Entertainment

Historic Tacoma Armory turns from drill hall to entertainment space

Scott Painter, director of operations for the Broadway Center for Performing Arts, is dwarfed by the cavernous space of the drill hall in Tacoma’s historic Armory building on Dec. 1. The Armory is being restored as an arts, entertainment and food venue by owner Fred Roberson, who will eventually gift it to the Broadway Center.
Scott Painter, director of operations for the Broadway Center for Performing Arts, is dwarfed by the cavernous space of the drill hall in Tacoma’s historic Armory building on Dec. 1. The Armory is being restored as an arts, entertainment and food venue by owner Fred Roberson, who will eventually gift it to the Broadway Center. dkoepfler@thenewstribune.com

When Scott Painter walks inside Tacoma’s historic, fortress-like Armory building, it’s clear that he’s in no ordinary entertainment space. The exposed-brick lobby magnifies his voice. In the enormous drill hall, he’s dwarfed by the 40-foot ceilings and reflected in the highly polished wood floors. It takes him five minutes just to turn on all the lights. And beneath his feet are two more floors: warrens of rooms, tall windows, tunneling corridors, mysterious doors. The space echoes with history and potential, yet is fraught with challenges.

For Painter, it’s this distinctiveness that makes the Armory special — and as director of operations for the Broadway Center, he’ll be seeing a lot more of it in the next few years. Because Fred Roberson, who bought the 1908 Armory from the National Guard in 2013 for $950,000 and is gradually restoring it, has not only contracted with the theater management nonprofit to handle rentals. He intends to give it to them permanently as an entertainment space.

“I’m going to give it to the Broadway Center: in my will, or one way or another,” says the 87-year-old developer known for his purchase and creative restoration of local historic buildings. “This is my legacy to Tacoma.”

I knew it was a treasure for Tacoma. I want to make it a community icon.”

Armory owner Fred Roberson

In the meantime, though, there are quite a few challenges to figure out.

THE UPPER LEVEL

In a way, the Armory’s upper level, facing Yakima Avenue, has been the easiest to deal with. The level where the Washington National Guard trained until it relocated in 2011 had already seen two major renovations. One in 1939, when the split floor was leveled and extra trusses added to the towering ceiling, and one in 1985, when its use as a temporary jail meant improving much of the brickwork. It’s been seismically retrofitted twice, and is structurally sound, says Roberson’s manager Mat Shaw. Having also hosted many community events over the years, including high school graduations, sports matches and rock concerts, it still has usable balcony seating, lighting and entranceways.

Over the past year, Roberson’s crew have restored the south-end lobby, ripping off three layers of vinyl and particle board to reveal the original ¼-inch blond fir floor, pulling off and redoing the plaster to expose sections of the lush, pinky-orange brickwork, adding mirrors that copy the historic windows and reflect their light, and replacing some of the wide door panels with more inviting clear glass. Restrooms were added, and the space (called the Roosevelt Room) now hosts receptions and opera rehearsals, serving as an entryway to the drill hall.

The drill hall itself is stunning. The fir floors are so polished they’ve been used for both inline skating and roller derby. The cantilevered ceilings arch over a clear 22,000-square-foot space. Recent events have included dance performances, aerial circus acts, the Tacoma Arts Month kickoff community party and expos including the Northwest Cannabis Classic. The thick walls are dotted rhythmically with arrow-slit windows; the apple-green-cream paintwork has a retro feel. The Broadway Center, which has managed the space’s rental for over a year now, enthusiastically describes it as “perfect for festivals and … other highly attended programs.”

40-foot ceilings can bear 2,000 pounds 22,000 square feet of polished fir floor 2-foot-thick walls

But it’s not perfect for everything. With the few restrooms leading directly off the main floor, no permanent raked seating, and acoustics that quickly become overwhelming, the drill hall is challenging for arts events. The Spectrum Dance performance in October 2014 had no backstage area (the north end rooms are still under renovation) and some audience sightline issues, though director Donald Byrd says he liked the space for that show and would come back again. The Tacoma Symphony, which was considering the space as a venue during the upcoming 2018 Pantages closure, backed out after a recent Broadway Center plan to put in more restrooms, donor lounge and better seating was ditched due to cost.

“It’s quite resonant, but obviously it doesn’t have the audience amenities that we’d need,” says symphony director Andy Buelow.

But even the resonance is an issue. At the recent Arts Month party, the cellist needed amplification, and voices quickly overwhelmed the music.

