Tacoma : A Recaptured City
30 - 30
The best and busiest streetcars in Tacoma's past ran through the theater district, a hub created with the construction of the Grand Tacoma Theatre in 1889. The pulsing triangled space at 9th and Broadway was boosted by the construction of the Pantages and Rialto theaters just after World War One ended. At it5 pinacle, the theater district included the Colonial, Strand, Blue Mouse and many smaller and sometimes shadier houses. When this image was made and the man styling the boater hat was waiting on the car, the theater district was second only to the port as a job center for the city. Every theater had a live orchestra and even the film houses had live Vaudeville acts. Musicians, ushers, waiters bootleggers and streetwise opportunists all made up the large nighttime workforce, some in the legitimate houses that fronted on the triangle, and some working the adult entertainment businesses that faced onto the back streets of Commerce and Opera Alley. Many of the buildings in the district had both front and rear entries and many of the artists worked both "streets". Tacoma's first radio station broadcast from the ballroom atop the Winthop Hotel where it sent out the sounds of dance bands and the dreamy illusion of gowns and tuxedos floating above the city. Magazines, cigarettes, cosmetics, fashion and romance called listeners to the city and the theatre district was the payoff. Bright lights, glamorous high style clothes and exotic locals on the big screen attracted thousands to Tacoma as the skyline rocketed up and the downtown vibrated with energy day and night. Here's the ghost of Tacoma in the 20's before sound movies, television and the fire in 1963 that destroyed the Tacoma Theater and marked the day the downtown died.
In this view down 11th Street, the cable cars that once climbed the hill from the Morgan Bridge echo in the shade of a summer day a century ago. The soundtrack for everyone on the street was the constant metallic bass tone rumble of an endless hemp rope wrapped in steel wire traveling in a channel and on pulleys just under the street. It was Tacoma's hidden clock, running in a loop up 11th from A to K Street and then over to 13th and down again. The electrically powered system began in 1892 and just after midnight on April 7, 1938 Tacoma's last cable car completed its final circumnavigation leaving the street strangely silent. When the Tacoma Railway and Power Company's cable system was powered off for good, it was the second to the last operating metropolitan cable car system in America. The last was in San Francisco and it is running still.
As high Victoriana goes in Tacoma it’s hard to outdo the Seymour Conservatory at Wright Park. The Gilded Age architectural ornament was part of a collection of trophies, events and civic oddities that were assembled in the park during the first decade or so of the 20th Century including a captured two ton bronze cannon from the Spanish Armada, a bust of Norwegian surrealist Henrick Ibsen, the Clinton Ferry statuary complete with heartbreak back story and a speech by Teddy Roosevelt given from a mammoth cedar stump bandstand in 1903.
The 1908 conservatory is the same age as Stadium High School and it originally presented a set of stylish Corinthian facades at each entry in true Victorian fashion. Today it’s a little like a Tiffany lamp with its patina removed by an overly tidy but well meaning butler. It’s interesting to compare the elegant glass lantern garden house with Peter Sanberg’s building at 15th and Pacific (DaVita), which was built at the same time. One was built by a high socialite who would become mayor on a morality platform and the other by an underworld raconteur who taunted the establishment by telling reporters he was building a nine story brothel. They were both studies in glass, one looking back into the formality of the past and the other towering over a city with a skyline about to rise.
During the golden age of streetcars it was common to build a folly or amusement at the end of the line to generate traffic on weekends and create an exotic destination costing travelers full fare. For New Yorkers the end of the line at the end of the 19th century was Coney Island. In Tacoma it was Point Defiance Park with its roaming buffalo and caged bears, its carousels and thrill rides and its beaches and deep dark forest. Finished just three years after Union Station, a movie set replica of a Japanese Pagoda once greeted streetcar adventurers to the park and today the century old survivor remains as one of Tacoma’s more quirky and charming landmarks. Like a prop from a Gilbert & Sullivan opera, the pagoda just keeps on entertaining us with wit, wonder and one too many near death experiences. To quote the Lord High Pooh Baa in the Mikado “I'm not nearly finished!”.
