In one of Tacoma’s nicest neighborhoods, an ever-louder conversation surrounds plans to find a productive new use for one of the Northwest’s grandest and most historic mansions.
What began as a polite and amiable discussion months ago between prospective mansion buyers and neighbors now involves attorneys, the city of Tacoma, weekly neighborhood meetings, talk of petitions and yard signs, the Police Department and reported guerilla tactics by one homeowner most directly affected by the increasing frequency of events at the mansion.
The home is Haddaway Hall, the Jacobean home at 4301 N. Stevens St. built 90 years ago by timber magnate John P. Weyerhaeuser and his wife, Anna. The 11-bedroom, nine-bathroom, three-story brick-and-timber home was built in the style of classic English manors.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since the early 1980s, the home and its 3-plus acres include a chapel and an education building. It has been listed for sale for three years by its present owner, Corban University. Corban’s enrollment has been dwindling, and the school wants to move elsewhere.
Now the owners of a Seattle-based cooking school and event catering company, Blue Ribbon Cooking School, are proposing to buy the mansion from the divinity school.
They plan to use the mansion and its grounds, whose landscaping was designed by the same firm that designed New York’s Central Park, as a venue for weddings, corporate events and other functions.
While neighbors say they applaud Blue Ribbon’s good intentions to preserve and protect the landmark building, they fear an ever-busier event schedule will damage the serenity and value of their neighborhood.
Already, some neighbors say, the side effects of a busy event schedule sometimes make their lives miserable. Blue Ribbon has been holding events at the mansion for more than two years, renting it from the school. Now, the school and the couple who operate it, Vanessa and Adam Volkman of Seattle, have signed a deal to acquire the property contingent on their receiving a conditional use permit from the city to continue holding events on the site.
The Weyerhaeuser mansion is zoned R-2 single-family residential, thus the need for a conditional use permit to hold frequent events there. The surrounding neighborhood along Mason and Stevens streets is solidly single-family residential with a handful of churches and an elementary school scattered throughout the neighborhood.
“We love this house,” Vanessa Volkman said Thursday. “We want to be good neighbors. We think we’ve acted quickly to address the neighbors’ concerns.”
But neighbors say that despite the cooking school’s efforts, the noise, the traffic and the ill-mannered behavior of some event participants have created big issues in the neighborhood.
NEIGHBORS, BUSINESS FACE OFF
Tacoma Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said police records show 21 calls to the mansion address in the past two years. Seventeen of those were for some kind of disturbance or excessive noise.
“I have just come to dread the weekends,” said Shawn McRoberts, a homeowner whose North Stevens Street view home directly abuts the Haddaway Hall garden most frequently used as a wedding site.
McRoberts, a software trainer, said he’s tired of loud post-ceremony music, cars blocking his driveway and boisterous attendees talking loudly and celebrating late into the night.
McRoberts said he has taken countermeasures to let the event company and the partygoers know he doesn’t appreciate their disrupting his weekend. Those include playing music loudly on speakers aimed at the mansion and using his lawn equipment during the celebrations.
Vanessa Volkman said McRoberts’ tactics are excessive. She contends Roberts has disrupted ceremonies by running his leaf blower during the ceremony and has played loud rock music on “mega speakers” mounted on his balcony.
“I’ve had to calm crying brides because of the disruptions,” she said. “You don’t know how terrible it is to have the wedding you’ve been planning for months interrupted.”
McRoberts denies he’s interrupted a ceremony. He has run his lawn mower on weekend afternoons, he said, because that’s the only time he has to trim the grass.
Both sides have called police about noise.
Vanessa Volkman said she’s attempted to talk with McRoberts on several occasions, but they never reached an agreement.
Other neighbors say they’re likewise affected, though perhaps not as directly as McRoberts.
They speak of their residential streets lined with cars parked by partygoers and of loud send-offs when the newly married couples leave the venue.
“We started off on good terms,” said Mimi Kray, a mansion neighbor. “We were both dog persons. I thought we could be good friends,” said Kray of the cooking school manager. “But things haven’t gotten better.”
The event organizers limit alcohol consumption on the mansion grounds to beer and wine, but neighbors say some partygoers return to their cars for shots of hard liquor. “It’s like a tailgate party every weekend,” said Kray.
Some neighbors recall one party during which sky lanterns, small lighted candles suspended beneath a paper enclosure, were launched into the air. The wind shifted, sending some of the burning candles into the neighborhood. One landed on a home’s deck, causing a fire.
Vanessa Volkman said Blue Ribbon immediately called the Fire Department and paid for the fire damage. Sky lanterns are no longer allowed at parties at the mansion.
“We’re learning,” said Volkmann. “We’ve incorporated those lessons into the ground rules for the events.”
Volkman said she has worked hard to keep the problems at a minimum. She’s met with neighbors, she’s hired security personnel, and she’s working on further plans to handle the parking situation.
She and her husband have been studying several alternatives to accommodate more cars on the mansion grounds, including converting the tennis courts into a parking lot.
Early last summer, Blue Ribbon posted “No event parking” signs along North Mason Street, said Vanessa Volkman. Those signs seemed to have a good effect, but the Police Department eventually told her to remove the signs because the street parking couldn’t be restricted.
The catering company proprietor said she’s hired a security guard to patrol the neighborhood during events to deal with problems that affect the neighbors. And she’s installed an expensive self-closing mechanism on the mansion’s front door to keep noise from the events from reaching the neighbors’ homes.
After each event, she said, event staff members comb the surrounding three-block area picking up trash and asking lingering guests to quietly leave the neighborhood.
The prospective mansion owner said she’ll attend a public meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Tacoma City Council chambers to listen to the neighborhood’s concerns. She’ll respond, she said, to those and to others submitted in writing with remedies that she hopes will allow the mansion and the neighborhood to co-exist happily together.
“If they could come up with a reasonable list of concerns, we’ll work hard to address them,” she said.
The issuance of a conditional use permit rests in the hands of the city’s planning and land use director. The city could require multiple conditions be met to allow events at the mansion, said city planner Philip Kao. Or the permit could be denied. Blue Ribbon has hired a well-known Tacoma land use attorney to handle its permit application. The neighborhood said it is planning to hire its own attorney to represent it in the decision-making process.
Meanwhile, some neighbors say they doubt that the event organizers will ever be able to control partygoers’ behavior outside the venue.
“When they arrive, they’re polite and accommodating. By the time they leave, they’re loud and peeing on our lawns,” said one neighbor.
Volkman said she’s an optimist.
“We’re going to get this done. I’m a project person. I think we’re going to find a solution.”
John Gillie: 253-597-8663
What: Public information meeting regarding Haddaway Hall.
Time: 6 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Tacoma City Council Chambers, Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 Market St., Tacoma.
Details: The public meeting isn’t a formal hearing. Its purpose is to provide the public with information about the proposal for the conditional use permit application and to hear feedback from the public about that proposal. That information will be considered by the city in deciding on the proposal.