A bid for Tacoma's historic stewardship

Attention local history buffs: You might want to clear some shelf space in your home.

The Tacoma Historical Society has announced it will host its first-ever dinner and auction to help raise money for the group’s operations. The event — entitled ‘Going, Going, Saved’ — is scheduled for Sun., Oct. 14 at 4:00 p.m. in the Temple Ballroom at the Landmark Convention Center, and includes a presentation by Jim Merritt of Merritt Arch, who will discuss planned renovations for the former Elk’s Temple.

What’s up for auction?

How about a brick from storied Bimbo’s Italian restaurant? Or maybe you prefer a lighted sign from Mierow’s Jewelers? Perhaps a copper roof fragment from Union Station would look good on the mantle?

Maybe you’re interested in experiences instead of material items. If so, there’s a whole list of items for you: a tugboat cruise on the Joe; a ride in a 1936 Nash automobile; and a chauffeur-driven tour of next year’s Historic Homes of Tacoma.

The auction aims to complement THS’s annual Historic Homes of Tacoma — a fund-raiser popular among locals.

For THS executive committee members Patricia Mannie and Dale Wirsing, the auction is a chance to raise funds and awareness for the organization.

“I think there are so many people who still aren’t aware of us,” explains board secretary Mannie.

The society was created in the early-1990s, and currently counts just over 350 members, and approximately 400 items in its collection. Membership dues help pay for a newsletter and other expenses. Recently, board member Jerry Ramsey and his wife, Elaine, donated a substantial sum to create an endowment for the society. The organization also plans to target local businesses for fundraising.

But the biggest hits to THS’s budget are annual rents on two spaces: a storage space on Cedar Street, and a two-year-old storefront museum on Broadway. Together, they cost $14,000.

“We’re really looking to get more corporate sponsors because we know there are a lot of businesses here that are 50 or 100 years old,” says Mannie. “A lot of those companies have ties to the local community.”

“We think they have a natural interest in wanting to see us succeed,” adds THS president Wirsing.

The Tacoma Daily Index caught up with Wirsing and Mannie to discuss the society and its upcoming auction.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: This is the inaugural auction for Tacoma Historical Society. How did the idea form to hold an auction?

DALE WIRSING: We’ve known that we needed one more major fund-raiser in addition to the Tour of Homes. We have two facilities that cost us about an equal amount. We have rented space on South Cedar Street. We have a meeting room there for about 20 people. We have one room for the collection, but it’s spilling out. I use it for storage for the Tour of Homes. We have a couple hundred volumes of [Herbert] Hunt’s [four-volume] History of Tacoma. One of our responsibilities that takes up a lot of space is 404 bound volumes of old Tacoma newspapers. We have board members who say we can never get rid of them. But they take up a lot of space. [The other space is a storefront museum] opened in December 2005. That was envisioned as a way-station to having a permanent facility. Ideally, our operations could be combined in one place. Memberships kind of pay for themselves in the cost of administering, mailing, and so on. We were fortunate this year to get a relatively new board member, Deb Freedman, who has run a fundraising auction for Temple Beth El. She has a good sense of the possibilities, and how to do it. And that was combined with another person coming on our board, Jerry Ramsey, who has not run an auction but has watched this go on in other organizations. The two of them have been the prime movers in bringing this about.

INDEX: What are some of the notable items up for auction?

PATRICIA MANNIE: Well, we have a brick from Bimbo’s, the former Italian restaurant in downtown Tacoma.

WIRSING: It’s iconic among some people.

MANNIE: A lot of people remember that restaurant. And there has been a controversy with the City of Tacoma owning the recipe still, and paying lots of money. We’re excited to have that brick, and we’re sure it will be auctioned off quite well.

WIRSING: A couple things I can think of is a ride on the little tugboat Joe that Robin Paterson owns. Another one that comes to mind is a guided tour, and perhaps a chance to play with, the new model railroad layout that the Tacoma Northwestern Model Railroad Club is putting in at Freighthouse Square. To me, frankly, we’re kind of long on experiences and not so much on three-dimensional items. We have some things that are three-dimensional as well, and things are still coming in. In keeping with who we are, whatever we do has got to have a very noticeable Tacoma connection.

MANNIE: Another item is a gentleman is going to cook a dinner off the authentic menu of the former Tacoma Hotel. That’s a neat experience. Like Dale said, it’s a lot more experience-focused things, rather than three-dimensional things.

INDEX: How did you get the brick from Bimbo’s?

MANNIE: There was an article Liz Heath had written in The News Tribune. She asked people to write a paragraph explaining why they felt their organization could benefit from this brick. She went over to the building when they were tearing it down. She asked either the former owner or the demolition crew, and they let her take these three bricks.

WIRSING: I don’t know how she decided the winners. It was a little contest.

