Mead House: A Proctor area home moves closer to landmark status

A single-family home dating back more than 100 years and located near Tacoma’s Proctor District may soon be added to the City of Tacoma’s Register of Historic Places.

The Mead House (also known as the Keyser House)—located at 2702 N. Puget Sound Ave.—was built in 1903 and originally owned by Ferdinand and Laura Mead, who lived at the residence between 1903 and 1920. It changed owners one more time before Bill and Paula Keyser, a working-class couple (Bill was a Tacoma firefighter for 22 years), purchased the home in 1956 and lived there for more than 40 years.

The landmark nomination was made based upon the one-and-a-half-story, 1,700-square-foot home’s architectural significance as a “fine example of the Colonial Revival – Bungalow style of architecture.”

Equally as interesting as the home’s long history and architectural pedigree is the amount of salvaged and historically significant material that comprise the 112-year-old residence.

“Apart from the architectural significance, the Mead House showcases a locally significant collection of architectural salvage pieces incorporated into the house and yard,” wrote architectural historian Susan Johnson of Tacoma-based Artifacts Consulting in the landmark nomination she prepared on behalf of the current property owner, Lari Ryan. Ryan purchased the home with her husband, Jim (who passed away in March of 2014), 10 years ago.

Bill Keyser, a handyman and avid ‘do-it-yourselfer,’ incorporated many of the salvaged and historic relics into the home, such as:

  • A brick wall bordering a backyard garden includes terra cotta tiles and a figurehead of a helmeted firefighter—known as the ‘Head of Mercury’—that were salvaged from the former Fire Station No. 6 in downtown Tacoma. The fire station—once located in what is today Fireman’s Park—was built in 1890 and demolished in 1974. A 1949 photograph archived at Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room shows former Tacoma Fire Chief Charles Eisenbacher posing next to the figure, which was salvaged following an earthquake that year.
  • Wrought iron fencing and ornate wood salvaged from the former Brooklyn Hotel, which was built in 1888 and later demolished. Similarly, elevator grilles were salvaged from the former Bonneville Hotel.
  • A bay window in the dining room—as well as two fire places located in the house—were salvaged from a mansion built in 1889 for the late lumber baron Henry Hewitt, Jr. The Hewitt House, once located at 501 N. 4th St., was demolished in 1957.
  • A leaded glass “Tiffany” window was salvaged from a home built in 1890 for the late newspaper publisher Sidney “Sam” Perkins. The Perkins House, once located at 501 N. D St., was demolished in 1960.
  • Bricks in the garden wall were salvaged from a former Catholic girls’ school in Lakewood that was built in 1923 and demolished in 1954 in order to build a shopping center.

The home was featured in the Society pages of The Tacoma News Tribune and Sunday Ledger on June 27, 1965. The residence is described as Tacoma’s “Treasure House,” and Paula Keyser is pictured lounging near the bay window salvaged from the Hewitt House.

“The examples in this nomination illustrate the unique character of the house and the visionary preservation of pieces of Tacoma history by the Keysers,” noted Johnson in the landmark nomination. “Together, they made the house into something unique, a house where day-to-day life is surrounded by stories of Tacoma’s past. The house displays layers of history, from the original 1903 construction to the Keysers’ modifications that started when they moved into the house in 1956 and continued during their occupancy.

“This middle-class, industrious couple worked together to save elements of Tacoma’s history well before the architectural salvage trend of the present,” added Johnson. “The house in turn is a testament to their creativity and strong work ethic.”

Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission reviewed the nomination during a public meeting in July (see “Mead House: A Proctor area residence salvages Tacoma history,” Tacoma Daily Index, July 7, 2015; and Tacoma Daily Index Top Stories — July 2015,” Tacoma Daily Index, Aug. 3, 2015). The commission is expected to hold a public hearing on the nomination during a meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Weds., Aug. 26, at Tacoma City Hall. Beyond that, the nomination will need to be approved by Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and Tacoma City Council before the property is added to Tacoma’s Register of Historic Places.

“I see a lot of old buildings and get to work on a lot of preservation projects, and this house charmed me completely,” Johnson told commissioners during the meeting in July.

“Of course, if I could, I would save all of Tacoma,” added homeowner Lari Ryan. “I would save all of Proctor if it were up to me. But what I can do is try and save this house in the condition it’s in.”

Ryan recently provided the Tacoma Daily Index with a tour of the old home and spoke at length about its history and her decision to submit the landmark nomination. Excerpts of our conversation are included in today’s edition of the newspaper. Our interview has been edited for clarity and abridged for publication.

“He liked to talk. Bill was very affable. Mostly, he would talk about anything. Bill was famous for talking to anybody.”

I knew [the Keysers] only in the sense that when Jim and I moved off of Vashon Island in 1991, we bought a very contemporary house right above Harbor Lights and we would walk through this neighborhood quite a bit for exercise. Bill Keyser was always working outside. He liked to talk. Bill was very affable. Everybody who lives in the neighborhood has a memory of Bill Keyser. But we were never in the house, and I never met Paula [Keyser].

Bill was a master at mold-making, and he tinkered with everything. [Our neighbor] John Laurent worked with Bill and knew him for thirty years. John knew all the houses around town, and this house was very special to him because Bill was his best friend. We have pictures of him having Thanksgiving dinner with Bill and Paula.

“All we knew was that we were enchanted. We did not know the history.”

Jim said to [our realtor], “There’s this house we have always liked.” One day, Jim came home and said, “You won’t believe it, but it’s for sale.” That was at the height of the market. We walked through it on a rainy December day and bought it. We put in the bid in December of 2005 and bought it in January. When we came in the door, all we knew was that we were enchanted. We did not know the history. Jim, who used to always give these things a lot of thought, just couldn’t write the check fast enough. We just wanted it, and I’m very glad we did. We have been very happy here.

“[Bill Keyser] was a firefighter. I’m assuming that’s how he knew what buildings were coming down.”

This [fireplace] is from the Hewitt House. Even the tiles [on the fireplace] are from the Hewitt House. The whole thing is. The cabinet doors came from an apartment building that was torn down.

The Tiffany window came from the [Sidney "Sam"] Perkins house. Perkins is the same one that won the yacht [El Primero]. It was the largest steam yacht on the West Coast and it came from the Mark Hopkins family. Then Mr. Thorne of the Thornewood Castle bought it, and then lost it in a wager with Perkins. Imagine coming home and saying, “Honey, I lost the yacht.” To me, that’s one of the best stories about the whole thing. Of course, the Perkins House was another one that was demolished.

[Bill Keyser] was a firefighter. I’m assuming that’s how he knew what buildings were coming down.

“I realized I was just being far too romantic about all of it.”

John [Laurent] had suggested [the landmark nomination] years ago. I think the house was special to him. I probably got serious about it a year or so ago. I started putting stuff together and realized I was just being far too romantic about all of it and the stories John had told me. I talked to a few people in the North Slope and found Artifacts Consulting. I loved working with them. They are just all delightful people.

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index, an award-winning journalist, and the author of several books. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.