The Pierce County Courthouse designed by Proctor & Dennis and built in 1893 stood as a landmark in Tacoma until its demolition in 1959. After the county seat was moved to Tacoma in 1880, Pierce County saw huge population growth. County commissioners responded by ordering a grand new county courthouse to be built. The structure contained all county offices, courtrooms, and a large county jail. It was the scene of official county business including two legal executions that took place in the attic. The construction process was contentious, and the completed building experienced many problems including dry-rot, sagging floors, leaking windows and roof, and dangerous electric wiring. An earthquake in 1949 further damaged the building and engineers deemed it dangerous. In the 1950s, county and city officials agreed to build a new $6 million county-city building. When it was completed in 1959, the Pierce County Courthouse was demolished.
First Courthouse Soon Outgrown
Tacoma's first courthouse was built at 9th and C streets in 1883, following the removal of the county seat from Steilacoom to Tacoma in November 1880. By 1889, the courthouse could not keep up with the growing population of Pierce County. A November 14, 1889, Tacoma News article reported:
"The rooms are much too small for the people who want to crowd into them and there are not sufficient rooms to accommodate the officials and clerks connected with the different branches of the county government. New wings and additions have been added from time to time until one is puzzled to determine what style of architecture the original building was intended to represent. The 'improvements' are at best but temporary makeshift, and as fast as made are found to be entirely insufficient to accommodate the constantly increasing business that demands larger space and better arranged rooms" ("New Court House Needed").
Citizens urged the Pierce County Commissioners to build a new, larger courthouse. On April 6, 1890, commissioners Charles T. Fay (1829-1893), Joseph Johns (1847-1923), and Amos F. Tullis (1830-1900) published an ad calling for competitive plans for a new county courthouse to be built on a downtown lot on South 11th Street, between South G Street and Yakima Avenue, which was purchased by the county in 1888. The request, which was limited to architects from Pierce County, called for a three-story building with brick and stone facings and terra-cotta trimmings. It needed to accommodate four courtrooms, four judge's rooms, two offices for the county sheriff, two offices for the county commissioners, three offices for the auditor, and at least three other offices for county use. The basement was to include plans for a new county jail to accommodate at least 100 prisoners.
Architectural firms Preston & Heid, Bullard & Bullard, Proctor & Dennis, Reynold & Ripley, Hatherton & McIntosh, and Haywood & Green submitted proposals. The county commissioners partnered with Judge Frank Allyn (1848-1909), Sheriff James Price (1847-1919), and Portland, Oregon, architect David L. Williams (1867-1937), to review the proposals. On June 18, the commissioners announced that Proctor & Dennis had been awarded the contract.
A Grand Design
The firm Proctor & Dennis was composed of John G. Proctor (1853-1925) and Oliver P. Dennis (1858-1927). Proctor was born in Ontario, Canada, and had arrived in Tacoma around 1885 with his business partner Charles Daniel. Their firm designed several private residences in Tacoma before the partnership dissolved around 1890. Proctor and Dennis joined forces shortly before the call for courthouse proposals. Dennis was born in New York and had spent time working as an architect in Minneapolis before arriving in Tacoma around 1888. In addition to the courthouse, the firm of Proctor & Dennis would be responsible for the design of many downtown Tacoma buildings, including the original Puget Sound University (now University of Puget Sound), the Bostwick Block, the West Coast Grocery building, and several private residences.
Proctor & Dennis modeled the Pierce County Courthouse on the style of the famous Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, designed in 1883 by Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886). Richardson was credited with creating a new style of architecture known as Richardson Romanesque. Its characteristics included massive stone walls with a rugged texture, dramatic semicircular arches for entryways, deep windows, short robust columns, and often a prominent tower.
The firm's winning proposal envisioned a four-story building with a 200-foot central clock tower. The exterior comprised three layers of building material. A wooden frame was covered by brick. On top of the brick was a stone façade that featured light grey Wilkeson stone with blue Tenino stone on the tower and building trimmings. The roof had metallic shingles and a copper ridge. The interior featured nearly 144,000 square feet of floor space. The main entrance on G Street had a 36-foot stone archway and led directly into the basement. The basement primarily housed the county jail but also contained a boiler room, a janitor's office, and a two-bedroom living space for the sheriff or jailer. On the first floor, a large corridor connected to side entrances on 11th and 12th streets. Offices for the county auditor, probate judge, superintendent of schools, county surveyor, county treasurer, and county commissioners were located off the main corridor. The four main courtrooms were on the second floor. Attached to each courtroom were a judge's room, a retiring room, and a jury room. Additionally, the second floor contained four rooms for court clerks, two rooms for prosecuting attorneys, one unappropriated room, and two lavatories. The third floor housed a law library, two supplemental jury rooms, and eight unappropriated rooms. Above the third floor was a large attic for storage. There was also storage space in the upper tower.
