself as “Boss Sport,” running the biggest stakes gambling games in town. He opened Morgan’s Theater in 1888 which two years before he died unexpectedly in 1890 at the age of 40.
HEAD NORTH ON PACIFIC AVENUE, TOWARDS 7TH STREET.
701 Pacific Avenue
This narrow, block-deep structure was erected in 1893 as the Bradley Hotel which took advantage of its neighbors, the Northern Pacific Railroad headquarters and City Hall, to fill its guest ledgers.
east side of Pacific Avenue at foot of 7th Street
This circular column of rusticated stones sporting three drinking fountains was donated to the city in 1908 by Angelo Vance Fawcett, a four-time Tacoma mayor with terms spreading across three decades (1896-97, 1910-11, 1914-19 and 1922-26). Fawcett battled with the Northern Pacific Railroad and was instrumental in establishing the municipal Port of Tacoma that broke the railroad’s shipping monopoly. His efforts got him recalled from office in 1911. The fountain is a copy of one Fawcett had seen on the wharf at Long Beach, California. It was originally located at the junction of Broadway, St. Helen’s and 9th streets but was moved here in in the 1940s into the shadow of the building that once housed his former adversary.
Northern Pacific Building
621 Pacific Avenue at northeast corner of 7th Street
The Northern Pacific Railroad terminus made a city of 45,000 at Tacoma within years of its arrival in 1885. In its nascent days Tacoma was a company town and this is the perch from where the Northern Pacific Railroad lorded over its domain. The grand Italianate headquarters came from the drawing board of Charles B. Talbot and was erected in 1888. The railroad sold the building to the City in 1922 for $50,000 and officials promptly demolished the southern portion for a new jail. When the jail was torn down in 1974 fortunately the remainder of the Northern Pacific headquarters was maintained and restored.
Old City Hall
625 South Commerce Street at northeast corner of 7th Street
Only twenty-some years after its founding Tacoma boasted this magnificent Italian Renaissance brick and terra cotta edifice. Architect E.A. Heatherton sailed up from San Francisco in 1892 to construct the building for the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce. Once underway it was quickly adapted for government use and the two groups swapped properties. Heatherton outfitted the composition with eight-foot thick walls at the base and a bracketed campanile tower under a copper tiled roof. The clock and chimes came courtesy of Hugh C. Wallace, a future ambassador to France, in 1904 as a memorial to his daughter. The government stayed until 1959 and after dodging the wrecking ball during ten years of vacancy the old city hall was reborn as space for offices, shops, and restaurants.
WALK UP 7TH STREET TO COMMERCE STREET AND TURN RIGHT
565 Commerce Street
The Benevolent Protective Order of Elks were founded in New York City in 1868 in the theater district. At first they referred to themselves as the Jolly Corks. The Tacoma Lodge, BPOE #174, organized in 1890 and this Beaux Arts structure cut into the hillside became their first permanent lodge in 1915. Architect Edouard Frere Champney, who made his reputation designing world fair buildings for Portland’s Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in 1904, Seattle’s Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1907 and San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, provided the design. Champney extended his classical sensibilities to the grounds with the elegant Spanish Steps that tie Broadway to Commerce Street. In 1965, with a membership roster of 12,000, Elks Lodge #174 was one of the largest chapters in the world and departed for more commodious digs that featured a swimming pool, bowling alley and 1,000-seat auditorium. That lodge was pulled down in 2012 and the Elks are now ensconced in a more modest facility at their golf course on Cedar Street.
WALK UP TO BROADWAY ON THE SPANISH STEPS ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF THE BUILDING. TURN LEFT.
