A landmark shaped by depression, fire, vision

September 9, 2006 

Stadium High School’s unusual profile owes to its unusual history. It’s a product of the economic depression of 1893, the competitive spirit of a man named Henry Villard, and the architectural talent of Frederick Heath, a Wisconsin native who moved to Tacoma and became one of the most versatile and prolific West Coast architects of the early 20th century.

For years, Heath was the architect for the Tacoma School District. He designed many of the city’s schools, including Lincoln High School, Central School – now the district’s administrative offices – and several grade schools.

His hand’s also seen in Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier, First United Methodist Church, the McNeil Island penitentiary, and more than 400 residences.

Stadium High School, originally called Tacoma High School, was one of his earlier works, and his work on the building and adjacent Stadium Bowl helped launch his career.

By the time Heath started on the project, there was already a foundation and burned-out shell of a building.

The grandiose high school was originally conceived as a luxury hotel aimed at capitalizing on Tacoma’s position as the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Construction began in 1891, when the city was booming. It halted in 1893 after an economic collapse and depression.

The main force behind the hotel was Villard, the former head of the railroad, and a man Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan referred to as the “arch-villain” of Tacoma for his efforts to make Portland – not Tacoma – the railroad terminus.

That effort failed, primarily due to Charles Wright, a Tacoma booster who took over the railroad after Villard and secured Tacoma’s position.

Villard came back to town with a dream of building a tourist hotel “better than Portland had,” according to Herbert Hunt’s history of Tacoma.

Villard hired a Philadelphia architect who drew the initial plans for a chateau-style building expected to cost $750,000. The railroad was going to finance half the project, and the Tacoma Land Co. the rest.

Villard had already gained and lost one fortune, and the possibility of making money no doubt was part of his motivation. But Sullivan suspects a rivalry between Villard and Wright also played a role.

Wright was the central figure behind the Tacoma Hotel, the city’s only luxury hotel at the time.

“There has to be something going on between the two guys,” Sullivan said.

But two years into construction, the Panic of 1893 struck and the financing disappeared. The partially finished building sat vacant for years serving as a playground for children, until a suspicious fire gutted it in 1898.

About the time the railroad began dismantling what was left of the building and shipping it to Montana and elsewhere for use in train stations, some local men – hoping to save the building – got the idea of turning it into a high school.

They went to a Tacoma School Board member with the idea and he promptly called on Heath to determine whether the building could be converted.

An hour later, Heath came back with an answer and the district bought the building the same day for $34,500, according to historian Hunt. In today’s dollars, it would have cost about $777,000.

Opponents protested the purchase, calling it extravagant and saying it would cost too much to convert the building. And the first attempt at passing a bond to pay for construction failed. A second attempt in 1904 passed by a narrow margin and after an unsuccessful court challenge, Heath went to work designing Tacoma High School.

His design used the existing foundation and walls, and retained the general chateau-style, but it was significantly different from the original hotel design.

His skillful use of the existing material helped establish Heath as Tacoma’s most prominent architect, and his vision for the adjacent Stadium Bowl, built a few years later, helped secure it.

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