Transient linked to Old City Hall fire

A transient trying to find shelter and warmth on New Year’s Eve is suspected of being linked to a fire set inside Old City Hall downtown, according to Tacoma Fire Department officials. In a Jan. 5 report to Tacoma City Council, interim city manager Rey Arellano relayed information from fire  officials who noted that firefighters from Engine No. 1 arrived at the six-story, 119-year-old building to find “a large amount of medium to dark grey smoke rising from an open doorway on the Pacific Avenue side of the building. [Fire fighters] found a small [two-foot long by two-foot wide] fire just inside the doorway.”

Fire officials went on to note the small blaze appeared to be set by a transient who attempted to burn the insulation from a small roll of copper wire. “After the fire was extinguished, it was then reported that we had a large amount of smoke inside 625 Commerce. The material burned appeared to be only wire in the corner of a small 10-foot-by-30-foot concrete room between the two buildings. There was a closed and locked doorway to 625 Commerce. The doorway and a broken window was the way smoke was able to enter the building. Engine No. 1 remained on-scene until a maintenance person from the contractor showed up. They then walked the building and looked at the origin of the fire. No damage was done to the building in any way. The building was turned over to maintenance and command terminated. Tacoma Police was notified of the possible attempt to get copper wire from the building under renovation and a police report was made.”

The fire is the latest blow to a building that was constructed in 1893 and boasts a Renaissance Revival style and iconic clock tower. It was once home to the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce and served as City Hall until the late 1950s.

In March 2010, Frontier Bank, which held the mortgage on the 55,505-square-foot building before being taken over by Union Bank of California, claimed Seattle-based The Stratford Company and Old City Hall LLC, the ownership group, owed $120,000 in back payments on its mortgage. The bank posted a foreclosure notice on the building. At the same time, Tacoma Power threatened to shut off power to the building due to unpaid bills.

In November 2010, water pipes froze then burst following an arctic storm, spreading 30,000 gallons of water throughout the building owned by the Seattle-based Stratford Company and located at 625 Commerce Street, causing much damage and forcing the few tenants that were left in the building to evacuate.

In December 2010, Union Bank of California announced it planned to auction off the building if the ownership group failed to pay a little more than $320,000 in missed mortgage payments, late fees, and related costs by Dec. 27, according to a legal notice published in the Tacoma Daily Index. The notice of trustee’s sale claimed Old City Hall LLC owed $155,691.49 in monthly interest-only payments (interest accrued at default rate starting on Feb. 12, 2010) due on the fifth of each month beginning Feb. 5, 2010; $21,477.53 in interest accrued from date that most recent monthly payment was due (at a default rate of 9 per cent per annum); $7,481.20 in late charges for each monthly payment that was missed or late by 10 days; $126,373.19 in property taxes and assessments; and $9,054.00 in estimated foreclosure costs and fees. The auction was slated for Jan. 7, 2011, but was called off.

Also in December 2010, a city building inspector deemed the property ‘derelict’ after an on-site tour, noting 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. “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 provided great insight into the sorry condition of the building, which is listed on the local, national, and state registers of historic places. “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 March 2011, the City of Tacoma issued a $125 civil penalty against the building’s ownership group in relation to clean-up efforts following the November 2010 flood.

In May 2011, members of Historic Tacoma met with the building’s property manager and reported that nearly $1 million in mitigation efforts had were completed following the flood. “Moisture meter readings throughout the building indicate it is essentially dry — eight to 15 percent — but not as dry as a heated occupied building,” reported Historic Tacoma board member Roger Johnson in a June 1 e-mail to Historic Tacoma’s board members. “The most damp place was in the foundation wall in the old jail area reading 92 percent.”

Johnson added, “After some delay, asbestos abatement and a $1 million mitigation effort were completed with much of the interior stripped of ceiling and wall sheet rock. Many floor surfaces were also removed, leaving sub floors and some original floors that are damaged by water. In addition to removing the sheet rock, some partition walls and mezzanines have been removed, opening up some spectacular large spaces. Where the mezzanines have been removed, the ceilings are 20 feet high with grand brick arches connecting large spacious interior spaces. The windows are tall and elegant and appear to be in very good condition.

“Old City Hall is an iconic historic building that has the potential to be the showcase of Tacoma,” added Johnson in the June 1 e-mail. “Intelligent, thoughtful design on the rehabilitation of the interior will make Old City Hall the premier historic building in Tacoma.”

Still, also in May 2011, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation placed Old City Hall on its annual list of the most endangered properties in Washington State. “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. “In the meantime, issues of deferred maintenance remain a concern.”

Downtown Tacoma's Old City Hall. (FILE 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