A census for Pierce County's historic buildings

If you’ve spent any time traveling through rural or unincorporated parts of Pierce County, you may have rounded a bend on an old highway or forested foothill to find what’s left of a once-bustling small town that supported mining or logging operations a century ago. Maybe you have seen the few remaining two-story red-brick buildings that line Church Street in Wilkeson, or the broad and weather-beaten sides of barns that rise out of the farming town of Orting. The experience might leave you wondering, “How many more old buildings and historic properties are out here in Pierce County?”

Last summer, the Pierce County Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission set out to answer that question. It awarded $110,000 to Artifacts Consulting of Tacoma to undertake a new historic property survey. Similarly, Historical Research Associates of Seattle was awarded $60,000 to conduct a survey of historic documents including photographs, maps, newspaper clippings, and oral histories. The projects were funded by a $1 recording fee surcharge passed by the Washington Legislature.

After the contract was awarded, Susan Johnson, an architectural historian at Artifacts Consulting, spent two months researching property records from the county assessor’s office, annual reports, city directories, newspaper articles, and a similar survey conducted in the 1980s. In October, Johnson and her colleague, Katie Chase, invited the Tacoma Daily Index along for two days of field work (see “Pierce County’s Historic Detectives,” TDI, 10/15/09 — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1643122&more=0 or http://wahmee.com/tdi_pc_history_detectives.pdf ). “We are writing what will be the first ever comprehensive Pierce County history context,” Johnson explained to the Index at that time. “We’re telling much more of the story of Pierce County. The property inventory will illustrate that context statement. So when we talk about mining or logging, we will have pictures from then and from now to show what that history looked like. We want to know how everything relates. Basically, it will show how Pierce County developed.”

Johnson and Chase visited nearly every pocket of rural Pierce County — former mining settlements, ghost towns, ruins of logging mills, historic main streets, and even an abandoned slaughterhouse — to document historic sites and buildings. They logged thousands of miles traveling to Fruitland, Summit-Waller, Alderton, McMillin, Carbonado, Wilkeson, Burnett, Buckley, Sumner, Orting, South Prairie, Eatonville, Graham, Roy, Kapowsin, Purdy, Rosedale, Fox Island, Anderson Island, University Place, Fircrest, Elbe, Spanaway, and Parkland to complete the project.


Their field work wrapped up in December. The survey recorded 914 historic properties in Pierce County, and has the potential to give local historians, county councilmembers, urban planners, developers, and residents a better understanding of the region’s history and historically significant buildings. The survey shows Pierce County’s landscape is studded with historic properties. Of the 914 properties Johnson and Chase surveyed, 67 percent were built between 1870 and 1929: 5 percent between 1870 and 1899; 25 percent between 1900 and 1909; 17 percent between 1910 and 1919; and 20 percent between 1920 and 1929. It also shows a number of these buildings are still intact.

Another interesting finding: 53 percent of the historic structures surveyed were basic, working-class homes, barns, or commercial buildings of the vernacular style. “When people think of historic preservation, a lot of times they think of the big fancy mansions,” explained Chase during an interview this week. “But this shows that a lot of what we surveyed were everyday houses. Vernacular doesn’t mean there aren’t styled details. But it’s not all encompassing as one style. They may have gotten the house [design] from a pattern book. Barns can be vernacular. Commercial structures can be vernacular. So it definitely shows that a house can be historic even if it’s not the fanciest one on the block.”

Still, the county has lost many historic structures either due to development or dying industries.

“I wish we would have found more industrial properties,” said Johnson. “We found one saw mill. It’s still operating. It’s more than 50 years old. But it was really tough to find physical evidence of the industries Pierce County was built on, mainly logging and mining. The industries faded away. The buildings were ephemeral. They were built to be temporary, such as logging camps and bunk houses.”


On Monday, the Pierce County Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission will hold the first of three public meetings in May to showcase the historic property survey. The work will also be uploaded into the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation database so it can be accessed by anyone. Monday’s meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at the Sumner Library, Sumner Room 1, 1116 Fryar Avenue. Other meetings will be held Weds., May 12 at 7 p.m. at the Gig Harbor / Peninsula Library, Peninsula Meeting Room, 4424 Point Fosdick Dr NW, and Tues., May 18 at 7 p.m. at the Graham Library, Graham Room 1, 9202 224th St E.

