Supporters want Point Defiance Pagoda on register of historic places

Staff writerJanuary 6, 2014 

The Pagoda at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma, seen here in January 2013, is listed on the Washington Heritage Register. Officials are now trying to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

PETER HALEY/STAFF FILE, 2013

The Point Defiance Pagoda always has been significant to the Tacoma community. It being named a historic site just confirmed what locals already knew.

The pagoda recently was listed in the Washington Heritage Register, according to a letter from state historic preservation officer Allyson Brooks, and local preservation officials hope it soon will be listed on the National Register of Historic Places as well.

A nomination to place the pagoda on the National Register currently is being reviewed, and a decision is expected by the end of January.

“It’s very significant because of its unique architecture for Tacoma. There’s nothing quite like it in Tacoma,” said Melissa McGinnis, historic and cultural resource manager for Metro Parks Tacoma.

McGinnis scoured historical records, newspaper archives and local history books to put together a 51-page application documenting the pagoda’s architecture, history and cultural significance.

“It’s a really wonderful project in the end because you’ve really documented the history of the building well, and all the context of how it fits into Tacoma’s history,” McGinnis said.

The state Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation approved the application Nov. 18, and the Washington State Advisory Council sent it on to the National Heritage Register in Washington, D.C.

“I can’t imagine they’ll turn us down,” McGinnis said.

Being on the National Register has its advantages. The building would be eligible for certain tax provisions, might receive federal funding for maintenance and restoration projects, and building codes aren’t as strict.

For McGinnis, however, the financial incentives mean little compared to the honor the building would receive.

“We’re a government agency, and so we don’t pay property tax anyway,” she said of Metro Parks Tacoma. “What’s more important to us is the fact that it is an honor.”

Part of the cultural significance of the pagoda is that it has been used for public functions since the 1980s, so many people have experienced major life events, such as weddings, receptions, anniversaries and memorial services there.

“Being in that space has touched so many lives,” McGinnis said.

The pagoda’s mixed architectural styles also make it unique. While most of the building is influenced by Arts and Crafts — a popular architectural style at the turn of the 20th century when it was built — the roof is Asian-inspired. McGinnis said Hare & Hare, the architectural firm that designed the park, wanted the building to blend with nature rather than stand out from it, something that Japanese architecture tries to do.

“The fact that it isn’t a strict one-or-the-other architecture just makes it even more quirky. It makes it kind of fun,” McGinnis said.

The Point Defiance Streetcar station, as it was then known, was built in 1914 to replace an earlier station. The building came in over budget, but architects argued it was worth the extra cost because it was built to last.

“They felt that the point was to build something of permanence that would last for the fourth generation,” McGinnis said. “Four generations later, it is still standing.”

The property was used as a station and a turnaround point for the trolley until 1938, when the tracks were removed and Tacoma Railway & Power Company purchased a fleet of buses to replace the streetcars. The bus station closed in 1962 with the rising ownership of private vehicles.

The pagoda reopened in 1983 as a rental facility, which it is still used as today. The building closed for restoration in 2011 after an arson and reopened in January 2013.

McGinnis said the fire prompted Metro Parks Tacoma to nominate the pagoda for the National Register, since everyone already assumed it was on the list. Many were surprised to find out it had never been nominated.

“We know the building is great. We know the building is significant, but by having the approval of the state and federal government … it’s just another level of respect,” McGinnis said.

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