Putting history in the Hilltop's future

Of the many labels Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood has had to shake in recent years, one that it’s starting to recognize and embrace is “historic neighborhood.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Hilltop was synonymous with gangs, violent crime, and drug dealing. But historians have known that beneath all of that was a neighborhood with historic charm and significance.

Turn a corner onto the 700 block of South J Street, and a row of 1889 Victorian homes recall San Francisco’s Pacific Heights and Alamo Square neighborhoods.

A large building at the corner of South 8th Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard (MLK) was first an auto dealership, and later, during the 1940s, renovated into Olympic Dairy — a giant replica milk bottle once playfully served as the company’s signage. It was there that Irvine Robbins learned the ice cream business and later helped create the Baskin-Robbins chain.

During the 1890s, a cable car ran up South 11th Street, through the heart of what is today the MLK Business District, and back downtown along South 13th Street.

Further proof: the neighborhood, spurred by immigrant laborers during the 1880s, is studded with Foursquares, churches, and apartment buildings dating back to that period.

On Sat., July 19, Historic Tacoma and the Tacoma Historical Society will host two walking tours of the Hilltop / MLK Business District. One tour begins at 10:30 a.m. at People’s Park (900 So. K St., at MLK); another tour begins at 1:00 p.m.

“The primary aim is to get people up here to see these buildings and be aware of them,” says Historic Tacoma board member Brett Santhuff. “Maybe we’ll find people who want to put their own properties on the city’s historic register.”

It won’t be the first time historians and preservationists have descended on the neighborhood. For many years, during the late-1980s through the mid-1990s, local architect and preservationist Gerald Eysaman worked with the city’s historic preservation office to complete a multiple-property historic nomination that stretched from Division Avenue to South 23rd Street, and Sprague Avenue to Tacoma Avenue. In 1995, the effort added 17 properties — Hob Nob Restaurant, McIlvaine Apartments, Hillside Grocery, among them — to the city’s register of historic places.

It also laid groundwork for something larger, though not yet realized — the creation of a historic district in the Hilltop.

“The multiple property nomination was interesting in the Hilltop because it created this framework,” said Eysaman during an interview in May. “It was something short of a historic district in the Hilltop, onto which individuals could hang their properties. “

But that was more than a decade ago. Many historic properties remain unlisted and unprotected.

Increasingly, first-time homeowners and young families are starting to recognize the Hilltop as an affordable place to settle down. A handful of popular bars and restaurants have only raised the area’s profile.

Suddenly, the Hilltop has development potential.

Santhuff and other preservationists are closely watching progress of a change to the city’s zoning code, which is currently moving through City Hall. The change is aimed to increase density, and could raise the limitation on building heights in pockets of the city. It could also make a parcel of land in the Hilltop with, say, an old church or former storefront suddenly more financially appealing.

“With the change in zoning, properties have an added value,” says Santhuff. “It raises the value of the properties underneath buildings. Density up here could be a great thing for the city, make it a vibrant neighborhood. But it’s adding value to properties that aren’t protected that maybe should be. How do you make that next step? Right now, it doesn’t seem like that’s being taken into account in the zoning discussion.”

Saturday’s walking tour follows last July’s Auto Walk — a similar collaboration between Historic Tacoma and the Tacoma Historical Society that opened many of the warehouses and garages along Broadway’s Antique Row and St. Helens Avenue (the former Auto Row of car dealerships) to vintage auto buffs and historians.

Last week, Santhuff invited the Tacoma Daily Index to preview the tour.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: Work was completed in the 1980s and 1990s by local architect and preservationist Gerald Eysaman and the city’s historic preservation office to document some of the properties in the neighborhood. Will those properties be included on the tour?

BRETT SANTHUFF: [Gerry Eysaman] actually loaned me his binders for this tour. He did a survey up here in the 1980s. I think they did do a lot of the streets, but there are properties I think are significant that I didn’t find in [the binder]. It was great though because a lot of things were photographed that have been lost. It was that first bit of work in the 1980s that got him to the point that he could do tours in the early-1990s. In the mid-1990s, there was a group nomination of properties here in the Hilltop. There was one over-arching nomination form which identified the significance of the neighborhood. It was meant to be a framework for other property owners who wanted to add things to the register. There was a movement in the 1990s, as long as the property owners were onboard with it. There was a hope that additional people would apply.

INDEX: Who was living in this neighborhood during its early years — late-1890s and early 1900s?

SANTHUFF: A lot of people who worked on port properties, or worked downtown. These weren’t the bosses. These were the employees. And a lot of people took the streetcar line straight down 11th Street and over the Murray Morgan Bridge to go to work in the port area. You had a lot of immigrants who moved here and did a range of things. There’s one story of an immigrant man who moved out here in the early-1900s and made brooms up here in the Hilltop for 40 or 50 years.

INDEX: Why did Historic Tacoma and the Tacoma Historical Society pick this neighborhood for its next walking tour?

SANTHUFF: Last year we hosted Auto Walk and talked about the historic automotive dealerships, partly because a few of them are threatened by condo developments — Mueller-Harkins, in particular. But also because I think a lot of people didn’t know the history of that area. That was Auto Row when you are down there on Antique Row. I never had thought of it as being an area for car dealerships. It’s good for people to know the use of their buildings, why they are significant culturally as well as architecturally. We were looking to do something similar this year. Up here on MLK, there are a number of properties the City acquired, and the state of those properties is uncertain. There’s the entire question of what’s going to happen to the neighborhood with the re-zone of mixed-use centers, and how that plays into historic properties here. It’s a very historic neighborhood, but there aren’t a lot of properties listed on historic registers. The walking tour is really getting people to think about what’s coming down the road, and what actions need to be taken now. People don’t realize the great history here. We hope to bring that to light just like we did with Auto Row.

INDEX: You mentioned concerns about zoning changes. What are those proposed changes and concerns?

SANTHUFF: With the change in zoning, properties have an added value, even if it doesn’t make sense at the time, in the present, to build to the full height that is allowed. It raises the value of the properties underneath buildings. Density up here could be a great thing for the city, make it a vibrant neighborhood. But it’s adding value to properties that aren’t protected that maybe should be. How do you make that next step? Right now, it doesn’t seem like that’s being taken into account in the zoning discussion. The discussion is going on right now. It’s a long process where City staff have been asked to make recommendations for changing the zoning to encourage mixed-use centers. It’s something that’s happening across the city — not just in the Hilltop. The next step is for the planning commission to review it, and they will put it out for public comment. It increases building heights in areas. There’s a push to see that happen, and I think the goal of the City is to get that through this year.

INDEX: Are walking tours more effective, in terms of getting people to attend events and get interested in local history?

SANTHUFF: You get a different group of people out for walking tours. With Auto Walk, we also got the car folks involved. Up here, there are a lot of neighborhood activists who are proud of their neighborhood and will be out. In the summer, people don’t want to be in a lecture hall. They should be out enjoying the neighborhood.

INDEX: What do you hope people take away from this walking tour?

SANTHUFF: We want to make sure people realize what happened in the 1990s with that over-arching nomination and what that means to them. There’s a framework for putting additional properties on the register. We want to remind people that some of these things they might take for granted as being historic landmarks in the neighborhood aren’t listed as such, and they don’t have any protection. It might get neighbors to talk with each other and get properties protected. It might get some commercial structures protected.

Historic Tacoma's Brett Santhuff.(PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

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.