Beaux-Arts Bones, Part II

Continuing story about the influence and legacy of Beaux-Arts architecture and urban design on Tacoma at the turn of the 20th Century……..

During the world fair exposition era of the 1890’s through the beginning of the First World War Beaux-Arts design was blending into a uniquely American version of public  architecture and city planning. In Tacoma, the influence shaped an important chapter in the city’s history, appearance and architectural aspirations. Many of Tacoma’s most prominent and valued landmarks date from the Beaux-Arts era…………


As early as 1906 there were promises of a block long Federal Building downtown complete with architectural plans in the grand Renaissance Revival style. But work on the building did not start until two years later. The influence of world fair’s trying to outdo Chicago’s Great White City was obvious in the impressive granite and sandstone Federal Building that finally began construction in September 1908.


The building was planned to serve as Tacoma’s central post office, home to the Federal Courts and offices and the U.S. Customs house just across the 11th Street Bridge from the busy port (the bridge was under construction at the same time). Its heavy stone masonry construction was in stark contrast to the near identical examples built along the prominades and waterways of the World Expositions. They were built from light stick frame and skim coat plaster and straw like backlot Hollywood movie sets.

Tacoma, Seattle (1909, razing in 1950s), Spokane (1909) and Yakima (1912) all saw Federal Buildings constructed during the 12150City Beautiful era, all in a near identical style as enforced by James Knox Taylor, Supervising Architect of the United States Department of the Treasury. The years long delay in building Tacoma’s Federal building was in part due to local insistence that local Wilkeson sandstone be used. In the end, mid-Westerner Taylor approved funding from the U.S. Treasury for the Tacoma building but it was constructed by a Spokane contractor using “foreign” Indiana Limestone.


UNION STATION b. 1909-11

No piece of Tacoma’s architectural legacy is more embedded in Beaux-Arts design and the City Beautiful movement than Union Station designed by Reed & Stem in 1909 and completed in 1911. For a city born with the unionStation.4.wshs.encoming of the transcontinental railroad just after the Civil War, it was a long wait for a grand passenger terminal- a secular cathedral in terms of scale and civic prominence. When the Northern Pacific finally commissioned the depot from the same architects that designed Grand Central Station in New York, Portland had just finished hosting the Lewis & Clark Exposition and Seattle was about to open the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. The cities of the American west were moving the world’s compass needle toward the Pacific and Asia and the Eurocentric view of the world’s marvels was shifting. Tacoma cleared whole blocks of industrial land and vacated busy 19th street to accomodate a new railway station, concourse and multiple sidings for travelers, postal freight and modern wire and telegraph service. The deal required the railroad to build with architectural meaning and high design standards and the NP went all out with a domed, distinctly Beaux Arts structure.

In the two years between Reed & Stem creating the design for the Northern Pacific Passenger Station and the opening of Tacoma’s Union Station a lot happened on the corporate level. J.J. Hill, the mastermind behind the Great Northern Railroad, gained control of the NP and in so doing established a pathway fortacoma063.en his own transcontinental line to reach Tacoma. Meanwhile, the Union Pacific Railroad had reached Portland from the bay area and was eyeing the passenger and freight business from Puget Sound. The building tells the story with the NP monad (ying/yang logo) branded into the arched window mullions and the electric sign letters UNION STATION, cleared added on to the original design indicating that the depot served more than one railroad line.

But the small details at Union Station are secondary to the overall architectural style and formal Beaux Arts features of the treasured structure.  During the golden age of world expositions, the architectural centerpieces were often capped by domes, invoking  the Pantheon in Rome and Brunelleschi’s Renaissance masterpiece Doma of Florence cartouche.enCathedral. The incorporation of a copper dome roof above the glazed arches on Tacoma’s passenger station was a high dive into Beaux Arts design and tacoma058the further embellishment with French cartouches added a full twist. Train stations were the gateways to the great world’s fairs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and they were often the most lasting legacies of the events. Within months after the Columbian Exposition, virtually all of the great white city was demolished or erased by fire. In Tacoma, the pieces of legacy from the Beaux-Arts period have survived and none is more important to the city’s identity, then and now, than Union Station.



During the Beaux-Arts boomtime downtown, the Clinton Ferry Historical Museum moved its curious collections out of the the County Courthouse to a new, academically NeoClassical building on the southern lip of the dramatic stadium being carved out of

WSHS Museum above stadium & high school

the hillside next to Tacoma High School. By 1910, the Victorian mansions and high Queen Anne style homes along Tacoma’s North End streetcar lines were becoming surrounded by more mellow, picturesque homes out of the City Beautiful catalog. The new formally pedimented exhibit hall would become the Washington State Historical Museum, and together with the stadium and Chateauesque high school, would look like an architectural ensemble cut right from the grounds of an international world’s fair exposition. A streetcar ride to Point Defiance Park and the Japanese Pagoda (1914) station made the world fair reference. Beyond the breathtaking setting and architectural surroundings, the interior displays and collections at the museum were right out of the world fair pavilions including ethnographic objects and panoramic artworks that were displays at the Columbian, Lewis & Clark and Alaska Yukon Pacific expositions.

Richards_Studio_D932012.WSHSTraining at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris was the loftiest credential for architects during the World Exposition/City Beautiful period. Notable in Tacoma’s stadium neighborhood are the Rust Mansion designed by Ambrose Russell, who also completed the Governor’s Mansion in time the AYP in 1909 and the residence at 802 north Yakima Avenue designed by Kirkland Cutter, who designed State Buildings for the Columbian and St. Louis Expositions as well as Thornwood on American Lake. Both men were Ecole de Beaux-Arts trained.



In Tacoma, there’s no deeper dive into pure Beaux-Arts design in the world fair context that the Elks Building and interwoven

Elks Lodge & Spanish Steps

Spanish Steps, designed by the Paris born American architect Edouard Frere Champney. Ending where this story began in the shadow of Tacoma City Hall, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Tacoma Lodge No. 174 is perhaps the city’s purest expressions from the era of Great White Cities, idealized architectural Classicism and beautiful urban compositions. When the building and public stairs opened in February 1916, Tacoma and the international scene were about to change. The world was turning from expositions and fairgrounds to warfare and battlefields. Cities were beginning to think about vertical engineering, skyscrapers and the convenience and isolation of personal motor vehicles. The importance of a shared public realm with graceful open spaces, human scaled architecture, parks and landscapes, and occasional marvels was beginning to wane.

Elks.cartouche.3Tacoma last important gesture to the legacy created by the Beaux-Arts movement was almost old fashion before it was finished. Both the Tacoma (1910) and Perkins (1907-10) Buildings at 11th and A streets were using steel frame and reinforced concrete construction to climb above 10 stories and push up the skyline. Tacoma’s downtown core was rapidly increasing in physical height and architectural density as roads and highways spread neighborhoods beyond the familiar network of sidewalks and streetcars. The landmarks from the Beaux-Arts era became scattered across a city looking for freeway on ramps and free parking spaces. Scattered but not lost.

One way to look at Tacoma’s architectural history is to imagine its Beaux-Arts landmarks as an assemblage–as buildings and sites built within a short period of time, upon a planned landscape designed for people and their enjoyment of the surroundings. Imagine these buildings and landscapes as pieces of special time and particular place, like they floated away from a compact master plan but still reflect a sense of balance between the city’s past and future. Its as if an entire chapter in Tacoma’s history is on exhibition, a Tacoma World Fair.


For the first part of this post…….Beaux-Arts Bones Part I

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