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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.

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Olympus and Hippodrome ca.1924

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

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Hippodrome after conversion to the United Churches Service Center , 1944 

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.

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Selika Pettiford, on the organ at the Mirror Room in 1948. She was classically trained on the keyboard, starred in films and accompanied Marian Anderson

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

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Olympus Hotel streetfront 1951

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)

 

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In August of 1951, the “Hac” Hanna Trio played in the Mirror Room at the Olympus Hotel, 815-17 Pacific Avenue. At that time both Mr. Hanna and his drummer, Gerald R. Frank, were soldiers stationed at Fort Lewis.

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Lakewood Center November 1955

 

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.

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