My favorite quip from Mark Twain "History doesn't repeat itself but it rhymes" seems appropriate for this image. Just after the second world war, the Elks repainted the Lodge building and Spanish Steps and remodeled the Broadway level to add a dark, moody, and no doubt smoky bar in the Northwest corner. They also added a drop ceiling in the main dining room concealing some very nicely detailed plaster and ornamentation. Erik and other impatient Tacomans will no doubt roll their eyes a bit but i think there is a ghost of the future in this image. Opened in 1916, the building was not completely refreshed until the 1947 work. Admittedly it seems like the building has been abandoned for that long again but not a month has gone by since the McMenamins bought it that they have not spent major money and personal time on bringing it back. I choose to see both the past and future in this image.
Tacoma Public Library, D29312-2
There was a time long before Amazon and FedEx when people shopped from catalogs and everything from parlor stoves to toothpaste was delivered to your door by the mailman. Mostly it came by foot but the big stuff came in parcel vans and business cars driven by postal carriers like these, Mr. S.P. Hammerbeck and Mr. Charles Matters ably accompanied by Mr. Mut. The three are loading up packages in April 1919 at the once grand main south entry to Tacoma’s main Post Office and Federal Courthouse. Today the elegant stairs and bronze light fixtures are gone on the 12th street side of the building. The block long sandstone landmark is largely unnoticed even though its courtrooms hosted U.S. House Immigration hearings just 18 months after this photo was taken that dramatically transformed American foreign and domestic policy. The Bolt decision that pioneered native fishing rights and the relevance of federal treaties was settled in the building in 1971 and many of the most influential Federal judges ever seated in the Pacific Northwest held proceedings within its walls. But on this day Messrs. Hammerbeck, Matters and Mut are going about their business in jodhpurs, tweed suits and a winter coat of fur.
Tacoma Public Library unique 36197
And now for something completely different…Although this looks a little like a Gilbert & Sullivan opera that escaped through the stage door at the Pantages, it’s actually a marching parade of the fraternal 51st Annual Conclave of the Grand Commandery Knights Templar of Washington in May 1938. Not really sure what these guys were all about but they had the best hats, better than the Shriners, the Pythians, the Elks and even the Odd Fellows. We just don’t display enough absurdity and sense of occasion anymore. Interesting that the first guy with a hat like that around here was probably Commander Charles Wilkes who 20 years before the Civil War lead the first American exploring expedition into Puget Sound. Although he came some 49 years after the British explorer George Vancouver, his maps were way better and they pretty much locked up Washington as American Territory. Wilkes could have been a character in a Gilbert & Sullivan opera, arrogant, self important and puffed up like a prancing cartoon flag waver but he had one thing going for him, brilliant mapmakers. The Wilkes expedition maps are a thing of beauty and they cover all of the geography that surrounds us. Like any great artwork they had to begin somewhere. When expedition cartographers began the massive undertaking of documenting everything around them and drew their first map of a deep water harbor in the summer of 1841 they naturally named it Commencement Bay.
Nearly all of the 20th Century presidents have visited Tacoma with the early ones most often speaking to a crowd at Stadium Bowl and the later ones greeting voters in or near the theatre district. Here’s a nervous moment for the obvious Secret Service agents in September 1980 when President Jimmy Carter not only left his limo in a mob but leapt on top of it at the corner of 9th and Pacific Avenue. Just up the hill at 9th and Broadway, President Harry S Truman addressed an audience of 9000 in June of 1948 and from almost exactly the same place Benjamin Harrison did the same thing in May 1891 though he was standing in front of a department store that was later replaced by the Pantages Theatre. President Eisenhower probably was seen most often in the theatre district since he lived here and went frequently to the movies with his son John who attended Stadium High School. The most celebrated visit however was probably Ronald Reagan who played a dashing young romantic interest in the movie “Tugboat Annie Sails Again” and was famously photographed with the big name Hollywood cast at its Pantages premier in October 1940. That was 10 years before “Bedtime for Bonzo”, 20 years before getting into California politics and 40 years before he defeated Jimmy Carter for the Presidency of the United States. If presidents could see through time, Carter could have seen the young actor Reagan from his perch atop the presidential automobile. Time and place, near and far.
