Historic preservation group calls Tacoma's Old City Hall 'endangered'

The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation has placed Old City Hall in downtown Tacoma on its annual list of the most endangered properties in Washington State, according to representatives from the Seattle-based non-profit organization who were scheduled to meet this morning in Fireman’s Park to make their announcement. This year’s list also includes two other properties in Pierce County — the McMillin Bridge, which was constructed in 1935 and spans the Puyallup River in Orting, and McNeil Island prison, which opened in 1875 and was closed this year.

The endangered property designation is yet another sad chapter for Old City Hall, a building that was constructed in 1893 and is a key part of downtown Tacoma’s skyline.

On Nov. 30, 2010, water pipes inside Old City Hall froze then burst following an arctic storm, spreading approximately 30,000 gallons of water throughout the building and causing much damage. That forced the few tenants that were left in the building to evacuate. On Dec. 9, 2010, the Tacoma Daily Index reported Union Bank of California planned to auction off Old City Hall in downtown Tacoma on Jan. 7, 2011, if the ownership group, The Stratford Company and Old City Hall LLC, failed to pay approximately $320,000 in missed mortgage payments, late fees, and related costs by Dec. 27, 2010, according to a legal notice published in the Index. The auction was eventually postponed until March 11, 2011. On Dec. 14, 2010, a City of Tacoma building inspector sent a letter to the building’s ownership group declaring the property ‘derelict.’ On March 2, 2011, the City of Tacoma issued a $125 civil penalty against the building’s ownership group in relation to clean-up efforts at the building, which is located at 625 Commerce Street. In late-March of this year, Tacoma Public Utilities placed notices on the building that stated water and electric bills had not been paid. The owners were given until March 29 to pay the bills or services would be shut off.

“With Old City Hall currently vacant, the hope is that the ownership group will be able to move forward with redevelopment plans,” said Washington Trust Field Director Chris Moore this morning in a press release. “In the meantime, issues of deferred maintenance remain a concern.”

In its comments on including Old City Hall, the McMillin Bridge, and McNeil Island Prison on this year’s list of endangered properties, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation noted the following:

  • “Constructed in 1893 by the San Francisco-based firm of Hatherton & McIntosh in the Renaissance Revival style, Old City Hall represents Tacoma’s aspirations to be the Northwest’s focal point for commerce and culture. Originally occupied by the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, the building eventually served as City Hall until the late 1950s. Following a period of vacancy, several attempts over the years to adaptively reuse the structure for a variety of purposes have met with mixed success. The latest plan, conversion of the building to condominium units, has been sidelined due to the economic downturn. In November of 2010, broken pipes released thousands of gallons of water throughout the building, raising fears that structural systems could be compromised.”
  • “Spanning the Puyallup River in Pierce County as part of State Route 162, the McMillin Bridge may be the only known concrete through truss structure of its type in the United States. Inspired by Homer Hadley, Washington’s most innovative bridge engineer, the McMillin Bridge is unique, featuring heavy steel-reinforced through trusses strong enough to eliminate the need for overhead lateral sway braces. When completed in the fall of 1935, the resulting bridge was hailed as the longest concrete truss or beam span in the country. Hadley is credited with numerous bridge designs, including the first floating concrete pontoon bridge in the world, now known as the Lacey V. Murrow Bridge over Lake Washington in Seattle. The Washington State Department of Transportation recently announced plans to demolish the McMillin Bridge once a new parallel bridge has been completed and traffic re-routed. Federal regulations require WSDOT to analyze alternatives to demolition. Once this analysis is released, interested parties will have the opportunity to comment. If the bridge is unable to be retrofitted for continued use, the goal will be to retain it for foot and/or bicycle traffic.”
  • “Ezra Meeker first settled on McNeil Island in 1853, establishing an agricultural and logging community. The land claim was sold and exchanged hands several times over the next couple of decades when, in 1870, 27 acres were donated to allow for the establishment of a territorial prison, which opened in 1875. Officially becoming a federal prison in the early 1900s, the facility became a Washington State prison in 1981 under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Corrections (DOC). Facing tremendous budget shortfalls, the state has closed the general prison facility on the island. The multi-agency jurisdictional responsibilities include DOC, the Department of Fish & Wildlife (whose interest include retaining the island as a wildlife preserve), and the Department of Social & Health Services (which currently operates the Special Commitment Center constructed in the 1990s). Complicating matters are deed restrictions put in place when the federal government turned the property over to the state in the 1980s. In the meantime, over fifty structures related to the operation of the prison facility remain on site, their future uncertain (a handful of residences are already slated for demolition). Overall, the goal is to ensure that historic resources are appropriately considered as the future of McNeil Island, Washington’s very own Alcatraz, is discussed.”

Other properties included on the Washington Trust’s list this year include Green Mountain Fire Lookout in the Glacier Peak National Wilderness Area, and Northern State Hospital in Sedro Woolley.

For more information, visit preservewa.org .

Tacoma's Old City Hall. (PHOTOS BY TODD MATTHEWS)


To read the Tacoma Daily Index‘s complete and comprehensive coverage of Old City Hall, click on the following links:

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.