“I don’t think it’s good for everything,” says Byrd of Spectrum Dance. “It’s a big open space. It’s good if you’re trying to create a spectacle, or an interactive piece … (but) if you’re trying to do something intimate it’s difficult. It can’t operate like a traditional performance space.”

While the space seems perfect for a spectacle such as a circus — each steel truss can bear 2,000 pounds — Cirque du Soleil hasn’t responded to Roberson’s outreach, while smaller companies like Seattle’s IMPulse have opted for cheaper venues like Theater on the Square. (The nonprofitArmory rental rate is $2,700 for one day.) And until Roberson puts in a newer, safer railing, the balcony bleacher seats are blocked off.

The difficulty of filling the space is showing: The Broadway Center has no acts booked for the venue through the rest of this season.

There’s also an issue with the parking. While 30 cars can fit in the basement-level area that used to stable horses, the alley parking lot still belongs to Pierce County, which isn’t selling. That just leaves street parking, although Roberson has bought a lot several blocks west for possible future use and the county is making their lot available after hours.

THE MIDDLE LEVEL

One floor down from the drill hall is where you can see Roberson’s imagination taking shape. He’s already spent $1 million on restoration, and workmen are patiently chipping away plaster, removing false ceilings and knocking down walls to create office spaces that will eventually pay rent. On the north end, the completed showroom offers a glimpse of what all the rooms will be like: tall windows with historic trim and mountain views, red walls, generous black-paneled doors, faux molding.

Along the building’s length are rooms from different periods of history, half dug into the side of the hill. There are bomb-proof metal doors leading to former ammunition storage shelves, restrooms with ancient bidets. Some ceilings are 10 feet high, others are dwarf-size.

“I love this building,” says the Broadway Center’s Painter, opening yet another door. “I’m always discovering new things.”

On the south end, workmen are uncovering more of the beautiful brickwork, with stair-stepping on the top 18 inches. This end, which has an entrance off South 11th Street, will be home to both the Armory Products Group (a vendor merchandise display room) and, Roberson hopes, restaurant space. The Vault Catering Group already services the Roosevelt Room upstairs.

And for all the restoration, Roberson is repurposing as much material as possible. A veteran of renovating historic Tacoma buildings like the Harmon brewery and Carlton Hotel, Roberson is clearly enjoying himself, talking details with workmen as he tours the building.

“I love the towers here,” he says. “And that 40-foot ceiling really inspires me.”

“Fred has a relationship with this building,” adds Shaw. “That’s why he bought it. Restoring old buildings … that’s what he likes, like a kid in a sandbox.”

THE LOWER LEVEL

In the basement, things get really funky. At the northern end, Roberson’s crew uses the tall stable space as a workshop, the air filled with sawdust and oil. Narrow passages lead off to strange spaces, once used for storage and still bearing stenciled words on the wall: “TENTS.” A space-age metal door leads to another passage going nowhere. In the boiler room, a deep trough once used to bathe Army horses now heats the whole building. Behind another locked door marked with warning signs is some high-voltage electrical equipment, so old that Tacoma Power was surprised to find it there, Painter says.

And in the part of the building deepest under the hill, Painter stoops through 5-foot doorways to open up what he thinks was a target practice room: insulated by 3-foot walls and about 25 feet long, close to yet more ammunitions cages. Inside, it’s completely silent and — when you turn off the lights — completely dark.

At the southern end, however, there’s a brand-new space. Tacoma Actors Repertory Theater, newly formed, has taken the former mess hall and converted it into a black-box theater, mostly underground. Eight solid pillars flank the audience and stage area, and a screen blocks off the parking lot entry. Beyond several vivid red doors lie musty storage rooms with the potential to become green rooms or reception areas.

It’s a fantastic space with a lot of possibilities.”

Donald Byrd, director of Spectrum Dance

“It’s an incredibly versatile space,” says director Jen Tidwell, who signed a three-year lease with Roberson for the theater. “We can lay it out however we want to: proscenium, thrust, in the round.”

Tidwell has already coped with one of the potential problems of a historic building: a 3-inch flood mid-performance during an October rainstorm, when water poured down one of the original window wells on the building’s upper side. It was fixed promptly, and hasn’t put the director off the building.

“That’s why I like it: it’s such a funky, unique space, and it’s great for us to get established in the community in such a well-known building,” she says.

THE FUTURE

Meanwhile, Roberson continues to pour money into turning his Armory building into a 21st-century entertainment space, and has confidence it won’t take too long.

“I came here for boxing matches long ago, and I knew it was a treasure for Tacoma,” says the developer. “I want to make it a community icon.”

“It’s a fantastic space with a lot of possibilities,” says Spectrum Dance’s Byrd.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

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