Tacoma Public Library , Unique: 36010
Hey accidents happen and sometimes a really good idea just doesn't work out as planned. A case in point…
In the wee hours of the morning on October 9, 1934 the superintendent at the Tacoma Grocery Building at 2108 Pacific Avenue broke out of a little nap when he noticed a soft, hypnotic sound emanating from the upper floors of the six story warehouse. The sturdy brick and timber building housed thousands of cases of groceries, sacks of grain and flour and tons of paper and cardboard, most of which was combustible. As a precaution the warehouse was equipped with a very innovative system of fire sprinklers with tiny heat sensitive wax triggers all fed by a massive roof mounted water tank. As the suspicious building super climbed the rear stairs he began noticing water running down from above-a good indication that there was a fire and that the sprinklers had been triggered. Within minutes after the alarm was sent five TFD Engine Companies were on the scene and fire fighters flooded into the building and up the stairs. Eerily there was no fire or smoke. In the tense and confusing moments that followed the water was turned off and everyone in the building became instantly conscious of a low scary groan that seemed to vibrate from deep in the structure. Intuitively the fire fighters retreated to the back wall of the building just as the entire front wall failed cataclysmically. In an instant, tons of water soaked cartons, bloated groceries and bags of freshly mixed flour dough crashed onto the sidewalk leaving 20 firefighters staring out from the back wall onto Pacific Avenue as if they were sitting in open air balconies. Somehow the sprinkler system had gone off and for hours the roof tank had drained into the building and its absorbent contents creating a massive weight load that finally overtaxed the structure. The front wall, with its big windows, was the weak point (not counting the wax triggers). Miraculously no one was seriously hurt. In the months that followed the front wall of the building was rebuilt in a streamlined Art Deco style which faces the avenue today-the mask on one of Tacoma’s great messes.
Tacoma Public Library. Richards Studio Collection Series 842-9 Unique 1233
Baseball and newspapers once went together seamlessly and in Tacoma before big screen televisions it was the custom for fans to watch the World Series on a scoreboard above the newspaper’s headquarters with radio commentary blasting out over loudspeakers. Here’s a gathering on Sunday October 5th for the fourth game of the 1930 World Series between the Philadelphia Athletics and the St. Louis Cardinals.
The A’s score on a single by Al Simmons scoring Max Bishop in the first to take the lead 1-0.
Tacoma’s major newspapers all merged in 1918 when Frank Baker bought the News and Ledger from Sam Perkins and later moved them from the Perkins Building into the Tribune’s August Darmer designed building at 6th and St. Helens. The Triangle District today became Tacoma’s Times Square and when October came around in the 20’s and 30’s the streetscape in front of the YMCA building filled with World Series fans.
Cardinals even the score in the third inning when Jesse Haines drives in Charlie Gelbert from third with a single off pitcher Lefty Grove. 1-1.
Most likely there were fans in this picture that were sitting in Stadium Bowl six years earlier on a crisp October 18th, 1924. Babe Ruth was playing first base for the Tacoma All-Stars in an exhibition game in front of 10,000 spectators. One of Tacoma’s greatest sports myths was born that day when the Sultan of Swat supposedly won the game on a bases loaded home run that landed in Commencement Bay. He did hit a ball out of the stadium in batting practice but actually there was a bigger spectacle in the sky over Tacoma that Saturday afternoon.
Two out in the fourth for the Cardinals. Ray Blades hits a bullet to Jimmy Dykes playing third base. His throw is over the head of the first baseman and Chick Hafely scores from second, then Charlie Gelbert drives in Blades to give the home team a 3-1 lead.
Competing against the Babe for a crowd that day was the USS Shenandoah, a helium filled dirigible twice the length of the field at Stadium Bowl. It was an airship with mythic qualities all its own, launched in 1923 and broken apart in a thunderstorm just two years later. Its Tacoma landing was attended by 40,000 people and that afternoon it was gliding over the downtown as Babe stepped up to the plate one last time with the bases loaded…
Haines’ knuckleballs prove unhittable for the rest of the game and the Tacoma favorite Cardinals go on to win, but the Athletics’ manager Connie Mack brings his team back to take the next two games and win the World Series in 1930.
And with light fading on that Saturday afternoon in 1924 Babe Ruth connected on a fastball from right hander Tommy Lukanovic of the Aberdeen Timber League. Some say it was caught in right field and others say it just hung in the air and disappeared as it soared out of the stadium.
Chapin Bowen Collection Series G40.1-113 Unique 38373
There’s a lot more going on here on this August 1st Saturday in 1925 than a bunch of kids getting frosty sodas for free. Behind them are one of the oldest and certainly the newest building in the down town; the 1889 Bostwick Building that was built in territorial days and the glamorous new Winthop Hotel that had just opened in May.
