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Historic Union Club mansion enters new era as ‘co-working’ space

A new roof. That comes first, and then a whole lot more.

Amber and Eli Moreno recently paid $1.2 million for the 126-year-old Union Club mansion at 539 Broadway, near the McMenamins Elks Lodge project just north of downtown.

The building’s construction started in 1889, after the club’s founding in 1888, and was completed in 1890. Today, the site is set to live again and will likely stand as an anchor, along with a revitalized Elks Lodge and Old City Hall, attracting artists, aspiring entrepreneurs and new businesses.

Amber Moreno said the project will follow an urban trend and create “co-working space,” a concept that offers individual and shared workspace with the added benefit of spaces dedicated to networking and collaboration.

“We’re tapping into those entrepreneurs who stay at home but are tired of taking care of the cat,” Eli Moreno said earlier this week during a tour.

“I think it fits in perfectly. This will stitch into that lively neighborhood,” said Michael Sullivan, a Tacoma historian and principal at Artifacts Consulting.

“McMenamins, light rail, that whole ensemble will be wonderful,” Sullivan said. “I’m just ecstatic about it.”

THE BUILDING

The Union Club — later merged with Tacoma’s University Club — once stood as a palace for the town’s elite, a place to eat a thick steak, smoke a fat cigar and ruminate on the challenges and opportunities of civic power.

The views from the east-facing verandas embrace half the compass from the Olympics to the Cascades, from Vashon Island to Mount Rainier and including nearly the whole of Commencement Bay, the Port of Tacoma and the Thea Foss Waterway.

The club, according to the site nomination to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, was formed in 1888 when a group of prominent Tacoma businessmen met at the home of George Browne “to propose that they organize a gentlemen’s club, a place where men of business could dine, meet and mingle, or merely relax and read their papers.”

There was a two-lane bowling alley, an in-house butcher shop, a four-table billiards-pool room, a handful of private dining rooms and a ‘ladies’ retiring room” with puffy white clouds painted across a powder-blue ceiling.

Upstairs were seven rooms reserved for out-of-town members who might need a bed. The foundation comprises granite from Bellingham Bay and original hardwood paneling may reside behind temporary wall coverings.

The club was a mandatory stop for visiting dignitaries and celebrities. William Howard Taft paid a visit, as did Knute Rockne and Eleanor Roosevelt — although Amber Moreno speculates that the former first lady did not enter through the smaller “women’s entry” door, but rather that she stepped in through the more grand main entrance, there beside those bow-glass windows and between those neoclassical iconic columns.

In searching through the collected artifacts, Amber Moreno said she has retrieved several items of historical note, including scrapbooks, framed photos and ledgers — one that includes entries concerning the clubhouse debts of William Boeing — from the club’s earliest days.

THE PLAN

“Our idea is to bring it back to its original splendor,” said Eli Moreno.

The Morenos own several apartment properties in Pierce and King counties and may be best known hereabouts for establishing SURGEtacoma, a co-working complex at 2637 Tacoma Ave. S., where the motto is: “You take care of your business; we take care of the rest.”

Along with their other interests, the Morenos are developing the 14-unit McKinley Artist Lofts in Tacoma’s McKinley Hill district.

Upon opening, the Union Club will offer three tiers of membership, from what is essentially a social membership allowing access to common areas; to a workspace membership that provides a secure desk and ample space to create; to the rental of private offices or studios. Monthly fees, yet to be determined, will likely run from $75 to $250 and up.

The mission at the Union Club, according to its new website, is “to support and promote the local art and technology sectors, creating a gathering place for creatives and entrepreneurs by providing a supportive community where members can do what they love and love where they do it.”

“Once people come out of the house or Starbucks, they find people they can collaborate with,” said Eli Moreno.

“The clients we are targeting are the artist and the entrepreneur,” he said.

“We’re running out of space at SURGEtacoma,” said Amber Moreno.

Having paid $1.2 million for the property — financed without other investors — Eli Moreno said he expects the ongoing investment “is going to be substantial. We believe we may be looking at a couple of million dollars.”

The first phase of renovation will focus on the first two floors and the “great hall” downstairs, the one with the fireplace faced by boulders.

The first phase could be complete by the end of this year, and renovation of the third floor will follow, with the project complete within three years.

“I think the community’s ready,” said Amber Moreno.

“This community is on the verge of some wonderful things,” she said.

C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535

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