Special Reports

Sentimental vine at Stadium High has got to go, despite history

Is ivy historic?

Really old ivy? Ivy that has been part of a historic building nearly as long as the building has stood?

When he made a presentation on the Stadium High School renovation project, architect Jeff Ryan half-expected resistance when he said the ivy on the bowl side of the century-old building had to go.

"We'd like to take it off and we'd like to take it off now," Ryan told the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission last week.

What looks romantic and venerable, especially on education buildings (think "Ivy League") is actually a killer. The variety on the bowl side claws its way up the structure and burrows into the mortar. Ryan, part of the team from Merritt+Pardini and Bassetti Architects, later described the consistency of the mortar as "almost-pull-a-brick-out-with-your-hands kind of soft."

And once investigators hacked their way through the thick growth, they found that up to a half-inch of the sandstone had been damaged as well. The ivy on the corner facing the Stadium District and the wall facing southeast is less invasive. But it has climbed to the gutters and tries to snake into any opened windows. Removing it has to be done carefully to avoid damage to the brick surfaces.

Ryan appeared ready to keep these plants if the commission would agree to let his team kill the deep-green variety above the bowl. But he needn't have worried. No one on the Landmarks Commission whined for the vine.

"Ivy is always bad," said Jennifer Schreck, the city's historic preservation officer.

The Historic Advisory Committee, a three-person group charged with being a historic watchdog over the renovation, is no fan of ivy either - no matter how old it is.

"The ivy has a pretty effect," wrote committee member and preservation consultant Elizabeth Anderson. "But on a complex surface like the walls of Stadium, it can create a pretty ugly result down the line. People would not be sentimental about ivy-covered walls if they knew how aggressive and damaging the ivy is."

As soon as this week, work crews will cut the 6- to 8-inch-thick trunks and hope that the ivy will die on the vine. Only after it dies will they attempt to remove it.

"If you try to take it off green, it takes a lot of the building with it," said Peter Wall, the Tacoma district's director of planning and construction.

But Wall anticipates protests. He already has prepared a letter to explain the problem and will send it out to neighbors and anyone who complains.

"Do we expect a reaction? Yes. Do we think it will be a strong one? I don't know," Wall said.

Ryan, who has been studying the history of Stadium, has some fondness for the ivy. He found photos from the 1920s showing it reaching much higher on the school's northwest face than it is now.

And he talks warmly of the less-invasive variety on the other side, with its leaves that change color in the fall - from green to yellows and deep reds. He has even discussed replanting ivy at the end of the renovation but training it onto trellises to eliminate its damaging effects.

During extensive research into the building's past, Ryan even discovered a historic footnote that shows ivy may have played a starring role on the Stadium site. Construction of what was to have been the Northern Pacific Railroad's tourist hotel was halted after the depression of 1893. After the shell was heavily damaged by an 1898 fire, people wondered what to do with the wreckage.

"One of the ideas was to plant ivy and let it become an ivy-covered ruin, like an abandoned European castle," Ryan said.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657