Abbott Building/Passages Building
The Abbott Building was constructed as a five-story hotel beginning in 1889. Architects Albert Sutton and James Pickles tapped the brawny Richardsonian Romanesque style, then popular for large-scale downtown buildings for the design. Based on the works of influential Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson, the style made abundant use of bold arches and massive rough-cut stone elements. Although the large arched windows have disappeared under recent renovations you can still see the powerful arched entryway carved from gray Tetino sandstone. The Abbott was intended as a tony hotel but in 1905 the interior was gutted and converted into the Savoy Theater. A fire in 1914 threatened the building with demolition but it staved off the wrecking ball to undergo the first of several rehabilitations that have brought it to this appearance.
north side of 9th street at intersection of Broadway and St. Helen’s Street
Henry Clay Bostwick was a doctor in Tacoma’s formative days and was instrumental in starting the town’s first bank. He erected the flatiron Bostwick Block in 1889 that anchored three structures in this triangular lot. The others, the Tacoma Theater and the Gross Brothers Store are no longer standing. The upper three floors of the Bostwick operated as a hotel and the Western Trust bank manned the ground floor. When it was built the exterior was finished in a pattern of panels and moldings typically reserved for interiors but the outside has long been covered with the stucco seen today. According to tradition, the custom of standing for the Star Spangled Banner began in the Bostwick in 1893 with Tacoma mayor Rossel G. O’Brien.
9th Street between Commerce Street and Broadway
Architect William L. Stoddart was famous in the early 1900s for designing big-city-style high-rise hotels in towns of modest size. Aimed at the newly minted class of traveling businessmen, these hotels featured fewer frills than the grand statement hotels of an earlier era. Nearly all of Stoddart’s dozens of hotels were built east of the Appalachian Mountains - except the Winthrop. Raised in a Renaissance Revival style in 1925, the 12-story brick hotel with a stone base reigned as Tacoma’s premier hotel for a half-century. It carries the name of Theodore Winthrop, the early explorer who is said to have first given Mt. Rainier the name “Mt. Tacoma.” The building received some of the town’s first urban renewal money to be redeveloped as senior housing but has navigated troubled financial waters since its glory days as a hotel.
TURN RIGHT ON 9TH STREET. LOOK UP ST. HELEN’S STREET TO YOUR RIGHT TO SEE...
Rhodes Medical Arts Building/Tacoma Municipal Building
740 St. Helens Avenue
In 1929 investors backed a plan by developer Henry A. Rhodes for a full-service building in Tacoma’s central business district that would house facilities to handle any health needs of the community. With financing arranged, Seattle architect John Graham was retained to design the city’s first medical center. He created a colossal Art Deco building that climbed 17 stories and 233 feet - Tacoma’s tallest building by 12 inches, which it would be for more than 50 years. In 1977 Tacoma purchased the Medical Arts Building and by 1980 it was sheltering the city government.
310 South 9th Street at southwest corner of Court C
Tacoma has been coming to this corner for entertainment since the Lyceum operated here in 1895. By the time the Star Theater was presenting vaudeville acts in 1900 this intersection was firmly entrenched as the town’s Theater District. The Star burned in 1908 and was rebuilt in 1917 on plans drawn by Tacoma architect Roland E. Borhek. Borhek’s exuberant Beaux Arts music box was managed by the Sidney Grauman theateter chain and was trumpeted as “the ultimate photoplay house” when it opened its doors on September 7, 1918. The Rialto followed the typical arc of decline suffered by all downtown America movie houses battling television and suburban flight but, unlike many of its theater cousins, the stage survived and was resucitated in the 1990s by the Broadway Center For the Performing Arts.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS DOWN THE HILL TO BROADWAY.
901 Broadway at southwest corner of 9th Street
Born on the Greek island of Andros, Alexander Pantages spent his twenties digging the Panama Canal, boxing in San Francisco and prospecting for gold in the Yukon Territory. He began his career as a show business exhibitor in Dawson City, Yukon as a partner to saloon and brothel-keeper “Klondike Kate” Rockwell, operating a small, but highly successful vaudeville and burlesque theatre, the Orpheum. In 1902, at the age of 27, he was in Seattle opening the Crystal Theater and launching a chain of theaters across the West in Canada and the United States. His go-to architect was B. Marcus Priteca, a Scot, who designed 22 theaters for Pantages and another 128 for other theater owners. Here in 1916 Priteca converted a block that once contained the town’s first library and first department store, into a spectacular version of the Palace of Versailles combining an office building and theater. Beginning in 1918 as only a live theater the Pantages was adapted for motion pictures in 1926 and operated over the years as The Orpheum and the Roxy. In the 1970s a restoration brought back the Pantages marquee as the cornerstone of a revitalized Tacoma entertainment scene and today it is one of oldest Pantages theaters still raising the curtain.
