The near simultaneous completion of the Pierce County Courthouse and the onset of a crushing economic depression in 1893 resulted it a few civic oddities. Not the least of them was the tenant mix in the newly completed Romanesque style building during its early years. Washington’s statehood in 1889 and the population growth in Tacoma and
Pierce County following the arrival of the Northern Pacific transcontinental railroad directly through the Cascades over amped civic expectations. Plans for a monumental new public building as the county seat were aimed at a fast moving target and by the time the colossal sandstone courthouse was completed in 1893, Tacoma’s boomtime was dead in the water. The population of the city began to dwindle, civic aspirations were tempered by bank failures and collapsing real estate values and the hopes for Tacoma’s rise to the largest, most important city in the Pacific Northwest were dashed, seemingly forever.
When the towering stone structure opened for government business and courtroom dramas much of the building was empty. Several times the size of the wood frame courthouse it replaced down the hill on Broadway, the largely vacant new landmark on 11th Street between Tacoma and Yakima Avenues housed a county government workforce that was shrinking fast with little optimism about growing into the vast unused space. The top floor, with the most dramatic rooms and best views in the city was unoccupied.
The political misfortunes Pierce County and Tacoma were experiencing in the early 1890s must have seemed insignificant to Clinton P. Ferry compared to the multitude of problems in his own life. He was the nephew of Washington State’s first Governor Elisha Ferry, the son in law of speculator and scoundrel Mathew McCarver and wealthy enough by 1890 to be locally known as The Duke of Tacoma. Ferry took his second, much younger wife with him to the Paris Exposition and extended their stay in Europe long enough to amass a collection of statuary, fine art copies and plaster study molds from classical artworks. While he was becoming a refined neoclassical art connoisseur she was learning French from a dashing, handsome linguist. Clinton ended up coming home alone divorced from his young wife but committed to bringing high brow art to Tacoma. Like a scene out of Citizen Kane, Clinton P. Ferry’s fortune in crates of statuary, fragments of ancient cultures and replicas of the classical world sat homeless and unseen in Tacoma.
The details of how the “Ferry Museum” collection made its way into the empty top floor of the freshly built Pierce County Courthouse
are somewhat obscured by the backroom cigar smoke of 19th Century Tacoma politics but by 1895 the elaborate Romanesque exterior building housed an equally Romanesque assortment objets d’art on the inside. The full size solid marble copies of classical sculptures were hoisted up through the building and cast stone and plaster friezes and Greek temple fragments were mounted on the walls. The heavy exhibits included the Venus de Milo, Sleeping Ariadne, the Discus Thrower, a full set of the Elgin Marbles and the not-too-subtle favorite of heartbroken Clinton Ferry, the Dying Gaul. Once lifted into place the Duke of Tacoma’s version of Paris in the attic could be seen for 25 cents. A mug of beer in any saloon on lower Pacific Avenue cost a nickel and came with a free cold cut lunch.
The Ferry Museum of Art grew to include cases full of native baskets, curios and taxidermy turning the courthouse attic into a Victorian era chamber of oddities. But the museum did not take up the entire space up under the gables of the steep roofed public building. Just before the turn of the century a group of athletically minded young men staked out an unused corner of the high ceilinged top floor as a gymnasium complete with a basketball court, rowing machines and exercise clubs. They declared themselves the Skookum Athletic Club and by 1902 were taking on all comers on the hardwoods. For more than a decade, students taking art appreciation courses from museum curator W.H. Gilstrap found themselves observing the drowsy posture of the goddess Ariadne while listening to the soundtrack of a dribbling basketball.
In time the Ferry Museum merged with the Washington State Historical Society and together they built their own building overlooking Stadium Bowl in 1911. Clinton Ferry died in 1909 leaving a small fortune for construction of the new, not surprisingly neoclassical style museum. Pierce County government offices soon filled the courthouse and the Skookum Athletic Club moved on to a different court. The early chapter of art and athletics in the attic came to an end inside Tacoma’s most towering landmark.