The population race between Tacoma and Seattle ended with the deep economic depression of 1893. While both cities and the whole country for that matter, tanked with the collapsed of the banking system, Seattle recovered with agility and the Klondike Gold Rush. Tacoma rode the struggling Northern Pacific Railroad in and out of bankruptcy like a slow smoky ride into a dark tunnel.

No single episode seemed to capture the City of Destiny’s troubles more than the bittersweet story of Henry Mahncke and his chocolate brick colored Berlin Building at the corner of 11th and Pacific. Henry was a baker who immigrated to Tacoma from his native Germany during the great NP boom of 1882. Unlike many of his fellow Germans who went into the beer making business, he preferred to make bread from grain and yeast. As the railroad brought throngs of newcomers and adventurers to the city, his bakery doubled in size-twice! By 1890 he had joined forces with Charles Muehlenbruch and together they gained control of the busiest downtown corner in Tacoma.

The two men hired the local architectural firm of Pickles & Sutton

Berlin Bld. Lg
Berlin Building ca. 1898

to design a six story office building. It was completed in February 1893 and bore a striking resemblance to the Pacific National Bank Building (renamed Luzon Building in 1901) which was designed by the prestigious Chicago firm of Burnham & Root and had been constructed at 13th and Pacific in 1891.

The ribbon cutting was followed by all hell breaking loose and about the time Mahncke was getting to know his tenants they began to disappear. His ground floor tenant, Merchants National Bank locked their doors and never opened again after less than six months in the building. By the end of the year in 1893, both Henry and his partner were buried in mortgage debt and in the months that followed the brand new Berlin Building was barely generating rent income.

Henry Mahncke considered going back to baking bread but finally leased the entire building to George Worden who owned the company that installed the modern new Otis passenger elevators. Worden quickly discovered he was in the same boat as Henry, with a non performing asset made out of brick. He was not the only Tacoma speculator under water, the grand Tacoma Hotel was broke, most of the other banks closed and even the Tacoma Land Company, backed by the NP, went bankrupt. By December 1893 Henry Mahncke was working as the janitor in the Berlin Building when he was not spelling Mr. Worden at his station operating the elevator. He worked in the Berlin Building throughout the depression, eventually recovered his finances and died with a substantial fortune during the Great Depression in October of 1937.

As for the dark brown Berlin Building,

Richards_Studio_C1551
Anderson & Company Offices, 1st Floor Berlin Building ca.1898

its important location and distinctive arched street front finally began filling up with the stiff white collar tenants it was built for. By 1898, the first floor was occupied by the R.E. Anderson Insurance and Real Estate Company complete with marble counters, polished brass grill work and chandeliers and the steady buzz of Western Union telegraph deliveries. Tacoma was back on track headed into a new century. The Berlin Building was a familiar downtown landmark during the early years of the 20th Century but as the skyline pushed upward and architectural styles changed the real estate it sat on was too rich for the six story structure. Demolition began before Christmas in 1919 and by February 1920 it was a ghost. The Berlin Building stood for only 27 years almost to the day.

As soon as the site was cleared work began on Tacoma’s tallest skyscraper, the 17 story Scandinavian American Bank Building which was framed out in riveted girder steel against the Tacoma skyline by January of 1921. Then the work stopped abruptly. It was discovered that bank president Ole Larson was using depositors money to keep the project afloat. The ambitious building project plummeted into financial disaster, the gun metal gray steel skeleton stood at Tacoma’s busiest corner for years and Ole went to Federal prison. Henry Mahncke was still very much alive but not invested in the project.

Written by tacomahistory

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.

2 comments

  1. If I am not mistaken, Henry Mahnke’s baking heritage lived on in the form of the beloved Henry’s Bakery, which thrived in the Proctor district into at least the 1980s. I remember meeting old Henry–perhaps Henry Jr–there around 1970, complete with a heavy German accent, white baker’s “uniform” and friendly, formal demeanor.

    incidentally, regarding the City of Destiny during economic fiasco of the 1890’s, how about an account of Percy Norton, my great grandfather, who was credited with “saving” Tacoma from bankruptcy during that perilous time, and was memorialized in a little park on St Helens Ave? His image is still emblazoned on the crumbling sandstone pulled there, but with no accompanying identification or story. Perhaps that could be remedied?!

    Liked by 1 person

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