TURN RIGHT ON BROADWAY.
Pythian Temple/Commencement Lodge Number 7
The Order of the Knights of Pythias was begun by Justus Henry Rathbone as an organization based on peace and friendship in the midst of the Civil War; Washington Lodge No. 1, with 13 members, was organized in the nation’s capital on February 19, 1864. Commencement Lodge No.7 took flight in Tacoma in October of 1881 after thirteen hours of initiation ceremonies. By 1906 the lodge had accumulated a sizable war chest of funds which they turned loose in an effort to construct “the most beautiful Castle Hall in the West.” Go-to Tacoma architect Frederick Henry Heath was hired for the job and he created one of Tacoma’s finest representatives of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture, rendered in Tenino sandstone. Ceremonial halls, including the main Castle Hall, and rooms for lodge activities occupied the upper floors and retail space was at ground level.
955 Broadway at northeast corner of 11th Street
Frank W. Woolworth launched one of the world’s greatest retailing empires, built on nickels and dimes, from a storefront on the corner of Bleecker and Genesse streets in Utica, New York back in 1879. Despite a promising start, that store would fail within the year and Woolworth would have to perfect his business model in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There were two Woolworth stores in Tacoma in 1950 when an Art Deco-flavored four-story “superstore” opened here with entrances on Commerce Street and Broadway in 1950. This corner is some of the most historic ground in Tacoma, first occupied by the First Presbyterian Church and then, in 1890, by the Fidelity Building, designed by pioneers of the modern skyscraper Daniel Hudson Burnham and John Wellborn Root of Chicago. The twelve-story Fidelity Building (six when constructed) was demolished in favor of the new Woolworth’s store which operated until January 1994; today its store windows are used as public artscape for the streets of Tacoma.
TURN LEFT ON 11TH STREET.
950 Pacific Avenue at northwest corner of 11th Street
In 1890 William Ross Rust purchased the struggling two-year old Ryan Smelter, a lead processing operation. he changed the name to Tacoma Smelting & Refining Company, modernized the facility and constructing and a company town for his employees, naming the place “Smelter.” In 1905 Rust sold the operation to American Smelter and Refining Company for $5.5 million. He used some of the money to construct one of the town’s most memorable mansions on I Street and finance this office tower in 1920. Albert Sutton provided the Renaissance Revival design for the 12-story skyscraper, using sandstone and terra cotta to face the building.
1019 Pacific Avenue at northeast corner of 11th Street
This 15-story tower began life as a project by the Scandinavian-American Bank but the baby was still-born when the bank failed in January of 1921. Work stopped on the steel skeleton for three years until the Washington-California Company assumed title to the property, executed a redesign and brought the Renaissance Revival 18-story tower into the world on June 29, 1925. At the time it was the tallest building in Washington without a Seattle address.
TURN RIGHT ON PACIFIC AVENUE.
National Realty Building/Puget Sound National Bank Building/Key Bank Center
1119 Pacific Avenue
When this 16-story, 232-foot tower was completed in 1911 it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River, a title it held for three years until Smith Tower was built in Seattle. Architect Frederick Henry Heath used terra cotta to dress his French Renaissance Revival building that was the first constructed on the West Coast to withstand earthquakes. Heath was a midwesterner who started his career in Minneapolis before coming to Washington and launching his own practice in 1901. Individually and as senior partner in various firms, Heath is responsible for many of Tacoma’s landmarks, including this one.
National Bank of Tacoma
1123 Pacific Avenue at northeast corner of 12th Street
The Pacific National Bank was chartered in 1885, one year after Tacoma was incorporated. In 1893 the country was crippled by a financial depression - there were 21 banks in Tacoma before the crash, only seven emerged on the other side of the crisis. Pacific National was one of the survivors; in 1913 it merged with the National Bank of Commerce to become the National Bank of Tacoma. The bank moved into this restrained Italian Renaissance vault in 1921, dominated by a set of bronze double doors that measure seven feet by fifteen feet. The building boasts Wilkeson sandstone, quarried south of Tacoma and known for its quality. The architects were Albert Sutton and Harrison A. Whitney of Portland. When its banking days were done the space harbored the Tacoma Art Museum from 1971 until 2003.
