The beginning of Tacoma’s architectural history is very sketchy, drawn hastily to fit a city that was born in a burst of optimism tempered by desperation. Not surprisingly, the first important formal building was the Land Office of the Northern Pacific Railroad and headquarters for the grand enterprise that had just picked Commencement Bay for its Pacific terminus and was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Between July and December of 1873, the NP raced to finish the rail laying of the Prairie Line to tidewater. They were also racing to survey and sell city lots in the new terminus city since the federal land grants made to the railroad represented its only real liquid wealth. The follow year, in the fall of 1874, the NP started building a highly stylized, Victorian headquarters that was part office building and part mansion. It stood in stark contrast to it’s surroundings when it was completed in early 1875 by the superintendent of construction Theodore Hosmer. Hosmer was also the NP’s Special Agent in charge of city planning and land sales (and the brother in law of Charles B. Wright, chairman of the railroad’s Board of Directors).
The city of Tacoma was mostly tree stumps, log cabins and plank barns when the transcontinental arrived and the new NP Land Office not only marked the physical starting point at 9th and C Street (Broadway today), it displayed the first inklings of an ambitious, formal city. The startlingly white, wood frame structure became an instant landmark and the largest building on a seasonally muddy hillside where armies of workers were grading streets, marking out building sites, delivering wagon loads of lumber and hammering away at the first pieces of a metropolis. Everything was directed from the land office and everybody knew it. When a City Hall was needed they built it next to the big white capitol, smaller and set back from the increasingly busy corner on 9th, where they were planning a big time streetcar line. The first library and newspaper sided along what was then C Street next to the big white house and the first and most important telegraph wire ran from the rail head to the NP offices. Across 9th, Theodore and Louis Hosmer built an impressive house later in 1875 that reflected some of the refined charm of the NP Land Office. Today it still stands as the oldest building in downtown Tacoma. See Way Back-History as Hidden Code
The first version of Tacoma was wood and short lived but while it lasted the fashionable Italianate NP land office sat on the upper edge of the burgeoning city, the finest piece of architecture in town. But in less than a decade brick and stone were the new standard for commercial buildings and even the Land Office was being crowded out. 1884 saw several brick buildings rise including the Wright Building at 9th and Pacific and the Ledger Building just down C street. And most imposing of all was the towering Tacoma Hotel that opened in August
1884 to future guests like Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. The completion of the Northern Pacific tunnel that brought travelers directly into the city triggered a major building boom and by 1887 the Northern Pacific was planning a new brick masonry, Renaissance style headquarters at the north end of Pacific Avenue overlooking Commencement Bay. Just months after the new headquarters building was occupied, the old land office was rolled off its real estate, the chimneys, balconies and porch were cropped and it was moved to the corner of 7th and St. Helens Avenue. In its place at 9th and C street, Theodore Hosmer oversaw the completion of a massive Tudor Style opera house that seated an audience of 1800 for those celebrities like Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling.
After the move to 701 St Helens, the NP commissioned the architects Pickels & Sutton to convert the building to a boarding house and hotel called the Florence. By 1903, it was operating as the Sylvan House, still classy but showing its age some. The few survivors from the wooden city days were disappearing fast.
The centerpiece days were over, dark paint covered the once white exterior and by the First World War traveling soldiers and touring vaudevillians from the theatre district found a cheap room in the Sylvan. They probably didn’t know or care that the final chapters in the building of the transcontinental railroad had played out under that roof, that empire builders and sea captains had bargained for fortunes in those rooms and that Tacoma was just an idea when those walls were nailed together. By 1920, the building was a shabby rooming house getting by on borrowed time and a largely forgotten past. Just as the Great Depression set in the wreckers came and Tacoma’s first piece of high style architecture vanished in 1930.
Actually it almost vanished because just a couple years ago it reappeared unexpectedly when a long lost silent feature film made at Weaver Studios in Tacoma in 1926 was found in a New York Museum. In The Eyes of the Totem, the young woman protagonist and her infant daughter are befriended by a blind busker who takes her to a shady boarding house that serves as a headquarters for a hospitable, understanding colony of street wise hustlers. Thanks to some visual detective work and historical research it was discovered that the lost and then found silent film contained a hidden treasure-a last look at Tacoma’s first building. So here it is, like a window into Tacoma’s most distant past… Enjoy….
Thanks to John Carlton for making the film cut from Eyes of the Totem and John Christopher Bayman for the music.