1890 University-Union Club building nominated to city's historic register

A Tacoma advocacy group has submitted a nomination to Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission that would place the former University-Union Club on the City of Tacoma’s register of historic places.

According to Historic Tacoma, which submitted the nomination earlier this month, landmarking the building might help preserve the 1890 building, which has been for sale for $3.5 million since 2007.

“Architecturally and culturally, the University-Union Club is a significant property and there were many of us who were surprised that the building had escaped listing on any register,” said Historic Tacoma Board Vice President Brett Santhuff. “Historic Tacoma thought a nomination overdue but also an appropriate means to both safeguard the building and attract a buyer interested in its preservation.”

Santhuff added that the building, located at 539 Broadway and on a bluff overlooking Commencement Bay, lacked demolition protection and community members feared the property might be purchased by someone who valued the land more than the history.

On Feb. 11, Santhuff sent a letter to David Smith, who lives in his family-owned building, notifying him of Historic Tacoma’s decision to nominate the building. According to city rules, anyone can nominate a building to the city’s historic register. But most nominations are made by the property owner or with the property owner’s permission.

“We hope you see this as a wonderful opportunity to maximize the value of the structure,” wrote Santhuff. This is the first time Historic Tacoma has directly submitted a nomination to the landmarks commission.

The criteria for nomination state the building must be 50 years old or older at the time of nomination, and retain enough integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association to convey its historical, cultural, or architectural significance.

According to the nomination, the Union Club was co-founded in 1888 by Tacoma businessman George Browne. Browne wanted a gentlemen’s club where “men of business could dine, meet and mingle, or merely relax and read their papers.” Theodore Hosmer sold the land to the Union Club in 1888. Two years later, Portland, Ore., architects Whidden and Lewis completed the Colonial Revival building that would serve as the club’s headquarters. Its members included titans of the timber and railroad industries. The cost to purchase land, construct the building, and furnish the interior cost $40,000. Eighty-four members paid an initial $250 membership fee.

Its membership roster read like a ‘who’s-who’ of Tacoma history: Hosmer, who incorporated the village of New Tacoma, operated the Tacoma Land Company, and was a charter member of the Washington State Historical Society; William R. Rust, owner of the Tacoma Milling and Smelting Company; Allen C. Mason, who coined the phrase “City of Destiny” for Tacoma; Tacoma hotelier William B. Blackwell; and Chauncey W. Griggs, founder of the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company.

The club hosted U. S. President Howard Taft, railroad financier Henry Villard, U. S. Speaker of the House Joe Cannon, and Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne.

In 1906, a similar organization known as the University Club formed and operated out of a former mansion (now demolished) a block away. In 1936, the University and Union Clubs united and shared the building until 1985.

Recently, building resident and co-owner Smith has operated a restaurant and bar in the building, and leased it to nightclub and billiards operators. Today, the building is empty except for Smith’s upper-floor apartment.

The landmarks commission is scheduled to conduct a preliminary review of the application during its meeting March 11. The meeting is open to the public and will be held at 5:00 p.m. at 728 St. Helens, Tacoma Municipal Building North, Room 16.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article referenced a Feb. 9 letter prepared by Brett Santhuff of Historic Tacoma and sent to the property’s co-owner, David Smith. The letter, along with the nomination and the organization’s press release, were provided to the Index on Fri., Feb. 6 in advance of the letter being sent or the article’s publication. After publication of the article on Feb. 25, the Index learned changes were made to the Feb. 9 letter before it was sent. Therefore, the Index did not reference the final version of the letter. This article has been modified to correct that discrepancy.

RELATED DOCUMENTS: On March 5, the City of Tacoma’s Historic Preservation Office made available correspondence related to the nomination, including (a.) a letter from Historic Tacoma to the building’s owner signaling an intent to nominate the building, (b.) a letter from the New Tacoma Neighborhood Council supporting the nomination, and (c.) a letter from the City’s Historic Preservation Office to the building’s owner indicating the nomination was received at City Hall. To view the documents, click here — http://www.wahmee.com/docs/university_union_club_letters.pdf .

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