TURN LEFT ON 12TH STREET. TURN LEFT ON A STREET.
1102 South A Street, west side between 11th and 12th streets
This building marked the first appearance of the federal government in Tacoma and when it opened in 1910 the Tacoma Daily Ledger trumpeted, “Tacoma’s magnificent federal building will be formally opened this month with an informal reception and housewarming at which everybody who transacts business with Uncle Sam may be a guest of honor.” Constructed of Bedford limestone, the Beaux Arts design for the three-story building that combined the functions of the post office, customs house and court house came from the office of the Supervising Architect for the Treasury, James Knox Taylor.
1101 A Street at southeast corner of 11th Street
This building pioneered steel-framed, high-rise construction in Tacoma when it was raised in 1907 as the newspaper plant of the Tacoma Ledger and Daily News. When completed it was the tallest reinforced concrete building in the Northwest and the first on the West Coast to feature a parking garage. An addition was stitched to the southern half just two years later that doubled the building’s size. It carries the name of publisher Sam Perkins. Perkins was partner in a drug business that went bust during the Panic of 1893 before taking the controls of the paper. The Ledger and Daily News ended its 57-year publishing run in 1937 as Tacoma became a one-paper town. In the 1990s the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus began life here and in 2004 a $9 million makeover converted the building into residential and retail space.
1015-1021 A Street at northeast corner of 11th Street
This building lot at the foot of bustling 11th Street overlooking the harbor at Commencement Bay and with unobstructed views of Mt. Rainier to the south was considered one of the choicest in the city when Frederick Weyerhauser, who would be the largest private landowner in America, purchased it for $40,000 in 1908. Weyerhauser was looking to build a functional two-story headquarters for his timber company but his associates convinced him to shoot for something grander. The Weyerhauser Company teamed with the newly formed Tacoma Commercial Club, a forerunner of today’s Chamber of Commerce, to create a joint headquarters. A design competition was held and won by an unknown partnership that had only formed that year between M.P. Potter and Arthur Merrill. Their plans overlaid ornate French Renaissance detailing on an orderly Commercial style tower. Potter would be in Chicago by 1912 and the firm dissolved with this composition as their only legacy. Weyerhauser would experience explosive growth and by 1923 had occupied most of the building. In 1957 the company purchased a hotel next door, razed it and erected an International Style, 12-story addition to their office complex here.
TURN LEFT ON 11TH STREET. TURN RIGHT ON PACIFIC AVENUE.
Bank of California
1011 Pacific Avenue
The Bank of California took its first deposits on October 8, 1928. Wilkeson sandstone and granite was used to execute the Italian Renaissance design from the pen of John Graham who gave the building an impressive Ionic entrance portico.
917 Pacific Avenue at northeast corner of 10th Street
The core of this building dates to 1903; a multi-million facelift in 2006 has provided the updated modern visage. Henry Longstreth was the moneyman for the original and George W. Bullard was the architect. Longstreth was an easterner whose father was vice-president of the Provident Life and Trust Company in Philadelphia. In 1892 the 34-year old Henry was dispatched to take charge of the new western office in Tacoma.
TURN RIGHT ON 9TH STREET.
Tacoma Savings and Loan/Bowes Building
100 South 9th Street at southwest corner of A Street
The Tacoma Savings and Loan Association, one of the oldest such institutions in the country, moved into this splendid headquarters in 1909. Drawing on classical influences, architects Frederick Henry Heath and Luther Twitchell used a marble veneer, cast stone and ornamental iron to dress their concrete building. Thanks to a million-dollar historic restoration the building, now a home to offices and a restaurant, has dialed back its appearance a hundred years, including the decorative lampposts that parade around the outside perimeter.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT FIREMAN’S PARK.