The end may be near — very near, in fact — for the old Scottish Rite Cathedral on South G Street, across the street from Wright Park.
A commercial demolition permit is pending the city’s review process and, assuming the necessary paperwork is in order, Reuben McKnight, the city of Tacoma’s historic preservation officer, says he expects it to be granted soon.
Whether the potential loss of the building matters remains a matter of opinion. Some in Tacoma, including at least one person I talked with this week, have called the building “ugly.”
But for those who care deeply about historic preservation, quantifying the looming historical loss for Tacoma is a little clearer — and far less subjective than ornamental beauty.
The cathedral, which opened in 1922, has served as a church dating to the mid-1930s. Since 1937, it’s been owned by the Tacoma Bible Presbyterian Church — which occupied the building until last year. In May, an electrical fire caused extensive interior damage. (Tacoma Bible Presbyterian Church currently meets in the gymnasium of Heritage Christian School in University Place.)
Designed by the Tacoma architectural firm Sutton, Whitney and Dugan — a prolific outfit also credited with, among other notable buildings, the Annie Wright Seminary, the YWCA clubhouse on Broadway and the National Bank of Tacoma — the structure originally served as a fraternal hall for the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, a branch of the Masons.
Mixing elements of art deco, neoclassical, and art moderne design, the stout, poured-concrete building has been home to a number of notable events in the city’s history, including a visit from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in June 1923.
But even more than that, it contributes to the historic character of the surrounding Stadium and Wright Park neighborhoods — still home to many of the city’s most historic buildings, including the neighboring First Presbyterian Church.
So what’s coming in its place, if the demolition permit is approved?
The proposed mixed-use building would incorporate five residential stories with associated outdoor and storage space and two levels of underground parking.
A cultural resources management plan commissioned by Tacoma Bible Presbyterian Church, conducted by Historical Research Associates, Inc.
According to a cultural resources management plan commissioned by Tacoma Bible Presbyterian Church, delivered to the church early this year and included in the March 22 agenda of a meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Committee, Rush Development is planning to buy the property where the cathedral currently sits and build “a multistory, mixed-use building with subterranean parking.”
“The proposed mixed-use building would incorporate five residential stories with associated outdoor and storage space and two levels of underground parking,” the report states.
The sale of the property is contingent on the ability to secure a demolition permit, the report goes on to indicate.
Neither Rush nor Tacoma Bible Presbyterian Church responded to calls for comment on this column.
The cultural resources management plan describes some of the understandable challenges facing the church, which has a congregation of roughly 100 people. Those challenges include the substantial cost of repairs to an aging building that needed upgrades even before the electrical fire.
The report indicates that the Tacoma Bible Presbyterian Church’s congregation voted unanimously to sell the property in February 2016. It also details attempts to find another church to buy the property, and efforts to find a buyer willing to save the building by renovating it for another use. Ultimately, both proved unsuccessful, resulting in the church’s decision to accept Rush’s offer — which was one of three it received, all of which included the demolition of the building.
For historic preservation types, all of this has proved unsettling, if not terribly surprising. Owned by a church, the property isn’t subject to historic preservation laws the way that other properties are, McKnight explains. So when it comes to potentially protecting it, the city’s hands are essentially tied — aside from haggling over potential mitigation gestures, such as salvaging and reusing some of the building’s architectural ornaments, or displaying of historic photos or materials from the cathedral in the new building.
McKnight does note that the building that eventually replaces the old Scottish Rite Cathedral will “require a design review ... with feedback from the landmarks commission.”
“The unfortunate thing is that I would very much like to see it preserved,” said McKnight. “It’s part of a collection of fairly iconic buildings around Wright Park. But there’s really … not a lot we can do to not issue the demolition permit.”
Well-known historian and former Tacoma historic preservation officer Michael Sullivan was even more blunt in expressing his disappointment over our collective inability to protect it.
“That building, unfortunately, is in the sort of hole in the donut as far as protection of historic properties goes,” he told me.
“There’s a voraciousness right now about building apartments quickly, because funders are funding them, and lenders are really lending them, and the prices are going up on apartments,” he continued. “Developers want to catch that window of opportunity.”
The unfortunate thing is that I would very much like to see it preserved. It’s part of a collection of fairly iconic buildings around Wright Park. But there’s really … not a lot we can do to not issue the demolition permit.
Reuben McKnight, the city of Tacoma’s historic preservation officer
While Sullivan and others expressed a general sentiment or variation of, “It’s never gone until it’s torn down,” most people I spoke to were fairly resigned to the idea that the Scottish Rite Cathedral will be lost to development, sooner rather than later.
That said, many also expressed a desire to take lessons from this painful education.
Sullivan told me that Tacomans deserve to know a whole lot more about the building that will likely replace the cathedral than is currently available.
“Even if it isn’t a landmark that’s being removed, the process we should have in Tacoma should allow us to understand, in great detail, what the replacement building is going to look like before they go in and get their demolition permit,” he said.
Susan Johnson, an architectural historian who currently works with Sullivan at Artifacts Historic Preservation but spoke independent of that work, also hopes next time will be different.
“Let’s have more conversations about what’s worth keeping and how to do that,” she implored.
“Every few years we tend to lose an important building,” she said.
“If we’re facing increasing development pressure, I just don’t want us to become another Seattle.”