The bottled pop being promoted, Orange Kist Soda, was the newest product by the Columbia Brewing Company which like many beer makers was keeping afloat by bottling soft drinks and quietly selling some harder beverages through an arrangement with City Hall. The little girls in the back are hanging on a sign advertising a new movie at the Rialto and just down the alley from the theater were a number of signless, unadvertised businesses where Columbia Brewery products of a more familiar nature could be enjoyed. Columbia would survive prohibition and rebuild itself into Tacoma’s largest brewery using the Heidelberg label from the 1930’s into the 1980’s. But in 1925 there was no better cover for breaking the rules of prohibition than giving away 500 cases of ice cold pop at 9th and Broadway during the hottest week of the summer. Cool!
(This is the images Andy and Joe were working on in the front page story the Tacoma News Tribune did on Recaptured City)
Tacoma Public Library Boland-813057 Unique 37358
Before Antique Row, the LeMay Car Museum and even the Brutalist parking garages downtown, automobile dealerships and sales offices lined Broadway and St. Helen in the Old City Hall district. The streetcar lines disappeared and buildings that once graced the sidewalks with display windows and shop entries were replaced with garage doors and service bays. In the 1920’s it was the first part of the downtown to give up pedestrian traffic as the theatre district and Winthrop Hotel area became a boundary for walkers and window shoppers. By the mid 1950’s the new Interstate highway would attract auto dealers away from the downtown followed by the big retailers and merchants when the Tacoma Mall was built. It was a familiar urban drama played out in cities across America. It’s the storyline for the colorful animated film “Cars”. Here’s a look at Broadway in the Spring of 1950 and the animation of Tacoma’s graffiti artists replacing Cadillacs and Pontiacs with a Technicolor backstory all their own.
School is back and so are we. Recaptured City has been directing its lens toward a few more ambitious subjects and ideas so watch for some new images and stories.
This 1949 view of the Tudor Gothic Buildings at Annie Wright School reflects a time when dense ivy and trim lawns were the ideal signage for a girls college preparatory school. Designed and built in 1924 by the architectural firm of Sutton, Whitney & Dugan, Annie Wright was started in 1884 with a donation from Tacoma’s early godfather and railroad tycoon Charles Wright. It was Wright that commissioned the landscape genius Frederick Law Olmstead to design a Plan for Tacoma in 1873, still the most beautiful missed opportunity from the city’s early days. A glimmer of its unrealized promise is woven into the park that bears his name.
TPL Richards Studio Collection Series D42829-4 (Unique; 1/980)
There is a wistful quietness to this early Depression era mugshot of the Olympus Hotel on Pacific Avenue. Today the Irish pub on street level is closed and the tuneful clamor of eating, drinking and singing is a returned ghost that has haunted the establishment for more than a century. The Olympus Hotel was designed by Tacoma architect August Darmer and built by Leopold Schmidt in 1909. Schmidt founded the Olympia Brewing Company and named his Tacoma hotel after the Tumwater based beer. On all the advertising and letterhead for the hotel the typeface and coloring was identical to the design on Olympia Beer labels. Schmidt also established the Bellingham Bay Brewery and named his downtown Bellingham Hotel after himself, the Leopold. Although the Olympus Hotel was an elegantly built and maintained establishment it suffered a series of misfortunes and developed a somewhat shady reputation after 1914, the year Leopold Schmidt died and Washington passed statewide prohibition. First of all the comfortable but discreet lower level bar had a difficult time adjusting to not serving adult beverages during prohibition, leading to a series of embarrassing visits from the authorities. Then the massive Grand Vaudeville Theatre next door converted to a movie house and renamed itself the Hippodrome in 1922 which cut into the number of traveling performers and theater people staying at the hotel. During World War Two, the Hippodrome was turned over to the Tacoma Council of Churches and converted into the dry United Churches Services Center for chaperoned socializing and dancing. The new neighbor crippled the Hotel’s recovery from prohibition and after the war, motels and the decline of the downtown forced it to the edge of extinction providing a bed to folks who typically rented by either the month or the hour. But in its glory days of vaudeville and moonshine the Olympus was Tacoma’s Algonquin round table and may be again.
