Q&A: A glimpse of Tacoma’s architecture

Tacoma architect and City Councilman David Boe will lead a walking tour through the city’s historic downtown area on Wednesday, part of a series of activities in May to celebrate National Historic Preservation Month.

Boe, who’s also been on the Tacoma Planning Commission, promises plenty of exercise during the one-hour tour and a presentation on architectural history that “will not be unbiased.”

Boe sat down with The News Tribune for a sneak preview.

Q: What’s the main takeaway going to be for people on Wednesday?

A: People always ask, “Why are things built this way?” I’m going to try to explain that, maybe in a bigger context.

Q: You mean structurally?

A: That’s part of it. One thing people have to realize about Tacoma is that it was built incredibly fast. Amazingly fast. We were the Dubai of our time. In the span of 20 years it went from barely 1,000 people to over 40,000 people.

Rudyard Kipling visited Tacoma in 1889 and he said it was “staggering under a boom of the boomiest.”

So some of the buildings were built – I’m not going to say shoddily – but very quickly. We had an issue in the ’70s when a lot of the tops came off the buildings. Top floors were starting to fail and the city pretty aggressively said, “Hey, if you have cornice work or even top floors that aren’t restrained, you need to do something about it.” So the city got a lot shorter.

Q: Why is the city laid out the way it is?

A: We’ll talk about that a lot, hopefully to understand more about the new buildings and old buildings and how they relate to each other, and some of the thought behind them.

One thing is that Tacoma is one of the few West Coast cities that faces east. How does that play into the success of a city?

Also, we have very large alleys. The city was laid out based on what’s called the Hoddle Grid, which comes from Melbourne, Australia. As a result, Tacoma has these super blocks, these double-long blocks and also incredibly wide alleys. It has 40-foot-wide alleys, which are almost streets. So there are places in Tacoma where you feel you’re in Europe because our alleys are as big as a lot of their streets are.

We’ll talk about some of the buildings and how they were influenced by their time, especially some of the newer construction. For example, the 909 A St. building – the Russell Building – that was built and designed in the mid-’80s, a time when Tacoma did not quite have the population it now has downtown.

The streets weren’t as conducive as they are now to storefronts and shops and restaurants and bars and those kinds of things, so the building pretty much takes a defensive approach to how it sits on the city.

Right next to it is the Tacoma Building, which Weyerhaeuser was in, and it took a more 19th-century approach to the city, welcoming it in a bit more.

Q: Give us two or three of the main stops on your walk and tell us why you chose them.

A: One of them is behind the Federal Building – the post office – where you see the architecture of the 19th century juxtaposed with the Wells Fargo building – the 20th century. I always feel that’s kind of interesting.

Then there will be Fireman’s Park, which has so many stories to it. It has the one protected view we have in the city of Mount Rainier through the Murray Morgan Bridge. There’s also the native history of the Fireman’s Park area and maybe we’ll have a little discussion about the railroad and, of course, the elusive petroglyph.

Fireman’s Park is called that because the old fire station was there, where the totem pole is now. Right next to it is where the Tacoma Hotel was, which burned down even though it was next door to the fire station, so that’s interesting.

Then, if we have enough time, we’ll scale up Spanish Steps and Opera Alley and talk about the angled streets and how they go back to the layout of the city back in the 1870s.

Q: Tacoma seems to have a more intact downtown than a lot of other places around the Puget Sound. How did that happen?

A: Tacoma’s victory was partly that it was spared from urban renewal. A lot of buildings were slated to come down just because they were old, but for a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen.

Because we didn’t have big developments, we were a little bit slower – more the tortoise than the hare – and we were able to keep a lot of those existing buildings.

Q: What has been the biggest loss to Tacoma in terms of a historically significant structure that should have been saved but wasn’t?

A: Probably the Pierce County Courthouse (demolished in 1959). But in recent time, the Luzon Building. Its demolition (in 2009) for me personally was probably the hardest to accept. I went through that building about six months before it was taken down and while the inside was totally rotted, I was very impressed by the exterior walls. I am 100 percent positive it could have been saved and repurposed.

Q: What did you like about the Luzon Building?

A: The elevation that faced north, that faced 13th Street, told the whole history of skyscrapers. For an architect, all of it was there – how it was composed, the construction. And it was a John Wellborn Root building. It had his penmanship on it. That’s maybe not quite like saying you have a Stradivarius, but it’s close.

Q: Are there buildings in Tacoma that are from, say, the second half of the 20th century, that 100 years from now people are going to be fighting over and saying this is really a significant architectural statement and worth saving?

A: This is outside the downtown area, but when I think of buildings that are just phenomenal buildings of their time and also have, in a sense, become timeless, I think of Christ Episcopal Church up on North K Street. It’s just a phenomenal building. That and Wells Hall – that whole collection there is quite remarkable.

Some of the projects at the University of Washington Tacoma – some of the more contemporary ones – may rise to that level. The Tacoma Art Museum with the Antoine Predock original and then the addition by Olson Kundig that’s under construction, combined with the Prairie Line. When you start to look at those things, I hope the legacy will be, “Wow, folks really thought this through.”

There’s also the Washington State History Museum, although it’s very contextual and referential in its design. I’m sure I’m missing ones that I’ll later kick myself for not mentioning.

Q: What historically significant buildings in Tacoma are most threatened right now?

A: Old City Hall is still No. 1 on the list. That and the Elks Lodge. Those are two buildings that to me are ones we need to do everything we can to protect until they are redeveloped.

In general, though, the most threatened buildings are ones that are not occupied. The most important aspect of maintaining and securing a historic building is having a good roof on it. If you have a good roof, a lot of issues can go away for many years. If you don’t, it’s demolition by neglect.

Q: Lots to talk about on a one-hour walk. Are you going to be able to get it all in?

A: It’s a pretty optimistic view. It’ll be flying pretty fast