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
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,
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.