Tacoma is on the ring of fire. It’s a city under a volcano, fifty geographic miles from the eruption throat and less than an hour in existential time from the vaporization that comes with a gaseous lahar followed by a fierce lava flow. Not surprisingly, earthquakes are part of our history.
Over the eight to ten thousand years people have lived around our harbor five or six significant earthquakes are recorded and remembered each century. During the 20th century the most severe seismic event occured on April 13, 1949. It coincided with changing ideas about how cities should look, government programs that encouraged the demolition of entire neighborhoods and the post war baby boom with its need for more and larger schools.
In Tacoma, the 1949 earthquake took a heavy toll on downtown architecture, public buildings and even homes and neighborhoods.
In its aftermath the quake accelerated the replacement of Classical brick schools, churches and neighborhood landmarks. Downtown, several masonry structures were demolished rather than repaired, most notably the massive Romanesque Pierce County Courthouse that lost it clocktower in the quake and then was demolished entirely just five years later. On the formal facades of the railroad era brick and stone commercial buildings that defined the city’s heart along Pacific Avenue, Broadway and the business and retail districts, carved details, dramatic cornices and richly sculpted architectural ornaments were torn away. The actual structural damage from the 1949 earthquake was a mild tremor compared to the earth shaking destruction that was carried out as a matter of public safety and municipal policy.
The 7.1 magnitude event lasted about 30 seconds and was epicentered about mid way between Tacoma and Olympia. Now called the Olympia Earthquake, it was felt over a quarter million square mile area and is considered the most violent seismic event in the
region’s recorded history. Of the eight lives lost during the quake, 11 year old Marvin Klegman’s loss due to a falling cornice off Lowell School was perhaps the most poignant. He was a crossing guard headed to his post when the earthquake hit just before noon and the boy was struck leading another student to safety.
The Lowell School tragedy led to a decision soon after to replace the school with a new building entirely. The brick Willard, Whitman and Edison Grade Schools followed the same replacement path after suffering serious damage.
In the summer months that followed the Olympia quake the City launched a major push to remove overhanging cornices, parapets, signs and architectural ornaments focusing on the downtown and warehouse districts. The block by block stripping away of stone carving, hand shaped sheet metal work and molded terracotta fit with rising mid century modern aesthetics which favored plain geometric forms, smooth monolithic walls and surfaces and an absence of fine details and ornamentation. Along the retail blocks on Broadway whole brick facades were covered by flat
windowless panels meant to modernize the buildings. During the 1950’s, as I-5 was being built to eventually sweep people away from the downtown, Tacoma’s commercial core was taking the first steps toward its most desperate decades. The freeway, the mall and the suburbs would all begin to work against the downtown and in response parking garages, marblecrete facade covers and misguided policies of blight removal would erode the best parts of the city. In a sense, the 1949 earthquake lasted a generation.