Tacoma Public Library Bowen Collection Series: TPL-6903 (Unique:23551)
Tacoma’s Union Station is a study in wild rides. When finished in 1911 it was almost too late to the party. The glory days of the transcontinental railroad were over and the automobile was about to plunge America’s great train stations into obsolescence. It did enjoy heydays during the early years of Camp Lewis and the World Wars when thousands of soldiers passed thru its soaring rotunda. Fifty years after its opening though, Union Station was the saddest building in the city and travelers seated under the dome were as likely to be looking up warily at broken plaster and roof drips as they were marveling at the architecture. But when the last train left in 1984 and the station was surrendered to the pigeons, vandals and phantoms an astonishing thing happened. Even though the City Engineer and a few City Council members wrote the building off its fate and future spurred the most coherent and popular period of rebirth in Tacoma’s History. Union Station’s near death adventure 20 years ago was indeed the last lap in a wild ride and standing in our city’s most important room today, it still take your breath away.
Setting aside for a moment its cultural and artistic merits, the most interesting thing about Tacoma’s totem pole may be its almost magical ability to survive disaster. In 1903, when the pole was carved and strategically placed between the grand Tacoma Hotel veranda and the view to the mountain, it became instantly connected with the misadventure to rename the mountain. After the creation of Mt. Rainier National Park in 1899, a spirited campaign was directed at using the native-American place name for the mountain and the totem pole symbolized that effort. In May 1917 the Justice-to-the-Mountain Committee, Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, totem pole sponsor Chester Thorne, most of Tacoma’s citizens and even God (according to the John H. Williams book published in 1910) appealed to the U.S. Board of Geographic names but sadly the name change was denied. A second push in 1924 came closer but in January 1926 the U.S. Congress “ reRainiered” the mountain leaving Tacoma’s iconic totem pole a bit battered and forlorn but still standing. A couple years later the pole became a movie star in W.S. Van Dyke’s silent film “Eyes of the Totem” but talking movies coincided with its ill timed release and the picture was a disaster at the box office bringing down Tacoma’s first and last motion picture studio. But the totem pole was still standing in October of 1935 when the monumental Tacoma Hotel burned in Tacoma’s most dramatic conflagration. It was charred but not toppled by the fire and there after became a sort of mascot for the Tacoma Fire Department. It was relocated precariously along the bluff several times by non-engineers and painted every few years with the help of TFD ladder trucks. Here’s a freshening under way in May, 1955 which the pole survived. The totem pole was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 as a contributing resource in the Old City Hall Historic District and narrowly escaped misfortune again when I-705 was constructed underneath it in the 1980’s. Indeed a magical survivor.
TPL Richards Studio Image Series D90574-1 (Unique 24078)
Here is an amazing merge of the fire at the Davis Smith & Co. (GWP) building at Pacific Avenue & 19th on February 24, 1908 and today's centerpiece of the UWT Campus. With a huge crowd gathered below Lt. George Hill, Engine Co. No. 4, was killed falling from a ladder from the fifth floor. This was a major event in Tacoma firefighting history. In addition, five other firefighters were injured and six employees suffered burns. Engine Co. No. 5's hose wagon overturned on the way to the fire seriously injuring firefighters who nevertheless righted the wagon and continued to the fire to render assistance. I love the way this image evokes the ghosts of what once was and enriches the sense of place UWT imparts to our city. Leaving class late at night there have been times when I could swear I sensed the faint smell of smoke walking through the GWP building.
Here's the Morgan Bridge (formerly the 11th St. Bridge), a spanking new waterfront marvel exactly a century ago. Awesome the way a bridge can connect places in the realm of time and ideas, span obstacles of the mind and expand possibilities. The Morgan bridge does land in both the present and the past and crossing it is a journey of 100 years. That conifer tree is in full Spring growth right now and those rowboats probably belonged to Thea Foss in 1913. Hard to believe we almost lost this landmark and wondrous that we didn't.
The end of the war to end all wars was not a small thing in Tacoma. In the same way the citizens of Tacoma voted two to one to purchase and donate 70,000 acres for the construction of Camp Lewis before the First World War, they flooded the News Tribune with cash for a building sized flag to celebrate its end on November 11, 1918. The Perkins building housed two of the city’s daily newspapers and faced the Federal Building at the corner of 11th and A Streets perhaps the city's most eventful address.. For all the festivities and relief over the cession of warfare in Europe, Tacoma, like the rest of the country, was in the grip of a pandemic flu epidemic when this photograph was taken. For every American killed in the first world war 10 died at home from the flu and Tacoma, due to railroad traffic and troop movement from the nearby military post, suffered far worse than most cities. But none of that mattered on the first Armistice Day when the only world war the world had ever seen had come to an end and peace seemed to float on every gentle breeze.
