Vertigo For a Living

This story is in the pictures and the mind of a steeplejack named Jack O’Brian who on a August day in 1942 was painting the flagpole on a building that was once the tallest on the west coast of North America. 

National Realty Building, opening celebration 1910

The National Realty Building was topped out in 1910 between 11th and 12th on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma. At the time nobody in the far west was pushing steel frame skyscrapers anywhere near the lofty heights of Chicago where 15 and 20 story building were becoming commonplace. The National Realty Building, later called the Puget Sound Bank Building, was 16 full stories and on the Pacific Avenue facade a steep hipped roof was added above an elaborate Beaux Arts cornice. The high architectural style was on full display at the time with both the new Federal Courthouse just to the east and the nearly finished Union Station down Pacific designed in the same formal style. The builders were fully aware of the height distinction they were going for, roofing the tower in metallic gold and adding a 50 foot flagpole. Almost before it was full of tenants, L.C. Smith, the typewriter and firearms magnet, began work on a 38 story building in Seattle. Smith Tower was finished in 1914 and stayed the tallest building on the west coast until the Space Needle was opened for the 1962 World’s Fair. 

The National Realty Building still stands at 1119 Pacific Avenue in Tacoma.

On August 13, 1942, 48 year old Jack O’Brian rigged his bosun’s chair for a climb to the 400 foot top of the flagpole. With his lidded paint pail and tethered brushes he worked his way down leaving a heavy coat of dark paint. There was no trick to the work. He had been doing it for 30 years and except for a wave to the photographer from Richards Studios, he wrapped up the job in a few hours. Routine. The photographers work-with it dizzying perspectives and compositions-seemed to take more effort. 

Photos from the Tacoma Public Library Richards Collection

Written by

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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