What's Left of Luzon? Report keeps tabs on demolished building's artifacts

It can be difficult to find evidence of the historic Luzon Building in downtown Tacoma.

Designed by famed Chicago architects John Wellborn Root and Daniel Hudson Burnham, the Luzon Building, which sat on the corner of South 13th Street and Pacific Avenue, was one of the first high-rise towers on the West Coast, the embodiment of engineering genius — sturdy brick shell, cast iron columns, and wood construction on the upper floors — that allowed the building to top out at a soaring height for 1890s Tacoma. It was an engineering model that would be copied and opened the door to the future development of “skyscrapers.”

More striking than its storied and recorded history, however, is the symbol of what the building represented. It was an artifact of a period of misguided public policy in Tacoma and the nation. In the name of “Urban Renewal,” dozens of Luzon-era buildings along Pacific Avenue were razed and replaced by parking lots and garages. Today, the stretch of Pacific Avenue between 13th Street and 9th Street is one of the ugliest areas of the center city.

On Sept. 26, 2009, a crowd gathered at dawn to watch contractors begin to demolish Luzon. The City of Tacoma deemed the historically significant building a safety hazard for fear it would collapse after decades of neglect. Despite protests from some Tacoma residents and historic preservationists, a demolition order was issued.

In 2008, the Tacoma Daily Index went inside the building for a feature article. At the time, I described the old building as “not unlike visiting the ‘Fight Club’ house: paint peeled from most surfaces like skin off a week-old sunburn; holes large enough to crawl through existed in some of the walls; water dripped from too many places to count; and a sheen of dirt covered most windows, affecting a misty glow on most floors. In many areas, floors sank like whirlpools stretching down to the next level. Ceilings comprised of central beams with rib-like planks bowed like giant rib cages.”

In an editorial published in the Index, Sharon Winters, at the time Historic Tacoma’s Board President, commented, “We mourn the loss of the Luzon, the City’s most significant architectural treasure. But we must take the lessons learned from this and the demolition of First United Methodist Church in 2007 and put policies and incentives in place to preserve significant historic structures which have just recently come to be regarded as assets.”

Last August, the City of Tacoma published a report detailing the artifacts left over from the demolition. The report was compiled by Artifacts Consulting of Tacoma, and recently highlighted by Historic Tacoma in an e-mail to its members. The 69-page report includes guidelines for preserving the artifacts, historic images, and even the 1979 nomination to place the building on the national register of historic places.

What’s left of the Luzon Building?

More than 450 interior and exterior artifacts ranging from less than one pound (a variety of bells) to more than 2,000 pounds (cast iron columns), according to the report. The report notes approximately 400 bricks, five cast iron columns, decorative metal work, a fire hose reel, nearly two-dozen terra cotta panels, and the fly wheel, controller, oak door, and floor indicator panel that was once part of the building’s Otis elevator were saved. The artifacts, which belong to the City of Tacoma, are in various states of decay and locked away in two portable storage containers leased by the city at a secure site. The report recommends the artifacts would be in good hands if handed over to museums, university campuses, or non-profit organizations with interests in historic preservation, preferably based in Tacoma, and with the ability to care for the artifacts and make them available for public viewing.

The complete report, entitled “The Luzon: Artifacts Inventory,” is online here.

Bricks, an elevator fly wheel, a fire hose reel, and an elevator operator controller are some of the 450 artifacts left over after the 1891 Luzon Building in downtown Tacoma was demolished in 2009. (ARTIFACT PHOTOS COURTESY CITY OF TACOMA / LUZON BUILDING FILE PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

To read the Tacoma Daily Index‘s complete and comprehensive coverage of the Luzon Building, 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 wahmee.com.