Few of Tacoma’s founding fathers left a legacy like William Ross Rust did. The copper baron in the late 1800s and early 1900s left his mark all over the South Sound.
It can be found on maps in the form of Ruston, in city institutions such as Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and in the city’s most opulent homes.
One of those homes, a grand mission revival-style mansion on North Yakima Street, is for sale.
Festooned with fluted columns, Tiffany-esque windows and a ballroom, the 9,000-square-foot home is up for sale. Asking price for the 1913 home: $1.7 million.
WILLIAM ROSS RUST
Rust came to Tacoma in 1889 and quickly turned a small copper smelter just southeast of Point Defiance into a gigantic industrial operation.
“You have to appreciate what a big deal copper was in that period before the First World War,” said Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan.
Gas lighting was giving way to electrical lighting in homes. Engineers and inventors were coming up with devices that used electricity. And it all depended on copper.
“There was so much pressure from J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheims. They came in and made him just a ridiculous offer to buy the smelter,” Sullivan said.
When Rust sold his Ruston copper smelter in 1905 he had $5.5 million in his pocket — enough money to live where he wanted.
He chose to stay in Tacoma. “He reinvested in the city,” Sullivan said.
Along with the downtown Rust Building and Winthrop Hotel, he also invested in ventures such as the H.C. Weaver movie studio and the consortium that bought land to lure the Army to the future Fort Lewis.
He also built himself a palace befitting his stature and wealth.
A few blocks away from the North Yakima home is a larger and grander house overlooking North I street.
The home at 1001 N. I Street is sometimes referred to as Tacoma’s White House. Both share a general neoclassical architectural style.
While the exterior is a bit weathered, the I Street home is still one of Tacoma’s grandest homes and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Rusts built the home in 1905 after commissioning its design by Tacoma architect Ambrose Russell. The sandstone mansion is dominated by a Roman Doric portico. Its numerous rooms are spread over 11,000 square feet.
The Rusts spared no expense on the I street home, outfitting its eight unique fireplaces in marble and the stairwells in mahogany. A basement held a ballroom and a detached garage was outfitted with a turntable. It cost $122,500 in 1905, when the average residential home cost $6,000 to build.
While the Rusts were in Europe in 1911, one of their two sons, Howard, died. How he died depends on who is doing the telling. A newspaper story from the period said he was on a ranch in Hanford. He “ruptured an artery in the heart while conversing with friends” just shy of his 25th birthday, the brief item said.
But others say he died in the house by his own hand.
However it happened, their son was gone, and Helen Rust couldn’t bear to live in the home that contained so many memories of Howard.
The Rusts sold the house for $50,000 and moved out, leaving their furnishings, for which they had paid $50,000, behind.
And so a new home was built at 521 N. Yakima Ave.
The North Yakima home was designed by Frederick Heath. A contemporary of Russell’s, Heath worked with him at one point in their careers. Heath’s lasting contributions to Tacoma and Pierce County include Stadium High School and Bowl, Lincoln High School, the Pythian Temple and Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier National Park.
“He was very much influenced by the bungalow style. Even though the references are obviously Mediterranean, the overall style and construction is very much in that arts-and-crafts bungalow style,” Sullivan said of the North Yakima home.
William Rust died in 1928 at age 78. Helen died in 1954. Both are interred at Tacoma Mausoleum.
The home and half-acre lot had two other owners until it was purchased by Rex and Frances Williams in 1965 for $28,000. It’s still owned by the Williams family.
Rex died in a parachuting accident in 2008 and Frances moved to Spokane to be closer to her daughter, said son Dax Williams. Dax, his brother and sister grew up in the Rust mansion. Dax uses the house as the base for his family’s apartment rental business, Williams Properties. His sister manages the family’s properties in Spokane.
“My mom figured she would be drug out of this house feet first, but when the grandkids came, she said, ‘I’m out of here,’ ” Dax said.
Williams said the house was in good condition when it was purchased. Unlike many older homes it had been spared the indignities of an “updated” remodel job.
“Other than ripping out the original marble in all the bathrooms except for one,” Williams said. That one remaining original bathroom was used as a guide to restore the others in the house that had been outfitted with blue 1960s fixtures.
A LOOK INSIDE
Beginning with the first step into the home, a visitor notes both its history and attention to detail. The vestibule has a mosaic tile floor with a prominent R in the center. The walls of the small chamber feature intricate molding and hand painting.
Another Rust influence in the home: copper gutters and downspouts.
“In real estate today everybody has a budget,” said ReMax listing broker Sonia Grunberg. “There was no budget when Rust worked with Heath.”
The home’s foyer is framed by carved columns. The carving is carried throughout the main floor. A fireplace mantel in the dining room has a carved R bracketed by two cherubs.
But it’s perhaps the ceilings that are most striking. Not content with geometric boxed beams, the ceilings in each room have different patterns of swirling and painted trim.
The Williamses updated the kitchen to suit their needs. It’s the only room in the house that has a 21st-century feel.
“I would guess whoever buys this will rip this out and put in a more traditional kitchen,” Williams said.
The kitchen has a small pass-through into a library. The compact room is completely lined with oak paneling. Built-in bookcases have glass doors with mysterious symbols, possibly Masonic. One can imagine a post-party group of 1920s men drinking brandy and smoking cigars.
Those parties might have taken place in the house’s ballroom in the basement. The 1,000-square-foot room has built-in oak benches, a ladies lounge, 12-foot-high ceilings and a bandstand. In a nearby room is a home theater worthy of William Randolph Hearst.
The trip from the main floor to the upper level is eye-popping. Two walls of the stairwell and its ceiling are outfitted with Tiffany-esque windows featuring peacocks and a Greek god spewing a waterfall. A separate servants’ staircase also leads to the upper floor.
Between the main house and carriage house is a swimming pool, waterfalls and a circular drive. The carriage house itself is the size of a typical family home. The main floor is a three-car garage. Above is a good-size apartment. Below is a large basement where Dax and his friends jammed during high school.
Despite all the memories, Dax said he isn’t sorry to see the house sold.
“I am remarkably non-nostalgic,” Dax said. “It served a great purpose, but it’s a lot of upkeep. I think the best thing that could happen is somebody coming in to the house to have the experience we had.”