Mason’s Mummy

Ready for a convoluted digression into odd Northwest history…one that can only be the product of way too much time fixated on the silent film the “Eyes of the Totem” and Tacoma in the mid 1920’s.
In the first reel of the rediscovered Weaver Studio’s silent film, shot on the streets of Tacoma in 1926, our hero Miriam is watching the parade of downtowners walking on busy A Street, as she begs for handouts under the watchful, haunting gaze of the Totem. In the background of this fictional story is the very real Mason Building, a commercial palace in its day. Built by Allen C. Mason, it was called the most extravagant, expensive building in Tacoma when it was completed in 1891, replete with hand carved paneling inset with cast noble metal flourishes, alabaster bathrooms, Turkish carpets and vacuum tube messaging between offices. Mason’s personal suite of offices had a sweeping view of both the city and the mountain and included a library of leather bound books, fragrant humidors, hand blown amber and green gaslight shades, antique maps and orreries and an onyx faced fireplace.
On July 9, 1891, it was in those offices that Allen Mason held a very private unwrapping party for an assortment of personal friends. He was unveiling the great curiosity of his recent grand world tour- the 2500 year old mummy and sarcophagus of Ankh-Wennefer. Weirdly, Mason kept the Egyptian mummy in his office until 1897 when he gifted the old fellow to the Ferry Museum which became the Washington State Historical Society and where Ankh-Wennefer fascinated and terrified school children for generations.
Back to the 20’s, it was Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamun’s golden tomb in 1922 that launched a popular cultural infatuation with all things Egyptian, fanned shamelessly by Hollywood movies like “The Sheik” starring Rudolph Valentino and elaborate movie palaces that mimicked Egyptian architecture and ornament. W.C. Van Dyke, the director of “Eye’s of the Totem” had worked on D.W. Griffith’s exotic masterpiece “Intolerance”, with its hypnotic ancient middle eastern scenes, and well may have borrowed the idea of an ancient culture watching to create or at least flavor the plot for his Tacoma film.
By the mid 20’s, when the movie scenes were shot under Tacoma’s totem pole, Allen Mason’s stately building was part of the city’s background. Mason lost his millions and the building, which by 1925 was converted to a second class hotel, fading in the shadow of the once grand Tacoma Hotel. Anonymous travelers slept in rooms where Allen Mason and his mummy passed the early glory days of Tacoma’s rising-maybe even the room where Allen Mason invented his motto for Tacoma, City of Destiny.

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This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.


  1. Though obscure, the story of Allen Mason’s rise and fall, the grandeur of the Mason Building and especially the kicker, The Mummy, all draw interest to Tacoma’s Past Business Growth. Excellent Article!!!


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