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Should landmark status for Tacoma’s Cushman Substation include its interior?

Should landmark status for Tacoma’s Cushman Substation include its interior?

There is debate among the city, Tacoma Public Utilities and preservationists about how much of the site and the surrounding properties should be added to the Tacoma Register of Historic Places.
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There is debate among the city, Tacoma Public Utilities and preservationists about how much of the site and the surrounding properties should be added to the Tacoma Register of Historic Places.

No one debates the historical significance, or majesty, of the Cushman Substation.

The neoclassical-style building, with its two-story columns and distyle temple entry, rises from a swath of surrounding single-family homes in Tacoma’s North End, and hearkens to a more gilded age of government buildings.

The property, which takes up an entire city block of North 21st Street, and the transmission line, built in 1925 to bring power from the Cushman Hydroelectric Project to Tacoma, are on the National Register of Historic Places.

But there’s some question about how much of that site and the surrounding utility properties should be added to the Tacoma Register of Historic Places.

Local architect Jeffrey Ryan and others with an eye toward preservation want the Cushman building, the exterior of the adjacent Adams Substation, the surrounding sites, one of the old lattice power towers and the inside of the Cushman building designated as city landmarks.

Doing so would allow for more oversight of what happens to them.

Taken together, the pieces tell the story of the nearly 100-year-old project that brought the production of hydroelectric power to Tacoma, Ryan argues. The various utility elements work in historical context with each other, he says.

Very few interior spaces are considered historic landmarks in the landmarks register for the city. These include the lobby of the Municipal Building and the auditorium of the Pantages Theater, both of which are highly used by the public.

Reuben McKnight, city of Tacoma historic preservation officer

So far, voting bodies that have taken up the matter mostly agreed: the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the City Council’s Infrastructure, Planning and Sustainability committee voted to forward the nominations for all the pieces of utility property.

Next, the full City Council will review the nominations and choose to keep all of the elements, or remove some as desired before a final vote.

City and Tacoma Public Utilities staff members are mostly OK with the nominations. But both groups have said the interior condenser room in the Cushman Substation shouldn’t be considered, because it’s not a public space and has never been.

According to the city code, that means it shouldn’t get city landmark status, deputy city attorney Martha Lantz said.

“Very few interior spaces are considered historic landmarks in the landmarks register for the city,” Reuben McKnight, the city’s historic preservation officer, said at last week’s Infrastructure, Planning and Sustainability committee meeting.

“These include the lobby of the municipal building and the auditorium of the Pantages Theater, both of which are highly used by the public.”

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A view inside the Cushman Substation from the front windows in Tacoma on Friday. Tacoma Public Utilities used the interior of the Cushman Substation for storage. Joshua Bessex jbessex@gateline.com

Ryan decided to nominate the substations and the other utility elements during a time of transition in their almost century of use: The Cushman Substation was deactivated in fall 2016, and the equipment and structures within its fence will be removed at the end of 2018, according to Tacoma Public Utilities.

The utility is embarking on a project to replace the old, rusty lattice towers along North 21st Street with tall, steel monopoles, improving the street’s aesthetic.

As those changes start to roll, Ryan and others are concerned about possible future uses of the Cushman Substation, which now is used for storage.

“The local designation, the reason that I initially suggested and put an effort forward to put this on the register, is it gives the residents of the North End around that substation an opportunity to comment,” Ryan said, “so if you go to do improvements to the building and you say you’re going to tear it all down, either way it has to go in front of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and it gives them an opportunity to say something about it where — without the designation — there is very little opportunity.”

The North End residents who spoke at last week’s committee meeting said they want to see a park or a community center at the historic building after TPU is done with it. Those endeavors cost money, TPU staff remembers noted, and for now the building still is in use.

The local designation ... gives the residents of the North End around that substation an opportunity to comment.

Jeffrey Ryan, Tacoma architect who nominated the Cushman Substation and surrounding elements for city landmark status

The plan is for the substation to be surplussed eventually, said TPU spokesman Robert Mack. But it will be used for storage for the foreseeable future, he said. Inside the three-story building are spools of electrical wire, a giant crane and other equipment.

Ryan argues that the inside has been open to the public in the past for tours, and what he called a viewing platform in the big, open room suggests it was designed to look like a public space.

“Just stating that the room looks as if it was designed for public tours and saying there have been is not accurate,” Mack responded. “The original use of that room was to have heavy equipment to break down the power and redirect it.

“It was always an industrial room and the public never had access to the room,” he said.

In fact, Mack said, the utility has turned down multiple requests to film movies and video games — including the popular first-person shooter game “Halo” — inside the substation for that reason.

TPU originally pushed back on the idea of saving one of the lattice towers, because its plan is to remove all of them and replace them with much taller power poles. But it agreed to keep one for historical purposes, if it could be moved.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud

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