LPC approves University-Union Club landmark nomination

The City of Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) April 22 approved a recommendation to add the 1890 University-Union Club building, located at 539 Broadway, to the city’s register of historic places.

Although the building’s owners — David Smith and Smith’s daughter, Leah Caruthers — had originally opposed the nomination, an April 17 letter written by the owners’ attorney to the LPC helped clear the way for the nomination.

“After careful consideration, [the owners have] asked me to let you know that they have decided to withdraw their objection to the nomination,” wrote attorney Douglas N. Kiger. “Although my client was taken by surprise by the nomination, they are certainly honored to have been nominated.”

The nomination was submitted in February to the City’s Historic Preservation Office by Historic Tacoma without the owners’ support. During the LPC’s March 11 meeting, Kiger told commissioners the nomination was a “compliment,” but it was unfortunate the family wasn’t approached prior to the nomination. “The family feels bad about that,” Kiger said at the time. “The family has mixed feelings. They’re not behind the nomination at this point.”

The building was put up for sale in 2007 for $3.5 million. Today it is listed for $2.87 million. Kiger told commissioners the family had a “great connection” to the building, and one reason the building has been on the market for nearly two years is that the family is trying to find a buyer who values the building’s historic significance. “They don’t want to sell it to someone who would tear it down,” said Kiger. “The family is looking for an owner that will treat this property the way it needs to be treated.”

One month later, the owners now support the nomination. Kiger nor his clients were present during Wednesday’s meeting, which included a public hearing on the issue. But their letter supporting the nomination was shared with commissioners.

During the public hearing this week, Historic Tacoma Board President Sharon Winters acknowledged that submitting the nomination without the owner’s support created a major obstacle.

“We are gratified by the owner’s support for the nomination, but acknowledge our failure to work collaboratively with the owner at an earlier stage in the nomination process,” said Winters. “We understand now that the owner was not fully aware of both the obligations and opportunities inherent in register listing and that much earlier contact with the owner would have made this process much smoother for all parties involved.

“One day, the Commission and City Council may be faced with staunch owner opposition to listing,” added Winters. “It is the Commission that holds responsibility for determining whether a structure meets criteria for significance, and it is Council that must balance the property rights of the owner with the significance of the structure and the public good that might result in its preservation. By working with property owners in the early stages of nomination, making owners aware of tax incentives for, and other benefits of, historic preservation, we hope to never see that day.”

Tacoma resident Richard C. Toth told commissioners that he and his wife, Marylou, have lived just north of the building for nearly 17 years and “have grown to enjoy and appreciate the architecture and the ambiance of the beautiful ‘Old Lady.'”

The City also received several letters of support for the nomination, including one from the New Tacoma Neighborhood Council, and one from historian Michael Sullivan.

“Historically, the building has played an important role in Washington State’s development, hosting Presidents and dignitaries in its guest rooms for well over a century,” wrote Sullivan. “Together with Old City Hall, the Spanish Steps, and Elks Building, the University-Union Club contributes to Tacoma’s formal civic cluster at the North end of Pacific Avenue.”

Historic Tacoma Board Vice President Brett Santhuff, who also wrote the 171-page nomination, told commissioners he recently worked with the realtor, Aleta Benedicto of Williams Property, and the owners to create a two-page flier to promote the building’s history and potential financial incentives associated with landmark properties.

The LPC approved the recommendation to add the building to the city’s historic register, but Tacoma City Council will make the final decision at an upcoming meeting.


The process began Feb. 11, when Santhuff sent a letter to Smith notifying him of Historic Tacoma’s nomination. 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 cooperation.

“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.

“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 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.”

He added that the building lacked demolition protection and community members feared the property might be purchased by someone who valued the land more than the history.
On March 11, the LPC agreed the building meets the criteria required for placing it on the local register.


During that meeting, Santhuff provided a PowerPoint presentation highlighting to commissioners the building’s historic significance.

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, the owners operated a restaurant and bar in the building, and leased it to nightclub and billiards operators.

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Previous coverage is online at the Index’s blog — http://i.feedtacoma.com/TDI-Reporters-Notebook/ — and here:

Public hearing April 22 for University-Union Club landmark nomination (04/20/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1532016&more=0

Criteria met for 1890 University-Union Club landmark nomination (03/12/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1507475&more=0

1890 University-Union Club building nominated to city’s historic register (02/25/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1497044&more=0