In the world of historic preservation material evidence is the starting point. No matter how elusive the backstory you get to start with a physical place and an architectural object.
So things were flipped recently when we began chasing the history of a building that was mostly lost in a deadly fire in the 1964 and then demolished entirely last December. It was built in 1889 by Edward A. Lorenz, a German immigrant to Tacoma who’s family had operated steamboats in Europe and then mostly followed him to Washington Territory in the 1870’s and 80’s. Together with his brother Carl and his three nephews, Edward, Otto and Oscar, the Lorenz family were like the Cartwrights at the Poderosa,
on the waterfronts of Puget Sound in the days of the legendary Mosquito fleet. While his three nephews operated the fleet of larger and larger steamboats, riding the rising tide of prosperity that came with expanding mail and passenger service before the turn of the 20th Century, Edward invested in real estate and commercial buildings. The Lorenz Building was a landmark built by seafarers at the corner of 17th and Market.
The path of inquiry into the history of the ghost building became a search for something material-a substitute for the lost piece of architecture. For a family of steamboat captains, who were based on the Tacoma waterfront and would have waved or talked to Thea Foss almost daily, the course led first to an almost mythic fleet of historic Northwest vessels: Typhoon I & II , Tyrus, Sentinel, Arcadia, Meta and Sophia. It was impossible to imagine that one of their steamboats still existed but amazingly we found a maritime lead. We learned that the Lorenz’s had sold their 100′ steamer Typhoon II to the West Pass Transportation Company in 1914 and her name was changed to the Virginia III, a predecessor of the last surviving steam powered passenger vessel from the Mosquito Fleet. Then we discovered that four years later in 1918 the Lorenz Brothers (Edward had died in 1905 and Carl in 1907), sold the 110′ Tyrus to the same line where it became the Virginia IV.
Now we were close to something we could touch.
In 1921 the engine and steam plant were removed from the Virginia IV and installed in a new boat, the Virginia V. Like all the Lorenz boats, the Virginia V had a long history with Tacoma and there was clearly a direct tie to the Lorenz’ if not directly to Edward A. (See After The Fall, December 30,1925) But somehow visiting a beautiful but displaced steam engine home ported in Seattle was not entirely satisfying from a Tacoma storytelling standpoint.
But then we discovered that Edward built
a second Lorenz Building in 1904 at 1147-9 Tacoma Avenue South, just across the street from the new Tacoma Carnagie Library dedicated in 1903. And indeed the building is still there though vacant and a bit forlorn. Compared to the first grand Victorian Lorenz Building number two was a disappointing survivor, like a beached steamboat without a polished brass engine. Then a delectable bit of history appeared. In 1913, a kitchen confectioner named Frank C Mars rented space in the building from Edward Lorenz to start a candy making business. It became one of the largest candy companies in the world and today Mars Incorporated is ranked the sixth largest privately held company in America.
What we discovered on this historical voyage of discovery is that buildings are not the only way stories are remembered over time. Some times the story is so sweet you can taste it.
And this is just the opening chapter in the story of the Lorenz Building which goes on to be at the center of Tacoma’s Japantown and a dramatic backdrop for some of Tacoma’s darkest times. We’ll be back with more….