A Long Process
On August 29, 1890, Proctor & Dennis opened bids covering all construction work except the lighting and elevators. Nine bids came in, ranging from $270,000 to $386,532. John T. Long made the low bid and was awarded the job. The contract specified that the building be completed by September 15, 1892, with failure resulting in a penalty of $75 for each day beyond that date. Days after securing the courthouse contract, Long also got the contract to build a new city hall.
The survey for the foundation excavations began the next week and construction soon followed. Progress was slow. When local papers questioned Long, he had a litany of complaints: "We are working as big a force of men as we can with the limited supply of stone," he told the Tacoma Daily Ledger. "Trying to get Wilkeson stone for the building, as required in the specifications, has been the bane of my life. I have now waited four weeks to get three stones which were wanted to go in a certain place. I ought to have about 110 men at work on the building, instead of only 45, as I have now" ("The New Court House...").
The building was completed on May 29, 1893, eight months after the contract deadline. Long refused to let the county occupy the building until he was paid for $94,000 of extras done at the request of the architects. "It is safe to say that every foot of the building from foundation to tower has been subject of a controversy," wrote the Tacoma Daily News, "and on each stone was tacked the order of the architects and the protest of Long" ("Long Sues the County..."). On June 21, Long agreed to allow the county to occupy the building but would not turn over full possession until he received payment that he felt was due. The transfer of prisoners from the county jail on D Street to the new jail in the basement of the courthouse occurred on June 23. They were handcuffed in pairs and marched from the old jail to the courthouse. One prisoner, Joseph Phelps, escaped by slipping out the door.
Justice John L. McMurray (1864-1926) became one of the first county officials to move into the new courthouse in early July. His first official act came on July 12 when he married Jacob Crow (1872-1943) and Margaret McCullock (1873-1931). McMurray had his courtroom decorated with an evergreen bower trimmed with roses for the occasion.
In August, Long filed suit against Pierce County over payment for the courthouse. He asked for $25,706.59 for the balance due on the original contact, $73,147.75 for extras, $20,000 for damages he alleged to have sustained owing to the delay, and $542.80 for profits claimed on contracts let to other parties for a total of $119,397.14. The county commissioners offered him $11,692.07, which he refused. The court battle would drag on until 1900, with Pierce County ultimately prevailing.
Shortly after the courthouse opened, the county commissioners offered an unoccupied space on the fourth floor free of charge to the newly incorporated Ferry Museum of Art. It had incorporated in June 1893 to establish and maintain an art museum in Tacoma and to collect relics of the early history of North America, particularly Washington. The museum was named for Clinton P. Ferry (1833-1909), who donated a large collection of art and historical relics that he had acquired during travels to Europe. It opened to the public on October 23, 1893, and would remain a highlight of the building until 1911, when it moved into the Washington State Historical Society building on Cliff Avenue.
By 1894, reports were already surfacing about faulty construction in the courthouse. The skylights and windows had begun to leak, and wood within the courtrooms and floors were beginning to warp due to water damage. As Long's lawsuit dragged on, many citizens felt he should pay the county rather than the other way around.
In contrast to the many negative reports on the building, the county jail received praise during the early years. When Governor John McGraw (1850-1910) inspected the jail, he proclaimed it "an ideal jail and unquestionably the best prison house in the state today" ("In Cages of Steel ..."). The jail's floors, walls, and ceilings were built with five-ply laminated steel and were so hard that no mechanical device could cut through them. It had room for 120 prisoners but only held 18 when it opened. Prisoners were given two meals a day. For breakfast, they received oatmeal, a fresh loaf of bread, and hot coffee. For dinner, they had meat, soup, potatoes, and coffee. However, by the early 1910s, reports began to surface of crumbling concrete floors and a lack of working plumbing leading to unsanitary conditions for the prisoners.
Executions in the Attic
The county jail saw many notorious criminals serve sentences within its walls. Two of those men were sentenced to death and executed in the courthouse attic.
Albert Michaud (ca. 1850-1900) was hanged there on April 6, 1900. Born in Canada, Michaud migrated by the early 1880s to Wisconsin, where he married Julia Meuret in 1886. The marriage was darkened by Michaud's alcoholism. During drunken rages he often would threaten Julia. Pregnant with their second child, Julia left Albert and moved with her mother to Tacoma around 1893. Albert followed and persuaded her to give their marriage another try. By early 1895, Albert had returned to his abusive nature and Julia moved out of their house to live with her mother. She found work at Fanny Paddock Hospital to support herself and their two children. Albert confronted Julia at the hospital on September 24, 1896. She refused to take him back, and he shot her in the head and then turned the gun on himself. Both survived, and Albert was arrested. He pleaded guilty to assault with intent to murder and was sentenced to three and a half years at Walla Walla Penitentiary. Julia filed for and was granted a divorce from Albert on June 17, 1897, which he refused to recognize, citing his Catholic faith.
