Kathy Ludders isn’t the first person to stumble across the story of Walter Sutter and want more.
Unfortunately, there is more mystery than clarity about the eccentric who built a quirky house in Tacoma’s Old Town neighborhood and filled it with a massive collection of rare Chinese artifacts.
Ludders grew up in Tacoma and now lives in Ithaca, N.Y. While going through the papers of her late father-in-law, William C. Ludders, she found a letter he’d written to his parents during the Christmas holidays of 1937. Bill Ludders was an engineering student at Stanford who was invited to spend the holidays in Tacoma with fraternity brother Jim Morris.
The long, rambling letter is itself a fascinating tour of Depression-era Tacoma, at least as lived by the monied classes. Ludders describes dinners with Weyerhaeusers, private parties at skating rinks, lunches at the Tacoma Club, New Year’s Day skiing at Mount Rainier, dancing at a club at Fort Lewis.
“Well, folks, you don’t know what a swell time I had up there in Tacoma,” he wrote to family in Honolulu.
But the most important passages involve a local figure who fascinated him in 1937 as much as he fascinates others still today.
“Monday was the most fabulous day that I’ve ever spent in my life,” Ludders wrote. It was the day he met Walter Sutter and toured the house that once stood at the foot of Carr Street.
The stories Sutter told Ludders about his years in China are consistent with what Sutter told others — including that his collection of ancient Chinese art and artifacts came from the Dragon Throne Room in the Forbidden City and was given to him by Chiang Kai-shek for safekeeping.
This was during the time of Japan’s invasion of China, and Sutter claimed the Chinese government funded construction of his eccentric house as a means of protecting the collections.
Sutter would have given this private tour shortly after completing the house and opening it for tours. Included was a walk through his Friendship Garden, which contained rocks from every county in Washington, every state in the U.S. and many foreign nations. Both the collection and the gardens were famous enough to be included in the Depression-era Washington state guidebook written by federal Work Projects Administration writers.
“I hope this isn’t boring you, but this is the first time I’ve ever met up with such a romantic and fabulous figure,” Ludders wrote his family. “You can’t imagine how mysterious everything about him is. I swear he must be the 7th wonder of the world — what with the environment he lives in and the tales he tells.”
As with much of Sutter’s tales, truth and fiction are indistinguishable — but delightful. Sutter told Ludders he was training Chinese nationals living in the U.S. who were to return home secretly to launch a surprise ambush of the Japanese invaders. They would use special wooden submarines and 1,000 planes being shipped from Tacoma in crates, disguised as foodstuffs.
I told historian Caroline Gallacci about the letter, and she said it provides more details of the collection and Sutter’s version of events than anything she’s heard of. Gallacci has been pursuing Sutter’s story for decades but hit a dead end with his move to Los Angeles, where he died in 1947.
His ashes were returned to Tacoma, and the Elks held a massive memorial service at the old lodge in October 1947. But his wife and the collection remained in California. No records tell what happened to the artifacts, and Gallacci has found no verification — or rebuttal — of his fantastic story.
Kathy (Stebbins) Ludders sent a copy of the letter to me after searching for information on Sutter and finding a column I wrote six years ago. Bill Ludders, she wrote, graduated from Stanford in chemical engineering and found work in a defense plant in California. He enlisted in the Navy and reached the rank of captain while serving in the Pacific Theater.
After the war he settled in Portland, where he died in 2004.
Even as a young man, however, Ludders had a sense that what he experienced in Tacoma that snowy Christmas was important. After signing off as “your Stanford correspondent,” Ludders typed a postscript:
“Don’t forget to save this letter.”