Point Defiance Park: Century-old Pagoda, former streetcar station now Tacoma historic landmark

The former Point Defiance Streetcar Station was formally added to Tacoma’s Register of Historic Places this week.

The building, located at 5801 Trolley Lane, dates back to 1913, when the Board of Park Commissioners voted to construct a stately, Japanese-inspired streetcar station in Point Defiance Park. The station opened on June 14, 1914, to much fanfare. As streetcars were displaced over the years, however, the building transitioned to a bus station in 1938.

It was officially renamed the “Pagoda” in 1960, and was restored by Metro Parks Tacoma in 1988.

In April 2011, an arsonist set fire to the building (see “Fire fighters battle blaze at historic Point Defiance pagoda,” Tacoma Daily Index, April 15, 2011; “Metro Parks pursues restoration plans, emergency remediation for historic pagoda,” Tacoma Daily Index, April 20, 2011; “Pierce County Prosecutor: Charges filed in Point Defiance arson,” Tacoma Daily Index, April 26, 2011; “Teen receives maximum sentence for Point Defiance Park Pagoda arson,” Tacoma Daily Index, Oct. 12, 2011; and “Year In Review: Point Defiance Park pagoda arson,” Tacoma Daily Index, Dec. 20, 2011). It re-opened to the public following a 21-month restoration project that respected its historic integrity (see “Volunteers create 1,000 cranes for Point Defiance Pagoda grand re-opening,” Tacoma Daily Index, Dec. 11, 2012). In 2013, the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation presented Metro Parks Tacoma with a Special Achievement award for the restoration work. The Pagoda was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places and the Washington Heritage Register. The Pagoda is also a gathering place for garden shows, weddings, and other special events. More than three-million people visit the Pagoda annually, according to Metro Parks Tacoma officials. In May, Metro Parks Tacoma hosted a centennial celebration to honor the former streetcar station (see “Celebrate Point Defiance Park Pagoda centennial May 18,” Tacoma Daily Index, April 28, 2014; and“Tacoma celebrates century-old Point Defiance Pagoda,” Tacoma Daily Index, May 19, 2014).

A nomination to add the former Point Defiance Streetcar Station to Tacoma’s Register of Historic Places was prepared by Metro Parks Tacoma Historic and Cultural Asset Manager Melissa S. McGinnis. “[The Point Defiance Streetcar Station] is associated with events that have made a significant contribute to the broad patterns of our history,” wrote McGinnis in an Aug. 27, 2014, letter to Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. “Metro Parks Tacoma welcomes your review of our application and hopes that you agree that the Point Defiance Streetcar Station is worthy of listing on the Tacoma Register of Historic Places.”

Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission reviewed the nomination during a public meeting in September (see “Century-old Point Defiance Pagoda nominated to Tacoma’s historic register,” Tacoma Daily Index, Sept. 22, 2014). A public hearing regarding the nomination was held in October (see “Point Defiance Park: Public hearing scheduled for century-old Pagoda landmark nomination,” Tacoma Daily Index, Oct. 15, 2014).

Tacoma City Council approved a resolution Tuesday to officially add the former Point Defiance Streetcar Station to Tacoma’s Register of Historic Places during a public meeting at Tacoma City Hall (see “Point Defiance Park: Century-old Pagoda, former streetcar station could soon be Tacoma historic landmark,” Tacoma Daily Index, Jan. 5, 2015). City of Tacoma Historic Preservation Officer Reuben McKnight presented the resolution to councilmembers during the meeting. Here are his comments, condensed and edited for publication:

This is one of those buildings that you look at or you see on the agenda and you say, “It’s not already on the landmarks register?” It’s not. It is being recommended for listing by the landmarks commission because it is an iconic structure in Point Defiance Park.

It is significant for its association with Tacoma’s early-Twentieth Century streetcar system. Also, as an example of its eclectic Asian-inspired Arts & Craft architecture. And also as a surviving structure from the Parks [Department’s] 1911 Master Plan. This building was designed by Tacoma architect Luther Twitchell. It was constructed in 1914.

I think many people will remember that in 2011 we nearly lost this building. It was the victim of an arson fire that caused extensive damage. Thanks to the heroic efforts of the Tacoma Fire Department, it was doused and as much of the historic fabric was retained as possible. Metro Parks Tacoma then undertook an extensive and challenging, historically appropriate rehabilitation of the building. For these efforts, both the Tacoma Fire Department and Metro Parks Tacoma received awards for outstanding achievement in historic preservation from the landmarks commission.

To read the Tacoma Daily Index’s complete and comprehensive coverage of the historic Pagoda in Point Defiance Park, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index, an award-winning journalist, and author of A Reporter At Large: A decade of Tacoma interviews, feature articles, and photographs. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.