Upon his release in July 1899, Albert learned that Julia had remarried. On September 27, he tracked her down at her home and shot her dead. Albert surrendered to police and pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to death by hanging by Judge William W. H. Kean (1862-1901). In the early hours of April 6, 1900, about 80 newspaper reporters, physicians, and a few outsiders gathered at the gallows in the attic to witness the execution. Father Peter F. Hylebos (1848-1918) visited Michaud in his jail cell and then the pair took the elevator up to the gallows. Michaud stepped on the platform and said:
"Gentlemen, I am here to die. I am face to face with death. I have committed many errors during my life, for which I am sorry. You see my hair is very grey, but there is good reason for it. I want to say more but do not feel like it; but this I want to say -- the best medicine against murder is capital punishment. Good bye; that's all" ("Michod [sic] Met His Death Bravely").
After he kissed the crucifix twice, a black hood was placed over his head followed by a noose. The trap door was opened and Albert Michaud took his last breath at 7:10 a.m.
Only a year later, the attic was again the scene of an execution by hanging. Eben Boyce (ca. 1866-1901), born in Grand Lodge, Michigan, became a gifted trombone player as a young man and eventually enlisted in the U.S. Army as a musician. He served in the 14th United States Infantry and spent time in the Philippines with his regiment. He was discharged from the army in 1898 and went to San Francisco. There, with a pocket full of money, he spent time in the local saloons drinking heavily. It was during this time that he met and married Louise Bock. Eben and Louise eventually moved to the Puget Sound area and settled in Tacoma, where he secured work as a musician playing in Professor Adler's Military Band during events at the Ferry Museum and at Tacoma theaters.
This work did not provide enough funds, and Louise soon took matters into her own hands and pawned her husband's prized trombone, which had been a gift from his father. Eben borrowed funds from William R. McCelland to retrieve his trombone and allowed McCelland to hold onto the instrument until he could repay him. He then left for Victoria, British Columbia, without his wife. Louise, angry at being abandoned, posted letters designed to make it hard for her husband to secure stable work. Despite her efforts, Eben was able to raise the funds to retrieve his beloved instrument. However, after wiring the money, he was refused the instrument as it surfaced that he owed money to another member of the Professor Adler's band. After a protracted dispute over the trombone and the domestic disagreements with his wife, Eben spent two days drinking heavily and then boarded the steamer Victoria to return to Tacoma.
On February 10, 1900, Boyce walked into the Domestic Bakery where his wife worked. He pulled his Colt revolver out and fired at his wife, hitting her in the arm. As she ran screaming toward an alcove at the rear of the restaurant, he fired a second shot that hit her in her chest. He then leaned over his wife, who was still alive, and fired a third and final shot directly into her chest. He walked out of the bakery with the revolver still in his hand. Police officer John W. Needham (1854-1925) overtook him as he walked down the street and Boyce quietly surrendered. Upon arrival at the jail, he proclaimed "I know what I am up against, but I am not sorry. I only hope I killed her and don't care if I hang for it" ("Horn Causes a Murder"). On March 24, 1900, a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder of his wife.
Several appeals failed and on August 9, 1901, Boyce was taken by elevator from his basement jail cell to the gallows in the attic of the courthouse where about 150 people gathered to watch the execution. Boyce was weak but stood on the platform. His final words were:
"I came here to be murdered, not to make a speech. My father was a soldier, and so am I. I will die like a soldier. My earthly father will look after my earthly affairs and this father [Father Hylebos] will look after my spiritual affairs. That is all. Throw it down and let it go. Further than that I have nothing to say. I am a soldier. Do everything you want" ("Eben L. Boyce Meets His Death").
The black hood and noose were secured, the trap door opened, and Boyce took his last breath at 7:19 a.m. It would be the last execution at the courthouse, because the 1901 Rand Act mandated that all executions be carried out at the state penitentiary.
A Clock and an Annex
One feature missing from the courthouse when it was completed in 1893 was the clock for the tower. On April 30, 1910, county commissioners purchased a clock from the George J. Chapman Company of Tacoma for $3,150. On January 12, 1911, crews completed installation of the four-ton clock and connected it to secondary clocks in all departments of the building.
An annex to the courthouse -- 189 feet by 31.5 feet -- was built in early 1914. It took up the area in the alley between the courthouse and adjacent armory. It contained a fireproof safety vault for the county clerk's records, a parking garage, and a fully equipped kitchen for the county jail. The majority of the work for the annex was done by the jail's inmates.
