Inspector's report offers grim glimpse inside 'derelict' Old City Hall

A chimney with loose and missing bricks and mortar and in such disrepair it needs to be repointed. Creaky old basement stairs so poorly constructed they don’t meet the city’s building code requirements. And a sprinkler system incapable of protecting a five-story building from a fire. This isn’t the description of some macabre haunted house. Instead, they are some of the notes recorded last month by a city building inspector who toured the iconic 117-year-old, 55,505-square-foot Old City Hall building.

Two months ago, water pipes inside the building froze then burst following an arctic storm, spreading approximately 30,000 gallons of water throughout the five-story building and causing much damage. That forced the few tenants that were left in the building to evacuate.

It also drew the attention of a city building inspector who deemed the building ‘derelict’ in his report.

“The City of Tacoma, Office of Community Based Services, has received a complaint regarding the derelict condition of your building and property located at 625 Commerce Street,” wrote Building Inspector Nick Stephens in a letter dated Dec. 14, 2010 and mailed to the building’s ownership group. The letter — which provides great insight into the sorry condition of the building, which is listed on the local, national, and state registers of historic places — was also included in Tacoma City Manager Eric Anderson’s weekly report to City Council on Dec. 30. “By inspection, your building and property has been classified as a derelict building in accordance with Chapter 2.01.060-E of the Tacoma Municipal Code.”

In his report, Stephens, who toured the building on Dec. 9, noted a variety of measures that needed to be addressed in order to improve the building’s condition:

  • Replace all carpet and pad that was affected with water damage;
  • Replace all gypsum wallboard that has been affected by water damage;
  • Replace all wood floors that have buckled and warped from water damage;
  • Dehumidify the building as necessary to allow for new materials to be attached to members of the structure;
  • Provide guardrail where missing on the northeast corner of the building;
  • Verify all doors open and close and lock properly;
  • Repair or replace the ladder in the clock tower to the upper floor;
  • Thoroughly clean the roof of the building from all HV/AC ductwork, bricks, cables, roofing and all other debris on the roof that may fall to the right of way below and injure passing pedestrians or vehicles;
  • Replace all water-damaged ceiling tiles and insulation;
  • Eliminate all mold issues within the building.

City Manager Anderson’s Dec. 30 report also provides a timeline of recent activity to ameliorate the situation:

  • Nov. 24 — Tacoma Fire Department (TFD) responds to a call for service as a result of the burst water pipes; Tacoma Public Utilities (TPU) cuts electrical power to the building at the request of TFD officials until further electrical inspections could be completed; the building is placed on fire watch;
  • Dec. 8 — A building representative contacts TFD to report a contractor is providing an estimate for sprinkler work. No TFD permits are required for repair;
  • Dec. 9 — Public Works Code Enforcement staff inspects the interior of the building and posts a “Do Not Occupy” notice;
  • Dec. 10 — the City’s Community and Economic Development Department issues a permit to remove saturated interior finishes in the effort to help dry out Old City Hall; a condition of the permit calls for the continuation of the 24/7 fire watch until the fire suppression system is fully activated; McBride Construction, which specializes in fire- and water-damaged properties, hires an electrical contractor to evaluate all service panels in hopes of securing a permit to restore power to the building and hook up fans to mitigate mold and mildew problems;
  • Dec. 14 — TPU receives an application for temporary power and issues a permit; Public Works Code Enforcement staff sends a “Derelict Building Notice of Violation” to Old City Hall’s ownership group.

Last month, a law firm for the Union Bank of California published a legal notice in the Tacoma Daily Index announcing plans to auction off Old City Hall on Jan. 7 if the ownership group, The Stratford Company and Old City Hall LLC, fails to pay approximately $320,000 in missed mortgage payments, late fees, and related costs. On Dec. 14, Stratford Company founder and CEO George Webb told Tacoma City Council he planned to spend 45 days emptying the building of water-damaged drywall and carpet, as well as any other hazardous materials. He also said he is certain his company can prevent a foreclosure on Old City Hall and has long-term plans for the building.

“We have been in close dialog with Union Bank for some time and are nearing an agreement,” Webb told the Tacoma Daily Index in December. “We are planning to complete the clean-up at the property and begin work on plans for the future.”

The building inspector’s report and the city manager’s report are online here.

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