Whitworth College opens in Tacoma on January 2, 1900.

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 4/19/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8140

 On January 2, 1900, Whitworth College opens in Tacoma, with three faculty and 15 students, following a move from its original location in Sumner, Washington. The college occupies the sumptuous estate of Tacoma real-estate developer Allen C. Mason, overlooking Puget Sound and Mt. Rainier. In time, it acquires additional buildings, and by 1908-1909 enrollment will peak at 235, including preparatory students, thereafter to decline somewhat. During the Tacoma years, the coeducational Presbyterian college will continue to maintain a preparatory division. Franklin B. Gault is president at the time of the move from Sumner to Tacoma and will serve until 1905. At the age of 84, George F. Whitworth (1816-1907), founder of Sumner Academy and Whitworth College and chairman of the board of trustees, is instrumental in the move. Whitworth College will remain in Tacoma until 1914, when it relocates to Spokane.

Major donors underwrote additional buildings on the new campus, as well as the beginnings of an endowment. These donors included H. O. Armour of the meat-packing family, who gave $100,000, and Mrs. W. A. Olmstead, who gave an 11-room residence, Olmstead Hall, as a dormitory. The City of Tacoma donated the Mason Library, with its 6,000 volumes, stipulating that it should be open to the public two days a week. In time, the Mason Mansion became the Ladies’ Hall. But, despite  all these contributions, the college struggled financially during the Tacoma years.

Dr. Gault, the first Whitworth president to hold a Ph.D. rather than a seminary degree, was formerly president of the University of Idaho. He was determined that Whitworth impart to its students “Eastern Atlantic culture and refinement and democratic spirit” (Soden, 27). Although study of the Bible and theology remained part of the curriculum, he made sure that Whitworth would continue as a liberal arts institution rather than evolve into a Bible college. Academic offerings included classical and modern languages, philosophy, mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics. Under Gault’s administration, the normal (teacher training) department and the commercial and engineering courses offered during the Sumner years were eliminated. By 1904, Whitworth achieved accreditation from the Washington State Board of Education. President Gault resigned in 1905, and was succeeded first by the Rev. Barend H. Kroeze and then by the Rev. Donald D. MacKay. 

In 1908, Frederic D. Metzger (1887?-1961) received Whitworth’s first Rhodes Scholarship. Typical of Rhodes Scholars, Metzger was a top student, an athlete, and a campus leader. Many Whitworth graduates, such as Metzger, went on to distinguished careers in law, medicine, and the ministry. A large number, including Metzger, who became a lawyer, remained in the Tacoma area, contributing significantly to the intellectual and cultural life of the growing city.

Some Whitworth students lived in dormitories and others commuted by boat, train,  and trolley. Rules for student behavior were puritanical by today’s standards, with the 1904 catalog assuring parents that residential life would be carefully supervised and that “all harmful amusements, such as dancing and card playing, are strictly forbidden ...” (Soden, 27). Nevertheless, the students had fun, with literary societies, drama groups, minstrel shows, and outings, including boat excursions on Puget Sound. Whitworth athletes did well in the intercollegiate sports of baseball, basketball, and football.

During the Tacoma years, the campus atmosphere was “dynamic, intellectual, and just plain fun” (Soden, 28) with the small student body enjoying a homey atmosphere. That happy state of affairs continued until competition from the growing antecedents of Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Puget Sound for students and community financial support convinced the Whitworth Board of Trustees to begin looking for another location for the college. Whitworth moved from Tacoma to Spokane in 1914.

Sources: Alfred O. Gray, Not By Might: The Story of Whitworth College, 1890-1965 (Spokane: Whitworth College, 1965); Dale E. Soden, A Venture of Mind and Spirit: An Illustrated History of Whitworth College (Spokane: Whitworth College, 1990).

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