Remembering the Tacoma, once the grandest hotel north of San Francisco

At the Tacoma — built in 1884 and considered the grandest hotel north of San Francisco — everything was the finest.

Ladies with lace-trimmed parasols strolled the 206-foot-long veranda overlooking Mount Rainier and Commencement Bay while men played pool in the largest billiards room in the West.

The luxury attracted famous entertainers and politicians, including Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, writer Mark Twain and baseball player Babe Ruth.

“It was an experience,” said Bill Baarsma, president of the Tacoma Historical Society.

To recapture that experience 130 years later, the Historical Society on Friday will open a 10-week exhibit — “Be Our Guest” — featuring the grandeur of the hotel, which occupied an entire block of A Street between South Ninth and 10th streets.

Relics from the society paired with tales of hotel guests, the famous Tacoma totem pole, and Jack, the hotel’s pet bear, will celebrate the hotel’s legacy, Baarsma said.

The five-story, 185-room structure — the creation of noted American architect Stanford White — burned down in 1935, but memories and artifacts remain as part of Tacoma’s history.

The Tacoma Hotel will be the society’s first exhibit that tells a specific story of a lost Tacoma landmark, said Deb Freedman, treasurer for the organization.

To create the exhibit, the Historical Society borrowed mainly from private collections and drew from artifacts at the Tacoma Public Library.

“I’m hoping with this hotel exhibit that we’ll be telling a story and part of that is that people will come in and tell us their story,” Freedman said.

Staying at the Tacoma

The hotel’s opening on Aug. 8, 1884, was an evening to remember for Tacomans dressed in their finest.

A full page in The Tacoma Ledger detailed the event.

“Probably at no other place in Northwest has there ever occurred a social entertainment of such magnitude and quality as that of the hop last night at the ‘Tacoma,’ which signified the formal opening of this splendid new hotel,” the newspaper reported.

Some of the city’s upper-crust residents lived in the hotel back before apartments came to be, Freedman said. Rooms were furnished with a bed, sitting area, dressers and a writing desk.

Many members of the staff worked there for decades, so guests had the same stewards each time they stayed at the hotel.

Men went down to Henry Asberry, the hotel barber, for their morning shave. Many guests had their own personalized hand-painted shaving mugs.

“When presidents came, they brought their own barber because they didn’t want anyone getting nervous with a sharp knife around the president’s neck,” Freedman said. “But he (the hotel barber) shaved Mark Twain and all the famous people that came through.”

Meals were served in multiple dining rooms. Each day a crisply printed menu was set at the tables with the special of the day displayed in the center. Some menus listed songs that guests could request the hotel orchestra play to accompany dinner.

In 1920, guests could order a meal of fresh Dungeness crab for 75 cents. A warm slice of green apple pie cost 15 cents.

The Tacoma was among the first to incorporate fusion-style cooking, Freedman said.

“Their specialty was local fresh food like oysters with these fancy French dishes,” she said. “And their kitchen was equipped to serve the hundreds of people who stayed there.”

The potato peeler could finish a bag of potatoes in 20 minutes and giant ovens could bake 500 pies a day.

The historic totem pole was erected south of the Tacoma in May 1903 in time for President Roosevelt's visit. Standing 85 feet tall, it was the first totem pole he'd seen outside a museum, Freedman said.

The pole later was moved to nearby Fireman's Park. After a recent controversy surrounding its gradual despair, plans to reinforce the pole were devised and it will be restored to its former glory, Freedman said.

As for the Tacoma, it changed hands in the early 1900s, and a nautical theme was adopted, Baarsma said. Themed rooms included the Viking Room with Norse ships coming out of the pillars.

Jack the Bear

On some occasions, guests could find an 800-pound brown bear standing at the bar and drinking a beer.

The captivity of Jack the Bear began after two hunters killed his mother, but didn't have the heart to shoot Jack and his twin sister, later named Jennie. The hunters brought the cubs home and raised them as pets.

No one knows what happened to Jennie, but as Jack grew to the size of a fat collie dog he was sold to the Tacoma Hotel, where he was a star attraction in the 1880s, Baarsma said.

Jack’s pen overlooking the waterfront had a measly fence that separated him from onlookers. Some days, he grew bored, climbed over the fence and roamed Tacoma’s roads.

One night Jack slipped out of his pen and startled a policeman who evidently wasn’t familiar with the bear’s harmless demeanor, Freedman said. The police officer shot Jack in the side, killing him.

The beloved bear was stuffed and placed in the hotel, where he greeted guests outside the dining room for years before he was obtained by the Washington State History Museum.

In 1958, the museum removed the stuffed bear from its collection and gave it away, ending his public history.

The fire

The blaze that swept through the Tacoma in 1935 reduced the once grand hotel to a charred skeleton.

The source of the fire remains a mystery. It broke out about 6 a.m. in the carpentry shop on a lower floor. Flames spread up the walls and through the roof on the fourth floor.

With no hope of saving the building, the priority was getting the guests out of the burning hotel.

“That is one of the triumphs in the fire department’s history,” Freedman said. “There were no fatalities.”

Several rescued guests credited the Japanese bell boys who stayed on duty, knocked on doors and got them out of their rooms, Freedman said.

“In 1942, they were interned (in camps) because of the war,” she said. “But, in 1935, they were saving lives.”

Portions of the hotel were untouched by the flames and some artifacts — including a charred menu that will be on display at the exhibit — were salvaged.

The hotel was leveled and turned into a parking lot. Half a century later a granite building was constructed. For years it was the headquarters of the Russell Investment Co. and now is occupied by State Farm Insurance.

Revival of a lost hotel

Freedman said her biggest surprise while organizing the exhibit was people’s attachment to a hotel that burned down nearly 80 years ago.

Local residents were eager to lend their relics, even though it was apparent how much they cherished them, she said.

Baarsma shared a similar sentiment.

“I came into this world after the Tacoma Hotel burned down, but still I knew about the hotel,” he said. “I grew up hearing about it. My grandfather was there for my grandmother’s cotillion.”

Rare photographs of Jack and the fire will be on display at the exhibit and Freedman said she hopes visitors will add to the Tacoma’s history with their stories.

“It’s the stories that make it special,” she said.