There was a time when everybody knew that you headed to the north end of Pacific Avenue to find the people who ran the city. The joke was that no one knew for sure which side of the street to look for them. That was because before and after City Hall was built in 1893, the headquarters of the Northern Pacific Railroad stood on the choice waterside lot just across the boulevard. Started in the summer of 1887, the NP headquarters building reflected in its style the highest metropolitan hopes for a city that was mostly tree stumps and mud streets. There is a weirdness to many of the early photos of the NPHQ building because it contrasts so sharply with a long gone frontier town background of wooden saloons, plank sided houses and horse drawn streetcars. The building is a sort of forgone conclusion at the end of Pacific today, a building we don’t notice much because of a concrete off ramp that rushes by overhead and a vacant City Hall building looming across the street. But if the NPHQ building has ghosts, they are building a railroad across a continent, launching a start up timber company called Weyerhaeuser, and mostly likely running the city.
Great 1922 image on the approach to the Morgan Bridge at the Perkins Building. These folks worked for the Central Steam Company that provided piped steam to most of the downtown through a system of tunnels under the sidewalks on the east side of the streets. The main steam plant is in the background and the business office is there in the Perkins Building. I missed the recent underground Tacoma tour but I'm sure the storyteller guides entertained folks with dark myths and legends about how Tacoma's tunnels concealed the city's nefarious underworld, how bootleggers and Shanghai goons slipped down the inky passageways. And how people walking on the downtown streets above would catch a shadow of something moving underneath the glass brick grates in the sidewalk at night. Its wonderful the way this photo is torn and battered a bit suggesting somehow that the propriety and upstanding daylight respectability of this group is not exactly what it appears. Use of the steam tunnels was after all controlled by someone and they are probably in this picture.
So here's a study in fashion from Fall of 1947. These young women are modeling the latest in style for a newspaper special section on fashion sponsored by the big downtown department stores like Rhodes and the trendy women's shops like Lyons. They have all graduated from Stadium High School and are posing in the shadow of the Châteauesque landmark before heading off to college.
But fashion changes and before these bright students could graduate, The Citizens Advisory Committee appointed by the School Board and representing 175 civic and service organizations, began calling for the demolition and replacement of the 1906 building. The mid 1950’s brought Stadium High School to the brink of destruction as its architectural counterparts like the Romanesque County Courthouse and Italianate City Hall were marked for annihilation. Elsewhere downtown, the department stores and dress shops were seeing their last days, even though they didn't know it. Charmed by the modern notion that they would thrive nearer the new interstate in a car friendly shopping mall, many moved but few survived.
Like Tacoma’s Old City Hall, Stadium was saved by the distraction of a shiny new building that flashed glass and aluminum and a new post war idea about how American cities should look. In a way Wilson High School saved Stadium. The year Wilson was finished they put a new roof on the old castle, fixed the windows, added a little paint and did some work on the gym. That was 1958 and by the time those repairs were worn out, fashion was back on Stadium’s side. Timeless style should carry it from here on.
In September 1942 downtown Tacoma was adjusting to wartime. The chasing lights of the theatrev district marquees were blacked out many nights and the City kept the streetlights dark for Civil Defense aerial bombing drills. Japantown was eerily empty after the relocation of Tacoma’s Japanese American families in May and the newspapers carried stories of enemy submarines off the Washington Coast. With Fort Lewis just to the south and the shipyards at the port, Tacoma had every right to feel like a strategic target but city life went on. Soldiers and wartime industry workers filled the movie houses, passing from the darkness of the streets to the blackness of the theaters watching newsreels of the war in the Pacific and Europe followed by the escapism of Hollywood. Tacoma was filled with people. The big mansions in the North end were converted into boarding houses and the downtown hotels became apartment buildings for the thousands of newcomers. The streets became crowded with automobiles because the streetcars were abandoned just before the war and parking lots were not yet more important than buildings. In fact, it makes you wonder why these do-gooders were putting up signs instead of helping pedestrians deal with the traffic-maybe by painting crosswalks in the neighborhood.