If you care about historic preservation in Pierce County, you should make a point to attend one of these meetings — especially if you are a Pierce County Councilmember.

The county’s historic preservation program, which has been anemic for years (see “Behind The Times,” TDI, 04/02/08 — http://www.wahmee.com/tdi_pierce_county_preservation.pdf ), has recently been the target of county budget cuts. The county’s Planning and Land Services (PALS) Department (historic preservation is a division of PALS) has eliminated 26 full-time positions since 2006, according to its director, Chuck Kleeberg. At the end of last year, the county laid off its historic preservation officer. In October 2009, Kleeberg presented a budget for this year that called for less historic preservation spending: $100,000 would be spent on historical document maintenance in 2010, compared to $496,200 budgeted in 2009. Similarly, the budget proposal eliminated funding for a part-time employee to write grants seeking money for historic preservation projects. Already this year, a budget amendment slashed $50,000 for historical document maintenance.

This inventory could give Pierce County a better understanding of its historic assets and the need to protect funding for programs that serve these assets.

“Just being aware that there’s value in these properties,” said Chase of the survey’s importance. “Especially seeing how much we’ve lost. In the pre-1900s, there are very few examples left. Time moves on and things are demolished or neglected. I think that’s the most important — recognizing it and then saying what are we going to do with it.”

“Buildings are always going to change,” added Johnson. “I’m not a proponent of freezing things in time. But the manner in which we change them can be more or less sensitive to their original use and their significance.”

This week, the Index sat down with Johnson and Chase at Artifacts Consulting’s office near Tacoma’s North Slope Historic District to discuss the project.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: For people who might be interested in attending these upcoming meetings, what can they expect to learn or see if they attend?

SUSAN JOHNSON: We are going to be doing a quick recap of the survey — what it is, why we did it, and the Pierce County Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission’s role. Any interested land owners who come can see how to access this survey through the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation database online. We are going to walk them through how to search for their property to see if they have been surveyed, find out more information on their area’s history, and talk about the final report and how to access that.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: What are some interesting stories from the road in terms of people you met, or historic buildings you visited?

JOHNSON: I really loved the waterfront communities. We spent the good part of a day with a long-time resident of Fox Island named Ward Hunt. He grew up on Fox Island. His family ran the car ferry. I think his grandfather and father were all steamship captains in the Mosquito Fleet. He had lots of good stories of how isolated Fox Island was. Ward went to high school in Tacoma. He went to grade school and elementary school on the island. But if you wanted to go on to high school, you had to go to Tacoma. He couldn’t play football after school because if you missed the last ferry home, you were stuck in Tacoma overnight. There was no bridge. They would have community dances where everybody knew each other. You would have a big chicken dinner, fall asleep on a big bale of hay, then wake up the next day and walk home. Very sweet stories about days gone by. Getting glimpses like that into how fast Pierce County changed, it makes me wonder how it will change in our lifetime.

KATIE CHASE: [There were also] Robert and Babe Peloli in Wilkeson. His name is on the Wilkeson Centennial Monument. He was a miner born in the house next door to the house that he lives in now. It was just fascinating talking to him and his wife about how life in Wilkeson changed over the years — growing up there, working there, and seeing how the town is now. The industry it was built upon is gone.

INDEX: How has Wilkeson changed?

JOHNSON: There were a lot more local businesses in town. I think it was self-contained as a community. Now it’s pretty residential. People work outside the community. He didn’t tell us this, but a lot of people did, the closing of the saloon really impacted tourism in the town. People would stop on their way to or from Mount Rainier. It’s a gorgeous, charismatic little town. But there’s even less now without that saloon to eat and drink. There are still signs along the highway that say come see the local saloon. You might still go to town thinking it’s there. Another person we met was Jim Wilcox. Jim and his brother, Barry, are the two sons of Truman Wilcox, who was the son of Judson Wilcox, the founder of Wilcox Farms. Jim and Barry are the third generation. Their kids are the fourth generation. So that fourth generation right now runs Wilcox Farms. Jim and Barry are retired, but still involved. Jim took time to show us around their farm museum and see the vehicles they used to deliver milk in, the old chicken barns from the 1950s, and even older chicken house from the 1920s. Seeing the evolution of their family farm was very cool.

