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Point 1: Old City Hall Historic District
Established in 1977, the Old City Hall National Historic District encompasses seven city blocks on a bluff offering sweeping views of Commencement Bay and Port of Tacoma waterways and facilities. Development of the area began in 1873 with Tacoma’s selection as the Northern Pacific Railroad’s terminus, and then stalled with the railway’s fortunes. As the NP recovered in the 1880s, entrepreneurs and officials chose this spectacular setting -- once the site of Puyallup tribal rituals and celebrations -- for the seat of city government, the headquarters of prominent businesses and organizations, and a historic ensemble of fine shops and luxury hotels -- and not a few dens of iniquity.
(A) Old City Hall, 625 South Commerce Street: The most prominent of the district’s landmark buildings is the former City Hall. It was designed by E. A. Hatherton to house the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, but then adapted to municipal needs after the city government and chamber decided to swap properties. Completed in 1893 and modeled on Italian Renaissance town halls, the structure features fine brickwork, terra cotta ornamentation, and copper-roofed, campanile-style tower to which a clock was added in 1904. City government relocated to a new City-County Building in 1959 and later acquired the former Medical Arts Building (747 Market St.), a 1931 Art Deco skyscraper designed by Seattle-based architect John Graham Sr. The Old City Hall was saved from the wrecking ball in 1973 and rehabilitated in the early 1980s to house offices, shops, and restaurants.
(B) Northern Pacific Building, South 7th Street at Pacific Avenue: As Tacoma’s economic monarch, it was fitting that the Northern Pacific Railroad would claim a commanding site from which to survey its domain. The headquarters building was designed in an Italianate style by Charles B. Talbot and opened in 1888. It received historic landmark designation in 1974 and was rehabilitated a decade later.
(C) Elks Lodge and Spanish Steps, 565 South Broadway: A relative newcomer in the historic district, the home of Elks Lodge No. 164 dates from 1916. Architect Edward Frere Champney made his regional reputation as lead designer of Seattle’s fanciful 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, and his flair for the dramatic is expressed here in the lodge and its adjacent “Spanish Steps” which link Commerce Street and South Broadway. The lodge building’s reinforced concrete construction was modern for its time but its once stark white facade’s design paid meticulous attention to classic Second Revival design.
(D) Fireman’s Park, Between South 7th and South 9th Street above Schuster Parkway: This elongated wedge of greenery offers an unobstructed vista of Commencement Bay and the former tide flats which now house mills, rail yards, and the Port of Tacoma. The Puyallup Tribe regarded the site as sacred, and it offers a unique view of the sun rising from the center of “Tacoma” (Mt. Rainier) on the winter solstice. The present park was first laid out in 1894 immediately north of the city’s first brick fire station, and features a dramatic Alaskan native totem pole installed in 1903 and restored in 1976. The nearby Park Place Building was built in 1902 as the headquarters of the Puget Sound Electric Railroad, which operated interurban rail transit between Tacoma and Seattle until completion of Highway 99 in 1928.
(E) “Whiskey Row,” Pacific Avenue etc. between South 7th and 9th Street: The Victorian facades lining Pacific Avenue and parallel streets date from the 1880s, and chiefly reflect the work of architects, William Farrel and C. August Darmer. These stately buildings originally housed some of Tacoma’s finest stores, haberdasheries, and apartments, but the later appearance of numerous saloons, brothels, music halls, and gambling dens earned the area between 7th and 9th streets the sobriquet “Whiskey Row.” After Washington imposed Prohibition in 1915 (four years ahead of the rest of the nation), the neighborhood reclaimed some of its former respectability.
(F) Hotel Bostwick, South 9th Street at St. Helens and South Broadway: This small, triangular hotel was built in 1889 by Dr. Henry Clay Bostwick, Tacoma’s first practicing physician and later bank president. Local members of the Loyal Legion of the United States, an early veterans group, once assembled here and in 1893 supposedly launched the tradition of standing and doffing one’s hat during the national anthem.
(G). Winthrop Hotel, South 9th Street at South Broadway: Built in 1925, the Winthrop replaced the headquarters that the Chamber of Commerce built after trading Old City Hall to the municipal government. It is named for early explorer Theodore Winthrop, who is credited with first referring to Mt. Rainier as “Mt. Tacoma.” Formal redesignation of the mountain was a local cause celebre for many decades, but Vancouver’s name stuck. The Winthrop was remodeled for senior housing in the 1970s as one of Tacoma’s first urban renewal projects.
(H) Olympus Hotel, 815 Pacific Avenue: The Olympus was built by Olympia Brewing Company founder Leopold Schmidt in 1909. It stands on the site of the former Theater Comique, an raucous saloon and fleshpot operated by local vice lord Harry Morgan during the height of the area’s “Whiskey Row” infamy.
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