On a wet Saturday morning in May 1934 hundreds of kids stood in the rain to have their picture taken in front of the Rialto Theatre before crowding into a free double feature. For many of these Depression era youngsters, getting into the movies for free was a big deal especially if you could see action star Douglas Fairbanks jumping out of a perfectly good airplane with a parachute. But there was little question that the big attraction that day was Will Rogers playing a small town physician in John Ford’s film Dr. Bull. Will Rogers was a personal friend of Henry Sicade, the Puyallup tribal leader and he visited the city often. A little more than a year after this picture was taken Rogers passed through Tacoma with his aviator friend Wiley Post in a single engine Lockheed Orion-Explorer on their way to Point Barrow Alaska. Will Roger’s weekly newspaper column ran on the front page for years and his radio jokes were retold in every bar, social club and church hall in Tacoma as if they were invented by a family member. When news of his plane crash and death in Alaska replaced his syndicated column on front page of the Ledger in August 1935, the whole city felt the loss. But that was a dark cloud still unformed for these damp movie goers excited about the smell of popcorn and the unfailing magic of Hollywood airplanes, silk parachutes and cowboys in the clouds.
Here’s a quaint, deceptive portrait of the members of the Tacoma Delphinium Garden Club accepting the hands of time from old school clock fixer E. F. Ferrens in front of the tower and empty dial at City Hall in May 1962. While the foreground is all Mayberry the background is dire with unseen diabolical shadings.
When this picture was taken Tacoma’s government had moved to the freshly built County-City Building on Tacoma Avenue where chaos reigned, most of the City Council was recalled and elected officials carried guns to work and public meetings. The grand Italian Renaissance style City Hall was nearly vacant and beginning to deteriorate and Urban Renewal funds were readily available for blight removal. There was a powerful political leaning toward demolishing the “unfashionable monstrosity” along with almost any of the other “period” buildings downtown. Already the Romanesque County Courthouse adjacent to the Modern new joint government building had been demolished for a parking lot and city planners flush with millions in Federal revenue sharing were hatching a scheme for a massive shopping mall that would redirect traffic away from a quickly fading downtown. In the near future whole blocks of the city would be replaced with Brutalist parking garages but for some reason efforts to clear cut old Tacoma never gained popular support.
In some government offices, the Delphinium Garden Club women were seen as part of the problem and subversive for their drive to restore the E. Howard & Co. clock and trigger efforts to save the building.
All these forces were in play, while time stood still for this photograph. In the end, the Delphinium Club saved the clock and maybe the city, just in time.
In January 1921 the tallest building ever constructed in Tacoma was nearing its topping out at 11th and Pacific. Across the Street, the 12 story Rust Building was newly finished and the city’s rising skyline seemed like a bellwether for community confidence. Then one rainy morning the workers didn’t show up at the Scandinavian American Bank construction site and low rumbles in high places, in the wood paneled board rooms and smoke filled council chambers, suggested something ominous. In the days that followed, the startling corruption behind the use of depositor’s funds by bank president Ole Larson to build the skyscraper lead to the seating of a grand jury and the eventual disclosure that in its collapse the bank returned money to influential individuals, City Hall, and even the Governor while one out of every eight working Tacomans saw their money lost or tied up for years. For most of the 1920’s downtown Tacoma was towered over by a 16 story skeleton, the spectral reminder of power and hubris gone darkly wrong.
That winter a young tubercular artist stood on the corner of 11th and Pacific in the shadow of the abruptly halted steel frame building. He was a shrewd observer of how American cities during the prohibition era were not sinister places because of just bootleggers, gangsters and street criminals. The rise and fall of modern cities and morality was just as often the fault of the rich and politically forceful. During the long street slick nights of that Tacoma winter, the novelist and detective writer Dashiell Hammett formed his experiences into a series of novels and short stories that culminated in The Maltese Falcon, a masterpiece of modern fiction. It is a story about greed, betrayal and situational ethics in a random urban world without heroes or daylight. Today the novel is considered the birthplace of Noir fiction and at its heart is a parable about a man standing on a street corner beneath an unfinished skyscraper in Tacoma. The skyscraper and the story are still there at 11th and Pacific.
If there is an intersection of story and place in downtown Tacoma, it’s the corner of 11th and A Streets. The Perkins Building (long the home of two daily newspapers), the Tacoma Building (once headquarters of the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company), and the Federal Courthouse and Post Office all face into the crossing that funnels east onto the Morgan Bridge.
In spring and summer of 1935, these buildings overlooked a particularly dramatic season of events that seemed to be staged right outside the front door of the workplace for most of the city’s journalists and press photographers.
