Tacoma has a hidden code. Unraveled, it tells the story of the place, of boom times and busts, of big schemes and small plans and mistakes turned lucky and missions gone bad. It’s virtually impossible to decipher Tacoma’s narrative from a moving vehicle. To figure it out you have to walk the streets and investigate the little bits of evidence that have a connection to a specific time past. The farther you go back in the story the more obscure the image, like looking through a telescope where the most distant objects seem the most hazy and unreachable. The photograph below, one of the first ever taken of Tacoma, comes from just after it was chosen in 1873 as the terminus for the northern transcontinental railroad. It shows a deep space clearcut just before the big bang, Tacoma’s first line of code.
Decoding the built environment today it’s hard to imagine that much remains from the the city’s frontier origins, when Tacoma was a town of tents and hand cut plank buildings placed between massive tree stumps on muddy streets-some archaeological fragments perhaps, maybe a better photograph. But the code has its twists and surprises and one of them is architectural and almost unimaginable.
At this point a little backstory is needed.
In July 1873 the Northern Pacific railroad made its pick for an arrival point on Puget Sound. Tracks were already being laid north from the Columbia river and the NP was flirting with several frontier towns on Puget Sound to get the best deal they could in waterfront property, political favors and outright cash. As we know Tacoma won mainly because the railroad basically got the whole hillside above Commencement Bay and it was a lot closer than Seattle. Charles B Wright and other key Board Directors for the railroad were in a big rush to meet congressional deadlines for reaching saltwater with the line and cashing in on real estate before going bankrupt. With New Tacoma chosen, the NP sent in their team, to clear the trees, survey streets and lots, build a recognizable town and immediately start selling property. The “Special Agent” in charge was Thomas Theodore Hosmer who happened to be married to the sister of Charles Wright’s wife. Hosmer and his wife Louise mucked out the frontier town of Tacoma and literally were in charge of turning it into a city. In 1877 Hosmer was made General Manager of the Tacoma Land Company, the real estate branch of the railroad, and arguably was the most powerful man in town. Three years later he divested himself of company control over the wood planked frontier town by founding a township board of directors and having the Territorial government formally grant Tacoma a City Charter. In 1882 he was unanimously chosen as Tacoma’s first Mayor.
When Theodore and Louise moved out of their New Tacoma tent in 1875 it was into a nice two story wood frame house across the street from the wood framed City Hall and next to the wood framed headquarters of the NP and Tacoma Land Company. In the earliest photograph of the house, taken in 1881, Tacoma was still a city of wooden buildings but it was filling up fast. The Hosmer house has two chimneys, a distinctive low hipped roof and fancy shutters on the windows in the picture and sat just off the corner of 9th and St. Helen’s.
From their front porch Theo and Louise watched Tacoma appear a second time as the city of wood they oversaw the first time was replaced with buildings of brick and stone. Muddy Pacific Avenue was paved for streetcars and quickly became lined with brick commercial buildings. Hosmer was the on site agent of his brother-in-law Charles Wright and together they began placing important, permanent buildings on the Tilton street plan, a boring North/South grid of lots and roads that was a pale substitute for the parklike Olmsted Plan for Tacoma that was never realized. Like pieces on a monopoly board, Hosmer began designing the order and cipher of Tacoma arrayed in a deliberate, sometimes secret, pattern of commercial, social and public buildings. First the Northern Pacific Railroad headquarters was built at the north end of Pacific Avenue and the Tacoma Hotel was perched over the waterfront on 9th and Cliff Street. He could watch them both be built from his house and direct the brisk sale of city lots around them. The year Washington became a state in 1889, the grand Tacoma Theatre was built across the street on 9th next to where the old wooden City Hall had been and blocking the view from his house to the mountain a four story hotel called the Bostwick was constructed. By then Hosmer had built his own grand mansion on Broadway just two block from the prestigious University Club, which he also helped locate as a founding Board member. The widow Maria White kept up the old residence for Hosmer as a boarding house, with a sunny front porch and a neat row of fruit trees along the sidewalk. The legendary Tacoma architect Carl August Darmer designed and oversaw a two story addition to the building that was completed before 1892.
Theodore Hosmer died in Tacoma in 1900 and the new owner of his old house decided to finally put it on a brick foundation rather than cedar posts. He dug a basement hole behind the house and laid a new red brick perimeter foundation for the building facing 9th. In 1905, after 30 years as the compass rose for the city of Tacoma, the Hosmer house was spun about 90 degrees and moved less than 100 feet.
The 20th Century closed in on the Hosmer house surrounding it with multi story brick buildings like the six story Rialto Apartments at 9th and Market which rose just inches from the pioneer structure. Department store magnate Henry Rhodes bought the Hosmer house in 1914 and renamed it “The Exley” after a rehabilitation by Frederick Heath, the architect for Stadium High School, Pythian Temple and many other landmarks. Rhodes went on to develop most of the block capping it off with the Rhodes Medical Arts Building in 1930. By then “The Exley” was virtually invisible from the busy street even though it acquired a rear secret garden courtyard. Himself a pioneer, Henry Rhodes carried the suddenly diminutive building into the Depression era but by mid century it was charmless, out of style and considered by the fire marshall a fire trap. Still, it had a reputation and a story which made it colorful place to live in Tacoma’s theater district.
Hosmer House buried between commercial buildings on 9th in 1948
A certain existential dread began to loom around the Hosmer house as it went mostly vacant in the mid 1950’s. It got separated from its story in the minds of most Tacomans and with old man Rhodes gone his company began openly talking about demolition for a parking lot. The building’s days should have ended right then when even the mighty Tacoma Theatre across the street was reduced to showing movies to 50 or 100 people sitting in a grand auditorium with almost 2000 seats. But mysteriously, the wrecking work was stopped abruptly and through the 1960’s and early 70’s the apartments were occupied. Then in 1975, after a century that began at the very beginning of Tacoma, the building was boarded up and condemned. This time it was a small developer named Paul Merlino who understood the narrative behind the curious wooden building and its puzzling location. He and Tacoma architect Gene Grulich guided a restoration effort that preserved the hand worn stair railings inside, the steam age milled fir siding and the knife molded window frames. In 1980 the historic residential building was fully brought up to current building standards and is in full use today.
The Hosmer House (Exley) at 309 South 9th Street is the oldest building in the downtown, home to the city’s first mayor and a beginning point in understanding the architectural cryptology of Tacoma. It’s an enigma machine that has defied logic and dodged disasters and breaks Tacoma’s hidden code by just still being there.