There is a wistful quietness to this early Depression era mugshot of the Olympus Hotel on Pacific Avenue. Today the Forum pub on street level offers a modern echo of the tuneful clamor of eating, drinking and singing that has haunted the establishment for more than a century.
The Olympus Hotel was designed by Tacoma architect August Darmer and built by master beer maker Leopold Schmidt in 1909. A quarter of a century after the legendary Tacoma Hotel was built on A street in 1884, the fashionable white faced brick establishment was designed to be more a Stradivarius than a second fiddle.
Schmidt founded the Olympia Brewing Company and named his Tacoma hotel after the Tumwater based beer. On all the advertising and letterhead for the hotel the typeface and coloring was identical to the design on Olympia Beer labels. Schmidt also established the Bellingham Bay Brewery and named his downtown Bellingham Hotel after himself, the Leopold. Although the Olympus Hotel was an elegantly built and maintained establishment it suffered a series of misfortunes and developed a somewhat shady reputation after 1914, the year Leopold Schmidt died and Washington passed statewide prohibition. First of all the comfortable
but discreet lower level bar had a difficult time adjusting to not serving adult beverages during prohibition, leading to a series of embarrassing visits from the authorities. Then the massive Grand Vaudeville Theatre next door converted to a movie house and renamed itself the Hippodrome in 1922 which cut into the number of traveling performers and theater people staying at the hotel. During World War Two, the Hippodrome was turned over to the Tacoma Council of Churches and converted into the dry United Churches Services Center for chaperoned socializing and dancing. The new neighbor crippled the hotel’s recovery from prohibition and after the war, suburban motels and the decline of the downtown pushed the Olympus into a unique downtown knich.
The restaurant and supper club on the ground floor and in the basement kept the lights on due in part to some of Tacoma’s best jazz musicians and night club acts.
The Mirror Room opened in 1944 while the USO #2 club for black soldiers was still open just across the street. Both nightspots were open to African American customers and artists and while the Winthrop Hotel continued to be “selective” in its service, the Olympus continued to rent rooms to everyone. In 1951 a new mid-century style streetfront with neo marque was applied and the hotel rooms were rehabilitated in an effort to compete with the Winthrop but both of the downtown hotels were
crushed by the drive by completion of Interstate 5 in 1954. Tacoma’s downtown hotels were disadvantaged by their location as the golden age of automobiles carried post war travelers past the urban center to fresh suburban neighborhoods, drive in restaurants and theaters and eventually the Malls(Lakewood Center 1955, Villa Plaza 1957 and Tacoma Mall 1963). The glory days of vaudeville and moonshine and Tacoma’s Algonquin round table at the Olympus were over. The night owls, mid century hipsters and dark smoky clubs made up the hidden downtown as most Tacomans were home watching black and white television. Through it all the Olympus played on.
Image by Andy Cox from the Recaptured City project
Tacoma Public Library Bowen Collection Series: TPL-6903 (Unique:23551)
Lakewood Center November 1955
Enjoyed reading about the hotels’ history!
Great article! Is the Lakewood Center the same as the Colonial Center?
Thank you so much for your time and research on the Olympus Hotel. I lived there for a time recently, and you can indeed feel the history alive in the walls of the hotel itself, and the refurbished Forum Bar next door. Hope you are well.
I recently unearthed a couple of old pictures (my mother’s) from the Olympus Supper club. My siblings and I wondered if we should donate them somewhere and I found your blog. Would you be interested in having these pictures or know someone who might find them useful? I can email you so you can see what they are. I couldn’t find a contact email, but I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
I stayed at the Olympus in January of 1972. I had a few days of leave to burn before I went to Vietnam via McChord. Admittedly, the place was not elegant, but one could certainly see that it had once been impressive. Many years later, I was reading some of my father’s military travel claims and saw the he had stayed at the Olympus before he shipped-out to the Korean War in the Fall of 1952; the hotel must have been much nicer then. In 2005 I was touring the area and made a trip to see the place again, and by that time the apartment conversion had been done. Tacoma, please keep the building.