Beginning in May, a tense waterfront labor strike that led eventually to a bloody clash between mill workers and armed National Guardsmen played out in the street, with clouds of tear gas literally wafting into the newsrooms. But this image captures a bigger, national story.
The moment is 6:35 p.m. on the 12th of the following June, and the snarl of Federal police vehicles, FBI agents and press awaits the arrival of arraignment on charges of abduction and extortion for Harman and Margaret Waley. The couple, along with an accomplice who was still at large, were the kidnappers of 9-year-old George Weyerhaeuser on May 24th. The child had been released only 11 days prior, after a $200,000 ransom was paid – a relieving contrast to the tragic ending of the Lindbergh kidnapping just three years earlier, which had cast a dark shadow over the highly publicized abduction and manhunt.
The Waley’s had been caught in Salt Lake City after 19 year old Margaret tried to spend one of the marked bills. After a flight to Tacoma Field they were convoyed to the Federal Courthouse where they faced U.S. Judge Edward Everett Cushman in his corner Courtroom. Just outside the window and across the street was the headquarters of the company brave little George would one day lead.
[Historic Photograph from Tacoma Public Library: Unique 27482]
Once Tacoma’s heart and highest hopes were vested deep in the Winthrop Hotel. The modern 12 story steel frame building was opened in May 1925 after a community subscription drive by the Citizens Hotel Corporation funded the project. Some called it a civic moral recovery project after a fiery effort that went several rounds to rename the mountain “Tacoma” failed. Even with John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt on Tacoma’s side, the issue was settled in 1924 after Senator Clarence Dill moved the name change through the U.S. Senate only to have the House send the question back to the Geographic Names Board where it was denied. This historic image dates from exactly that time, when Tacomans felt like their heart had been torn out by powerful forces beyond.
Soon after the new hotel adopted the name of Theodor Winthrop, the adventurer who authored the book “the Saddle and the Canoe” before supposedly becoming the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. Hard way to promote a best seller, but it worked and a passage from the book was famously cited by Job Carr and his family, Mathew McCarver and a circle of early founders in naming the city after the mountain, Tacoma. Withrop called the native Salish name for the mountain “melodious” and added the misspelled quip “Mount Regnier, Christians have dubbed it, in stupid nomenclature, perpetuating the name of somebody or nobody”.
With its advanced fire proof construction, fire sprinklers, gracious baths in every room, speedy elevators, and a multi-story parking garage the Winthop was the last word in modern architecture and the city’s coded last word on the name of The Mountain.
There are impatient cynics downtown that say the construction on Pacific Avenue has been going on forever with very little progress to show for it. Well if you look closely at this photo from the late thirties it’s obvious that steady improvement is being made.
Seriously, the onlookers in this image are watching the removal of the streetcar tracks at 9th and Pacific in June 1939. The obvious stillness of the crowd probably reflects a somber, bittersweet understanding that an important part of Tacoma’s history was coming to an end. For a city created by the coming of the railroad, there was a dark fascination and finality in the special leaver mounted on a steam shovel that twisted and tore the smooth-worn iron rails from their stone bed after 65 years of service. Another 65 years passed before iron rails returned to Pacific Avenue but today they miss the intersection at 9th and Pacific, looking down instead from Commerce Street and a perspective that almost matches this photo.
I love a parade. In the years between the building of Camp Lewis before the first world war and the proliferation of televisions and suburbs after the second, not a year went by that downtown Tacoma didn't host several grand parades. Marching bands, drill teams, military units, clowns,floats, horses, elephants, and elks all enlivened the streets. Along the sidewalks and rooftops the community gathered to share one spectacle after another, festive and free of charge. My late friend Joe Kosai remembered sitting on the fire escape of his family's hotel on Pacific Avenue one summer Saturday in the early 1930's. He was 6 or 7 and his legs hung down between the iron railings as he licked an ice cream cone and watched a clown on stilts pass at second story eye level. In a moment of distraction his little grip on the cone failed and the ball of ice cream plummeted down directly onto the cap of a beat cop below. Joe remembered crying at first but then then breaking into laughter along with the whole crowded street that had turned to see the little guy with the empty cone and the cop below. He became the parade.
The picture here is of a Thanksgiving Day parade just getting started at the North end of town in 1935. Santa must still be in the Elks Lodge warming himself.