Incantation on 11th Street

Here’s a wonderful glass plate negative image made by Marvin Boland in December 1918. It shows the intersection of Commerce Street and 11th during the last days of the two nearest large masonry buildings in the picture. In 1920, William R Rust would replace the Victorian Central Lunch Building in the foreground with a 12 story skyscraper, financed with the proceeds from the sale of his massive smelter ASARCO) to the Guggenheim syndicate. Before the Rust Building was complete, the six story dark brick Berlin Building across Pacific Avenue was demolished to make room for the 17 story Scandinavian American Bank Building. This crystal clear image, complete with horse and wagon, captures the densest intersection in the city a few months before it exploded into the sky and blew Tacoma into the Chicago style skyline of the modern age.  The end of the First World War was just weeks in the past. Automobiles are still an oddity and there are virtually no parking lots in the downtown. Commerce Street, which runs through the images, was the utility corridor for the downtown where early morning horse drawn beer and delivery wagons worked their way along under a tangle of overhead electrical, telegraph and telephone wires. After the workday ended, the back doors and trashcans of the fine shops, restaurants and businesses fronting on Pacific and Broadway would be visited by the garbage wagons, junk men, and street cleaners. The cable cars climbing up 11th were pulled by the underground clockworks of a steel hemp wire system so there were no crossing overhead wires. All this was an inheritance of the 19th Century and all of it was about to change dramatically.

Look at the next two photographs of 11th Street and the same two corners made by the same photographer, Marvin Boland. Less than 8 years passed between the time Boland aimed his camera at the intersection in the first image and the day he took the last photograph from the roof of the Perkins Building. Tacoma has at times grown and changed  in sudden bursts but its hard to imagine the center of the downtown has ever been transformed like it was in the wizardry of the first years of the 1920’s.



Looking East down 1tth, December 1918
Looking East down 11th, 1924
Looking west up 11th, 1926


Marvin Boland continued to use a glass plate negative camera well beyond most commercial photographers. The result is that he has left us an extraordinary legacy of windows into Tacoma’s past. His artistry and craftsmanship is in full display with these images particularly this last one taken from the Perkins Building in 1926. The composition, exposure and light conditions make it one of the best photographs every made of downtown Tacoma during the 1920’s.

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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.

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