Tacoma Historical Society finds a home in Pacific Avenue building

Tacoma Historical Society ends 25 years of wandering to settle in to Provident Building

Staff writerMarch 13, 2014 

The building the Tacoma Historical Society is moving into is called the Provident Building, but some society members say Providence Building might be more fitting.

“It’s so perfect for us, it almost seems as if there might have been some kind of divine intervention,” said Deb Freedman, the group’s treasurer. “It has everything we’ve been looking for.”

The Historical Society, a bare-bones nonprofit organized to preserve and celebrate Tacoma’s past, has been looking for a suitable (and affordable) home for most of its 25 years.

It has bounced from place to place, most recently in a forlorn office building across the parking lot from the Goodwill store on South Cedar Street. Heaps of the society’s artifacts and records are temporarily stored in an old boat-building barn next to the Murray Morgan Bridge.

Members say their new space in the 111-year-old Provident Building at 919 Pacific Ave. has given them what they’ve been wanting – easy public access and visibility in the historic downtown core. With two adjoining suites totaling 3,100 square feet, they’ll have enough room for a small retail shop, exhibitions, research and storage.

After their grand opening March 27, society members say, they’ll have a footing that eventually could lead to hiring a paid staff member or two and perhaps getting some money from the city, something that has so far eluded them.

“Compared to a lot of other cities, we’ve been playing catch-up,” Freedman said.

The fact that early state legislators located the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma was not helpful, she said, because its statewide focus diverted attention from local preservation.

Freedman and other society volunteers have been working to convert their new space in the Provident Building from its previous use as a computer repair center. (The upstairs space used to house the environmental group, Citizens for a Healthy Bay.)

They’ve been painting walls, installing shelves and hauling in treasures, which include a Tacoma newspaper collection dating back 131 years, mounds of handwritten city records, thousands of old glass negatives and, one of their most recent acquisitions, an architect’s scale model of the Tacoma Dome.

As is the case with much of the society’s eclectic collection, the dome model was rescued on its way to the landfill, said Bill Baarsma, the former Tacoma mayor who’s now president of the society’s board of directors.

“We got a call one day from a person who said he would be taking something out to the landfill and wondered if we might want it,” Baarsma said.

Appropriately, the society’s first exhibition in its new space will be entitled, “Out of the Attic.”

This is the Historical Society’s second move into the downtown area. In 2006, it opened a small exhibit center and gift shop at 747 Broadway on Antique Row.

Expenses quickly overran revenue there, and in 2009 the society was forced to close the exhibit center. It also had to eliminate a paid director’s position that had been established the previous year.

Baarsma attributes that failure to a local improvement district construction project.

“The city — and as the mayor at the time, I was partly responsible for this — established the Broadway LID and closed down the whole area,” Baarsma said. “Nobody could get in there; there was no way that we could maintain it.”

The society’s main sources of income are an annual Historic Homes Tour in the first weekend of May and a “Destiny Dinner” and auction in the fall. It also helps organize an annual Tacoma Cemetery production, in which actors portraying characters from the city’s past appear to emerge from their graves and tell their stories.

“We don’t raise 50, 60, 70 or $80,000,” Baarsma said. “History is a tough sell. Organizations such as Boys & Girls Clubs, Habitat for Humanity, the YWCA, they do things people can wrap their arms around.”

In its federal tax returns, the society reported income of between $30,000 and $70,000 a year between 2008 and 2012.

“It’s difficult for folks to wrap their arms around history,” Baarsma said. “Still, we make a good faith effort and raised enough to help pay for the rent next year.”

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693

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