Peter Callaghan: A story of Tacoma history vanished and history saved

Staff WriterDecember 1, 2013 

The debate over historic preservation was unintentionally waged in this 1974 street scene near 11th and Commerce streets.The bus was a special shuttle to deliver shoppers and diners to the recently reopened Old City Hall which housed shops and restaurants. The demolition in the background was part of the new headquarters of United Mutual Savings Bank on the right. The bank said the demolition was to make way for a mini-park. It remains a parking lot.


Producing books on local history via photography is well within the skills and passions of Caroline Gallacci and Ron Karabaich.

The partners in business and in life are well-known among the region’s historians and preservationists. Gallacci is the former librarian for the Washington State Historical Society, former researcher for the Tacoma office of historic preservation and former historic preservation officer for Pierce County.

Karabaich owns Old Town Photo, which stood on North 30th Street for 35 years and is now run out of his nearby house. He has collected and archived the history of the city, especially Old Town and its Croatian community.

“He does the pictures and editing, and I do the research and the writing and the organizing,” Gallacci said in the kitchen of the house built by Karabaich’s family in 1950. “We’re a team.”

“Vanishing Tacoma” is their latest contribution to the Images of America series by Arcadia Publishing, having worked together — or with others — on earlier editions: “Old Tacoma,” “Downtown Tacoma,” “Tacoma’s Proctor District” (with Bill Evans) and “Tacoma’s Waterfront.”

But after signing the contract with the South Carolina-based publisher to produce “Vanishing Tacoma,” Gallacci was diagnosed with cancer. She has had open heart surgery to remove one tumor and now is getting chemotherapy for cancer of the lung and breast.

Suddenly the book became more challenging.

“I wrote the initial concept on a napkin in the cardiologist’s office,” she said. Her part of the project was done “in between side effects.”

“Vanishing Tacoma” uses captions to historic photographs to tell the story of buildings and places that have been lost. The pair divided the story into chapters describing the reason for the losses — natural disasters and fires, development and just demolition for demolition’s sake, such as a former parking garage on South 12th and A streets that used mechanical lifts to stack cars on four levels of shelves.

“Oh look,” she recalled thinking when she saw what was there now, “they tore down a parking garage to put up a parking lot.”

Another chapter looks at changes due to redevelopment. The Spark Park garage at South Ninth Street and Pacific Avenue has been there since 1925, but it replaced a landmark known as The Fife Hotel and later the Hotel Donnelly. Before that, the corner was filled with wood-framed buildings common to a boomtown — William Fife’s real estate office, a gun store, a bakery and other businesses. All were lost in the fire of 1885.

Some of the photos are from the Tacoma Public Library. Others are part of former City Councilman Tom Stenger’s personal collection. But many are of unknown origin and have fallen into the public domain. Some were given to Karabaich when he had the photo studio in Old Town. Many in the “Old Tacoma” book came from the elderly Croatian women — known as “Babbas” among the Croatians — who saw him as someone who would preserve their stories.

“They’d outlived their husbands, had a lot of time on their hands and wanted to relive the past,” he said.

Gallacci is a realist among preservationists, not expecting that every old building be saved. She said she was interested in understanding why there are changes in a city and seeing what she called a “multi-generational city.”

“A city is always changing. You’re not going to please everyone,” she said. But there must be a preservation ethic among civic leaders so they know the difference between treasure and eyesore, and don’t look to demolition as a first response or let current tastes rule the day. Many of the lost buildings were replaced with parking lots or vacant lots.

The book ends with an encouraging message, showing the landmarks that have been preserved and describing how places create and preserve memories.

“I didn’t want it to be depressing,” Gallacci said. “I didn’t want to do a ‘now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t’ for page after page.”

Gallacci feels her medical condition is “looking up,” but treatments are ongoing, which gives special meaning to the latest book’s dedication: “To all the health care professionals who kept me from becoming part of Tacoma’s vanishing landscape.”

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service