It’s enough of a sensuous experience taking in the carved mahogany, Italian marble and curvy glass windows of the Virges House living room. But if you’re Phil Ray, you also have the sound of a jazz record playing on the original Victrola gramophone, and the touch of 1903 damask silk covering on your fingers. The Virges House in Tacoma’s North End is part of the city’s annual Historic Homes tour April 30-May 1, along with five other historic homes and host venue Central Lutheran Church.
As always, the fascination of the self-guided tour hovers equally between the 100-year-old history and what it takes to restore it.
“I tried to find somewhere that still made this silk, to replace it,” explains Ray, who has lived in the Virges House since 1996 and took full ownership in 2002. He gently strokes the dusky rose damask of the living room wall coverings — not glued on like wallpaper, but stapled in sewn panels, springy and soft to the touch. “But the only place was in Lyon, France, and they charge $10,000 for one room.”
Ray is typical of homeowners on the Historic Homes tour in that he and his wife, Sandy, love their house and take great care to preserve it. But Ray — a locomotive engineer with BNSF — has gone a little beyond the usual.
The Rays are just the third owners of the house. A colonial-revival home designed by Tacoma architect Carl Darmer, the house was built in 1903 by William Virges, a German immigrant who established a drug store chain, began the Pacific Brewing and Malting Co., co-founded the Tacoma Country and Golf Club and oversaw the building of Tacoma General Hospital, among other ventures.
In 1913, Virges added a south wing, solarium and carriage house and traveled to Europe during the renovation process, bringing back a number of furnishings (and narrowly missing a fatal return trip on the Titanic).
In 1958, the house was bought by Arthur Anderson, who went on to co-found Concrete Technology Corp., which built Cheney Stadium.
The house was even featured 18 months ago in the Wall Street Journal, after the Rays briefly put it on the market. They couldn’t find a buyer, and moved back in.
“It’s quite spectacular,” says James Hoard, of the Tacoma Historical Society, which runs the tour each year.
What’s delightful about the Virges house is that so many of Virges’ furnishings are still there.
What’s delightful about the Virges house is that so many of Virges’ furnishings are still there. In the living room and dark-beamed library, original brass curtain rods stretch over the windows and wide door frames. Heavy mirrors with ornate frames hang from the picture rail by brass chains. In the dining room are two chairs brought back from Europe, their frames elaborately carved in Tyrolean style with a carved crest in the center of the sunburst wicker weaving. Fireplaces all have marble or tile surrounds; the scroll radiators (reinstalled by Ray) have hat-drying racks above them; even the second maid’s bedroom in the third floor attic has its original bed, vanity and writing desk. Looming in the hall entry is the Virges’ 8-foot-high grandfather clock, with a gold face and carved mahogany Corinthian columns that match the living room fireplace. In the library, two mounted deer heads flank the fireplace, shot by Anderson and his son back in the day. Many light fixtures are original or of the period, and the upstairs bath is one of the first of its kind after claw-foot tubs, with beautiful old piping.
24 Knife switches in the 1903 fuse box
The Virges’ originally had two Steinways in the living room. Now the Rays have a Mason and Hamlin baby grand. But the real musical find is the original Victrola, the size of a small bookcase, complete with shelves of records from the 1920s and ’30s. Ray found it in the attic when he bought the house.
“It’s still in perfect condition,” he says, gently putting a jazz record onto the green baize turntable and lowering the needle. “And I love this — look how you turn up the volume.”
Grinning, he opens the front cabinet doors to let the swing band flood into the living room — instant history.
Like many homeowners on the Historic Homes tour, Ray has done a lot of work on his house. When he bought it, most rooms had cracked, peeling wallpaper, which he removed and had replastered. He modernized the kitchen, including building his own hanging shelf fixture, installed the old sink in the basement and renovated one of its existing enamel washtubs, and even brought one of the attic’s lovely, multipaned arch windows down to the basement when it had to be removed. (Only the first and second floors will be open on the Historic Homes tour, however.) Ray connected a black 1950 rotary dial phone, and reconnected the pearl button in the living room which originally summoned the maids from the kitchen. He took apart and reassembled the entire main staircase (there’s also a servants’ stair, leading up from the kitchen), and refurbished the elegant scroll radiators.
And then there are the candle sconces. Nine in the living room, and more silver ones in the upstairs sitting room and bedrooms, they would originally have been electric. When Ray had the whole house rewired, he connected them both to a central switch and a dimmer, to replicate 1903 lighting levels; and had each wired individually to its own on/off switch.
“Back in the day, you would have had to go around and light each one,” he points out.
40 Candle sconces inside the Virges House
There are many other details that make the Virges House a delight to walk around: the leaded windows on the second floor, graceful art deco arches that frame the view over the Sound. The bookcases in the library, nestled into the corners with intriguing diagonal wood trim in their glass fronts. The dentil trim and mahogany floor inlay; the honeycomb tiles in the bathroom; the grandeur of the carriage house (now a garage, with the upper level rented out) and the sweep of the lawn, with its Italian fountain and flower beds.
“We play croquet on it a lot,” says Sandy Ray.
Looking out over the lawn from the sun-filled 1913 solarium, one can imagine the Virges doing exactly the same thing on a calm summer afternoon, hearing the occasional streetcar rattle by on North Tacoma Avenue — or the strains of jazz from the Victrola inside.
22nd Historic Homes of Tacoma Tour
What: Six historic homes in the Stadium-Seminary district, with host venue Central Lutheran Church, 409 Tacoma Ave. N., Tacoma (other addresses given on ticket purchase).
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. April 30, 1-5 p.m. May 1.
Tickets: $25 from Tacoma Historical Society (919 Pacific Ave., Tacoma); Pacific Northwest Shop (2702 N. Proctor St., Tacoma), Stadium Thriftway (618 N. First St., Tacoma), Columbia Bank (21st and Pearl Streets, Fircrest; South 19th Street and Union Avenue, Tacoma) and at Central Lutheran Church on the day of tour .
Information: 253-472-3738, tacomahistory.org.
Homes on the tour
All homes are in the Stadium-Seminary district (locations given when ticket purchased). None have ever been on the tour before.
1890 Blackwell Mansion: Four floors with white oak woodwork, leaded glass and mullioned windows, mahogany fireplace surrounds, penthouse apartment and more.
1893 Osgood House: American stick-built, three floors recently restored with pocket doors, granite fireplace surrounds, oak and mahogany woodwork and a 1903 bath.
1897 Hopkins-Crocker House: Victorian stick-style, three floors, renovated, with oak floors, pocket doors, bay windows, sun porch, stained-glass windows, decks, views and more.
1903 Virges House: Colonial-Revival, three floors with library, billiards room (now table-tennis), carriage house, original paneling and bookcases, solarium and more.
1911 Rust Mansion (second): Colonial, sandstone fronted, three floors with mosaic entry floor, ornate woodwork, silk wallpaper, stained-glass ceilings, billiards room, gymnasium, home theater and more.
1941 Long House: Four-story house originally constructed as apartment building, with glass panel doors and deck, period cabinets, bay views and more.
1925 Central Lutheran Church: Stained glass windows, hand carving, 1874 organ and more.