MANNIE: One of our board members, Scott Larsen, wrote a paragraph, and it was awarded to the Tacoma Historical Society. It had to be used for something like this. You couldn’t just go and sell it on eBay.

WIRSING: And I think, also, the idea was that it doesn’t go into the collection. It was specifically donated to us for fund-raising purposes.

INDEX: The storefront museum on Broadway has been open almost two years. Do you think it has raised the society’s visibility?

WIRSING: Absolutely. I don’t think there’s any question about it.

MANNIE: Downtown is just part of our heritage. Downtown Tacoma has so much history. And a big start of the core of the city was around this area. We are excited to be in this neighborhood. But we’re always looking for more exposure and more help. Like Dale said, $14,000 is a lot. It’s a big chunk for us to have to swallow year after year.

INDEX: Has the storefront museum changed the society itself, in terms of trying to find volunteer staff, and coming up with ideas for exhibits?

WIRSING: I think so. We’ve gone from talking about exhibits to people having ideas about what we can do. We’ve gotten some volunteers. People join the society because they like the exhibit center and like to volunteer there. It has worked out that way. We did have a half-time paid manager for awhile, but decided we were going through our resources too fast to keep someone employed. For more than a year now we’ve done it on a volunteer basis.

INDEX: How did the Tacoma Historical Society form?

WIRSING: It has been traced back to a conversation at Bill Johnston’s house with Caroline Gallacci, who is a professional historian, and a small group of people. It was a handful of people who decided to do something. They continued to have meetings. I think the first meeting for the public was a tour of the Knights of Pythias Hall. It incorporated in 1990, maybe a half a year after it started.

MANNIE: I went to that event at the Knights of Pythias. There was an elderly lady who gave me a brochure. She said, ‘Don’t you want to come to our meetings?’ I thought, ‘Are you kidding? I can’t wait.’

WIRSING: I was the resident expert on local history when I was working [at the News Tribune], and it tied in beautifully with the kind of work I was doing — copy editing and getting people to spell the names of pioneers right. I used to go to the society’s meetings when I could, but it had to coincide with one of my days off because I was working swing-shift. In the later-half of the 1990s, I attended many of the meetings. I enjoyed the programs. My wife claims with some exaggeration that they were standing at the door when I retired. I remember a conversation with Ron Magden, a retired history professor at Tacoma Community College, who asked, ‘How would you like to serve on our board?’ Of course, I had served on a lot of boards. I said yes to that. Then the next question was, ‘How would you like to be vice-president?’ I joined the board as vice-president.

INDEX: What future exhibits do you have planned?

WIRSING: We’re leaving ‘Building Tacoma’ up. The original plan was to have it down about a year ago, but it’s just so good and we keep getting favorable comments on that. We just put the postcard exhibit up again. The Mueller-Harkins exhibit was short-term, and tied to Auto Walk. I can’t tell you what’s going to follow the postcards. I know we made a commitment to the Tall Ships people that coincides with Tall Ships in 2008. I’m guessing we’ll do another short-term exhibit. What we’ve found is we can stage two exhibits at the same time. For a little while last winter, we actually had three going — the Tacoma Mountaineers used the front room and the front window.

MANNIE: A lot of it goes back to money. If we need to get the plastic to cover over different items so people don’t get it smudged or fingerprinted.

WIRSING: It costs roughly $10,000 to mount a serious exhibit. We did ‘Building Tacoma’ on about $5,000, partly because the exhibit designer gave us a real break. We had a $4,000 grant from the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation to do that.

INDEX: The auction will be held at the Landmark Theater. How did you settle on that venue?

MANNIE: We really wanted a facility that stood for Tacoma and something historic. We were so fortunate because it’s such a beautiful building, and it has so much history here with the Masonic.

WIRSING: It’s a historic building. Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for that building in 1903.

MANNIE: I should mention, Jim Merritt will be speaking on the former Elk’s Temple. That’s exciting, too. We’re hoping that will entice people who want to know what’s going to be happening, not only to donate money or bid on some of the items, but also to find out what’s going to happen to the former Elk’s building. That’s a wonderful building we want to keep preserved, and it’s a big part of the city’s history.

For more information about the Tacoma Historical Society’s dinner and auction, visit tacomahistory.org/auction.html.

Tacoma Historical Society executive committee members Patricia Mannie and Dale Wirsing hope local history buffs will attend the society’s fund-raising inaugural dinner and auction. The event — entitled ‘Going, Going, Saved’ — is scheduled for Sun., Oct. 14 at 4:00 p.m. in the Temple Ballroom at the Landmark Convention Center, and includes a presentation by Jim Merritt of Merritt Arch, who will discuss planned renovations for the former Elk’s Temple. (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 third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also 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.