A ‘Vintage’ Contemporary

The six-story, red brick building near the corner of 7th and Market isn’t your typical condominium project.

Consider its history.

The building opened to much fanfare in 1910 as the home of Tacoma’s first YMCA branch. When history buffs look at the building, they see a gem: in 1978, it was placed on Tacoma’s register of historic places; five years later, it was placed on the national register of historic places.

And consider the building’s signature features: 13-foot ceilings, sweeping curved windows, a carefully restored cornice, and a wide, six-story spiraling staircase with sturdy, old-wood banisters and railings.

And you can’t overlook a sense of ownership that most Tacomans feel about the old landmark — now renamed the Vintage Y.

“I had one gentleman here a couple Sundays ago,” says Raelene Rogers, a broker with McCament and Rogers, the firm currently marketing the Vintage Y’s 19 units. “I said, ‘Can I help you?’ He said, ‘I want to see my office.’ It turns out it was Mr. Morgan, the former director of the YMCA. His office was right across the hall.”

Vintage Y co-owner and developer Blaine Johnson has heard similar stories.

“I think there’s sort of that subtle community pride when its icons get rebuilt,” says Johnson during recent a building tour. “There’ is definitely an aspect of that. When people knew that we were working on this building, they would say, ‘That’s where I learned how to swim. That’s where I took dance lessons.’ It’s definitely a Tacoma landmark.”

Over the years, the building has changed hands.

After the YMCA moved out of the building in the 1970s, the Puget Sound Athletic Club moved in. During the 1980s, developers eyed the building as an office complex, but it didn’t pencil out. Between 1989 and 2004, the building was home to an assisted living facility.

It was in 2004 that Johnson became interested in the building. Though operators of the assisted living facility had spent $3.5 million to rehabilitate the building, deferred maintenance costs existed: upgrades were needed to the elevator, heating and cooling system, carpeting, and lighting. Meanwhile, Johnson and long-time Tacoman Fred Roberson had purchased the lot on the north side.

“They probably were looking at $350,000 to $400,000 dollars in deferred maintenance that they would have had to address if they tried to keep operating,” says Johnson. “I think that’s when they decided it was time to bail out.”

Johnson and Roberson bought the building for $1.8 million in 2004. Though they were aware of the deferred maintenance, they weren’t aware of the costs related to the building’s cornice — a $110,000 hit. The cornice had to be completely replicated to its orginal form because of its historic designation.

Throughout that process, Johnson worked with the Tacoma Landmarks Commission. Some developers might have passed on the project because of the hurdles associated with developing a historic landmark. But Johnson and Roberson have experience in this area: Roberson developed the old Harmon building, the first major mixed-used restoration in downtown Tacoma; Johnson restored the Passages Building on Broadway, as well as Opera Alley.

“Certainly for Fred and myself, we have a real passion for historic restoration,” says Johnson. “Knowing this building was on the national register of historic places was a real plus. If it hadn’t been, we would have applied to get it on.”

“The outside of the building looks great,” says Reuben McKnight, Tacoma’s historic preservation officer. “I know they had some challenges with the condition of the cornice. But they put a lot of effort into preserving the character of the building. I think it looks wonderful.”

Johnson spent most of last year renovating the Vintage Y. Inside, upgrades were made to the elevator, heating, cooling, electrical, and fire alarm systems. And the building now has a modern security access system, as well as phone and cable connections.

Though homeowners started moving into the building last month, more work is planned. Painters are busy putting finishing touches in the hallways and stairwell. Outside, on the south side of the building, work has started on a new parking garage for residents.

The building has come a long way from its early beginnings, while still maintaining a classic charm.

“People coming into the building who knew it as a child say, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you went with a traditional approach — that the inside matches the outside,’ says J.J. McCament, a broker with McCament and Rogers.

As of last week, five units ranging from $175,000 to $385,000 were sold.

“I loved the architecture, the high ceilings, all the windows, and the old brick,” says 25-year-old realtor Danielle Shumate, who moved with her husband, Cory, last month from a four-bedroom, two-bath Lakewood home to a one-bedroom home on the third floor.

Like most prospective buyers, the Shumates exhaustively researched the market. Last fall, they participated in the city’s Tour of Urban Living — a weekend event organized by the City of Tacoma and the Local Development Council to showcase more than two-dozen downtown residential housing projects.

When the couple moved in Jan. 16, they were one of the first residents in the building.

“We wanted to be downtown and be a part of all that growth,” says Shumate. “Nothing compared to the Vintage Y.”

The Vintage Y in downtown Tacoma. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

The Vintage Y in downtown Tacoma. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengerssecond-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State; third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; and third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright. His work has appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.