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Downtown Tacoma clock tower gutted by fire. Owner says he hopes to rebuild.

Tacoma clock tower owner hopes to rebuild

Fred Roberson said he hopes to rebuild the downtown Tacoma landmark that was gutted by fire Sept. 6, 2017.
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Fred Roberson said he hopes to rebuild the downtown Tacoma landmark that was gutted by fire Sept. 6, 2017.

The 40-foot-tall wooden clock tower that has stood above Tacoma Avenue South for 13 years burned in an overnight fire Wednesday, four months after it was restored to working order.

The clock had been trucked to the downtown property across from the main branch of the Tacoma Public Library from its original site at Clock Tower Square, where University Place City Hall now stands.

Master clock builder Ed “Doc” Farrens had crafted the clock for developer Fred Roberson in 1996. Farrens died in 2001. After University Place bought the site of the clock in 2004, Roberson paid a trucking company nearly $20,000 to move the clock via flatbed and re-erect it in downtown Tacoma.

Shortly before midnight Wednesday, crews were called to the 1100 block of Tacoma Avenue South and were met by heavy flames, a Tacoma Fire spokesman said.

The adjoining office building, also owned by Roberson, sustained little damage, including a burned roof line.

Thursday morning, Roberson stood at the base of the charred clock tower and listened to a Fire Department inspector go over possible causes of the blaze.

Lt. Ken Hansen said he first suspected a problem in the wiring. Lab tests will be necessary to determine whether an arc fault had ignited the wood, he said.

Otherwise, a set fire could have been possible, Hansen said. A neighbor called the Fire Department to report a woman had entered the tower several hours before it burned.

Roberson told the inspector he has insurance and wants to rebuild.

“It’s going to rise again, in all of its glory,” the developer said. “I got a history with this piece.”

Roberson, who made his fortune building apartments in and around Tacoma, is a noted preservationist and owns more than a dozen historic properties locally. The clock tower fire is the worst thing that has happened to any of his properties, he said.

“I’ve been lucky, I guess,” he said. “I’ve never had any disasters.”

Robertson said he might try to restore the clock exactly or improve it. Perhaps he could make it taller or add a mural to an adjoining building, he mused.

“I actually feel it’s my duty to replace that,” he said on a walk around the burned clock. “It’s history. I started something I should finish. It’s part of my legacy.”

The tower has occasionally been broken into, said Mat Shaw, Roberson’s property manager and son-in-law. Several of downtown’s homeless sleep on sidewalks nearby.

Firefighters checked inside the clock tower to ensure no one died in the blaze and found the structure empty.

Roberson said his insurance company will help determine whether the building can be saved or must be replaced.

From the street, it was unclear whether any remnant of the clockmaker’s signature “E. Farrens” around the clock dial had survived the fire, which hollowed and mangled the clock face.

Farrens had repaired clock mechanisms at Old City Hall and Lincoln High School, and created the eagle-crowned clock in the Proctor District and others around the city.

Roberson said he had needed to consult Farrens’ former attorney to find someone who could get the Clock Tower Square clock repaired earlier this year.

“It was hard to find the parts, and it was hard to find the people,” Roberson said. “If I fix it up now, I would like to leave some of the old charred timbers there, just for history.”

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally

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