Built for a streetcar to Point Defiance, 100-year-old pagoda triggers memories

It’s landed on National Register of Historic Places, and Metro Parks is throwing a party on Sunday

Staff writerMay 15, 2014 

If ever there was a place that could change and stay the same, it’s the pagoda in Point Defiance Park.

The historic journey of the Asian-themed icon is laid out in a 62-page application Metro Parks Tacoma put together to land the gabled structure on the National Register of Historic Places.

It joins three other park properties and 89 Tacoma spots on the list, officials said.

The designation happens to coincide with the pagoda’s centennial, which will be celebrated Sunday with a four-hour event complete with tours, make-your-own souvenirs and live music.

“It’s a history-making moment for the pagoda,” parks spokeswoman Nancy Johnson said.

The pagoda has always drawn crowds and been the backdrop for making memories. It started as a streetcar station and then was transformed to a bus depot, garden center and community gathering spot.

It has been run-down, expanded, refurbished and nearly destroyed by an arsonist, but the pagoda always has maintained its character, its importance to the community and many of its original materials.

Before the pagoda, there was a wooden unloading station. It didn’t warrant a name, just a purpose.

That was back when Point Defiance Park was new.

President Andrew Johnson set aside 640 acres in 1866 for a federal military reservation, but it never came to fruition and Tacoma residents lobbied in 1888 to turn the property into a park.

To deliver visitors to the park, a Tacoma & Edison Railway Line was constructed in March 1890, accompanied by the unloading station where people could wait for the next steam-powered streetcar.

The switch to electric streetcars happened two years later. Records show the 12-mile trip from Point Defiance to South Tacoma clocked in at 80 minutes.

As the park developed, more routes were added to accompany more people. Talk of a new transportation station cropped up in 1913, and Luther Twichell was hired to design it.

It was around this time that the term “pagoda” was first used in relation to the building. The Daily Ledger wrote in a Feb. 9, 1913, article that the “oriental pavilion” that would replace the streetcar station would be a “pagoda design.”

The plans included a hospital room with an operating table, a carpenter shop, lavatories finished in marble and a smoking room for men.

Some were opposed to the Japanese-inspired architecture, especially when it doubled in cost to $32,000, but designers moved forward. They sought inspiration from Chicago’s Jackson Park with a Japanese teahouse, the camel house at the Washington Zoo and various postcards showing Asian structures.

When the pagoda opened to the public in June 1914, droves turned out to sit in rocking chairs before the tiled fireplace or run their hands over the marble staircases.

Streetcars eventually were phased out, and the last one ran through Point Defiance Park on April 8, 1938. The streetcars were sold for scrap metal, and the tracks were removed.

The Pagoda Bus Station took its place for a while, with the first fleet of 85 buses arriving in February 1938.

But cars became popular in the 1950s, and the buses could no longer compete. The station closed in 1962.

Parks historian Melissa McGinnis, who researched the pagoda’s roots for the application, said its early history “helps tell the national story of transportation.”

The pagoda, which was pretty run-down, sat empty until the Capitol District of Garden Club offered to partner with the parks district and put on flower shows in the brick building.

“They are the unsung heroes in all of this,” McGinnis said. “They’re the ones that started the conversation of it being more of a public gathering space.”

The club fixed up the pagoda, added kitchen space and remodeled the basement to add a meeting room. In 1963 members put in a small Japanese garden to beautify the entrance.

Recognizing its potential, the city started renting out the pagoda in 1983.

Repairs slowly began. Broken roof tiles were replaced, the original green paint covered the walls once again, the kitchen was downsized, a bathroom was added to the main floor, and the building was brought up to code.

A teenage arsonist heavily damaged the structure in 2011, but it still stood. Crews worked for 21 painstaking months to refurbish the pagoda with a $7 million project.

Most materials were reused, and lost features like the cupola and mock sidecar tracks were brought back.

It was the same, but different.

Metro Parks wants to share the glory of the pagoda and tell its story Sunday. Staffers hope to draw hundreds to take a photograph at noon that will mirror an old black-and-white shot showing hundreds of people streaming out of the old streetcar station.

Pierce Transit is bringing in two motorized trolleys resembling old streetcars for the cultural history and natural history tours that will be offered.

Nine tours are scheduled; Johnson said most have already been booked.

Kathy Sutalo, an urban forester, will lead the natural history tours and talk to visitors about the 500 or so acres of old-growth forest in Point Defiance and how it remains a draw for those visiting the park.

“The pagoda was a means of getting people out to the park, and the park was and is considered something special because of the old growth,” Sutalo said.

About 3 million people visit Point Defiance every year, according to Metro Parks. The number of visitors wasn’t tracked in the olden days.

Although park commissioners were criticized in 1914 for spending too much money on the pagoda, they stood their ground.

“The park board said they were making an investment to benefit the fourth generation,” Johnson said. “Here we are. We are the fourth generation.”

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653

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