In the mid-1920s, city and county commissioners began exploring the idea of building a county-city building. Sites were explored but after strong citizen opposition, the scheme was shelved. Two of the county commissioners suggested moving county offices to the Washington Building in downtown Tacoma, but this idea did not gain traction. Meanwhile, plans went forward to bring more attention to the clock tower, which had become a local icon.
On March 16, 1927, the clock tower "burst into full bloom ... with 999 new electric light bulbs, beckoning a cheerful greeting to the traveler" ("Lights Make ..."). The new lights cost $750 to install and cost the county $2 a day to light each night from nightfall until midnight, using power from Cushman Dam. Crews tried hard to find room for one more bulb to make an even thousand lights, but doing so would have spoiled the symmetry of the outline so they left it at 999.
Blooming lights notwithstanding, the courthouse had been in a constant and accelerating state of disrepair since it opened. The plumbing and electrical wiring had been replaced, the roof had been redone, the furnace had been replaced, the elevators had been serviced many times, and some of the the wooden floors had to be replaced due to warping. The second floor began to sag so badly that a steel beam had been installed in January 1930 to support it.
On April 13, 1949, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake shook the Puget Sound region and caused more damage to the courthouse. Engineers warned commissioners that the building, particularly the clock tower, was unsafe. Citizens banded together and created the Pierce County Conservation League, which fought hard for six months to persuade the county to save the tower. But eventually the county commissioners moved forward with demolition. On September 27, 1949, they opened bids for the project. Coast Contractors won the contract with a bid of $31,881. The tower was lowered 27 feet and a metal cap was fitted to its new top. The stairwell was completely reconstructed and new concrete floors were installed in the remainder of the tower.
While demolition of the high tower removed one risk, the building faced many other issues. Dry rot had spread in the floors, walls, and ceilings. In a newspaper report from that time, a reporter wrote that the fifth floor "jiggled like a belly-dancer's navel when you walked across it" ("Courthouse's Old Bones ..."). Additionally, engineers warned the county of the danger of a wood-frame structure with no fireproofing measures; fireproofing had been neglected during construction due to budget constraints. The building's exterior also showed its age. In October 1951, there were three incidents of large stones falling from the façade near the entrances. Luckily, no one was injured.
A New County-City Building
Tacoma's City Hall, built in the same year as the courthouse, faced overcrowding and also was falling into disrepair. Conversations about a county-city building heated up again in the late 1940s and early 1950s. On December 22, 1951, county and city commissioners decided at a special joint meeting to combine forces and place a measure on the fall ballot for a new $6 million county-city building. In the fall of 1952, voters approved the plan. On November 11, 1953, county commissioners announced the site for the new building. It would extend from South 9th Street to South 11th Street and from Tacoma Avenue to Yakima Avenue. The plan stipulated that the armory would not be impacted but the courthouse would be demolished to make room for parking. Construction on the new county-city building began in 1956 and was finished in 1959.
With the new county-city building complete, the life of the 1893 county courthouse came to an end. Citizens were divided about demolition of the historic building. Editorials and letters in local newspapers were filled with opinions on both sides. In the May 3, 1959, Tacoma News Tribune, two letters were published that captured opposing sides of the debate.
"Demolished into the rubble also will be the sacrifices the people of that day put forth so they could have a courthouse second to none and one that would stand a thousand years -- a building they were able to stand back and view with pride. When I was a boy, it was a great event to get the chance once a year to 'go to town' with Dad and stand with mouth agape at the awe-inspiring structure called the courthouse, while Dad solemnly paid the taxes. -- M. A. Rickert, 1840 N. Shirley
"This proves conclusively to me that there is no accounting of tastes, as it is beyond me why anyone would want to keep around that stone, ugly, gloomy, relic of the dark ages. I shudder every time I see it. Collecting relics is all right but they shouldn't be placed where people wouldn't have to look at them unless they felt in the mood for looking at mummies, skeletons, and shrunken heads. I wouldn't even feel good with that thing in my basement. -- West Doubt, 208 East 96th" ("Tribune Letter Box").
With the new building complete, all county offices and courtrooms were moved. The old courthouse was gutted and items that could be salvaged were sold. Fluorescent lights and bricks were quickly bought up by local citizens. On June 21, 1959, the wrecking ball began the work of laying the 66-year-old building to rest. "Refrigerator size chunks of sandstone followed by loose bricks fell like hail; a roof truss plummeted through a floor; and dust in a miniature, upside-down mushroom cloud swirled around the fascinated spectators" ("Onlookers Gasp ..."). After the building was razed, a parking lot was installed between the new county-city building and the armory.