INDEX: How about some favorite buildings you visited?

JOHNSON: The Bank of Buckley has got to be the coolest commercial building in Pierce County. It opened in the early part of the Twentieth Century. From my memory, it was circa-1900. There was a well-publicized bank robbery in the 1920s. It sounded like that Johnny Depp movie, the John Dillinger era. That was the main bank in the area. It was remodeled in the 1930s by a local architect, E. J. Breseman, who did a ton of work: Carbonado school, a school in Orting, the bank in Buckley. He was the son of a Spanaway pioneer who had a water-powered furniture factory. If you go to Spanaway, you can still see the remnants of the mill pond. The house is on private property across the pond.

CHASE: [The Sipple Boat Shop in Longbranch] was fantastic. Everyone refers to it as ‘the boat barn’ because it has a gambrel roof. But it’s not a barn. It’s a boat shop. [William] Sipple arrived in 1879 in Longbranch and set up a boat-building workshop on the eastern shore of Filucy Bay. He was really well-known in the area, built a lot of houses around there. There used to be a light house that marked the entrance to the bay. It’s gone now. It was vandalized and there was a fire in the 1970s. He built that. He built the summer homes for prominent Tacoma businessmen who wanted to spend summers out in Longbranch. He was on the school board for awhile. He was just there for a really long time. His building, because the boat shop is out there on the water, it’s very prominent. The current property owner really loves it and has taken good care of it. It’s so solid, the owner [said] that he put in concrete piers to help support it, but he hasn’t had to shift any of the building’s weight onto the concrete piers yet because the original timber piers that Sipple put in himself are still standing strong. We didn’t see anything else like it. You could tell that he was a carpenter and craftsman. He put a lot into it and detail meant something to him. He was known for his furniture-making, and he made violins. I read an article, I don’t know if it’s a tale — that’s the thing sometimes with local history, stories can be exaggerated, but it makes them a little more entertaining to read, for sure — but he made a bowling set and would have men over on Sundays to bowl in his boat house. You weren’t supposed to play games on Sundays, so it was very hush-hush.

INDEX: What do you hope Pierce County and its residents do with the survey now that it’s finished?

CHASE: The great thing about the Pierce County historic register and landmarking is that you don’t have to be a professional to put together a Pierce County register nomination. Interested property owners can take the research we’ve done, fill in the gaps with their own research, put it forth themselves, and get the support of the commission. I think that’s what the landmarks commission is really going to encourage. This is a good foundation for people who are excited about their property and want to do more.

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For earlier Tacoma Daily Index coverage of the project, click here:

I. 3 public meetings will showcase milestone Pierce County historic survey (04/02/10) — http://www.tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1745406&more=0

II. A Conversation with Pierce County’s History Detectives (10/16/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1643972&more=0

III. Pierce County’s History Detectives (10/15/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1643122&more=0 or http://wahmee.com/tdi_pc_history_detectives.pdf

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For earlier Tacoma Daily Index coverage of Pierce County historic preservation, click here:

I. History rolls on in a Steilacoom wagon shop (04/15/10) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1752461&more=0

II. Pierce County drops historic preservation officer (01/20/10) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1700764&more=0

III. ‘Roller coaster’ economy taps Pierce County PALS budget (11/03/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1654044&more=0

IV. Budget amendment bitter-sweet for Pierce County historic preservation (03/20/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1512898&more=0

V. Department shift for Pierce County’s historic preservation program? (03/16/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1509016&more=0

VI. Pierce County Council Committee will discuss proposed historic preservation funding cuts (03/06/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1503447&more=0

VII. Will $8 million budget shortfall touch Pierce County historic preservation? (01/29/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1479375&more=0

VIII. Behind The Times: Never mind the buildings. Can Pierce County restore its historic preservation program? (04/02/08) — http://www.wahmee.com/tdi_pierce_county_preservation.pdf .