by Jen Graves
on Wed, Sep 30, 2009 at 9:27 AM
In the 1980s, Paul Schell, before he was mayor of Seattle, ran a development company that tore down the eye teeth of downtown Tacoma—a row of 19th-century brick buildings along Pacific Avenue. The buildings were protected as a landmark, and the landmarks commission refused to give permission for the demolition, but it didn't matter. With the backing of the mayor, who had future-stars in his eyes, Schell got his way and razed the past.
Then, he built nothing.
The development fell apart. And central downtown Tacoma fell into even uglier disrepair than it had already been in. The space was, and is, a parking lot. (And this is reason #5,899 why Tacomans hate Seattle.)
One building escaped the Schelling: the Luzon. It dated from 1891, was designed by Chicago skyscraper pioneers Daniel Burnham and John Root (one of only two of their buildings on the West Coast), and was a slender and extraordinary-looking thing, even in its neglected state. It had been empty since the mid-'80s.
I woke up Saturday morning to the news that the Luzon building was being demolished that minute. Despite protests and even an appeal to a judge for a last-minute stay of execution that ran into the early morning Saturday, the Luzon building ultimately was a victim of the market. Developers couldn't make it pencil out—just like they couldn't make it pencil out when all the structures the Luzon leaned on came down—and city government idiotically only saw a future in tearing down the past. This in a city where historic buildings—Union Station, the University of Washington Tacoma—have, more than any other single force, heroically revived what was once not a dying but a dead metropolis.
Peter Haley/The News Tribune
And: the demolition cost more than it would have cost to make the building safe, to gird it in order to keep it simply from falling down (the soft, neglected brick-and-mortar of its north and west sides were leaning, so lanes on the streets below had been closed for months). But why do that when you still can't make the money pan out? Um, maybe because this economy is not the forever economy?? Surely, Tacoma has learned about the business of rediscovery, and learned what is needed to make it happen??
Peter Haley/The News Tribune
But at least this way, when the new, much-touted "green" parking garage/office building opens across the street soon, nobody will have to look at an historic jeweleyesore.
Fuck you, Tacoma city government. It's something I never could have said when I worked at The News Tribune (1999-2005), even when it needed saying. If you didn't learn this lesson in the '80s, then apparently you never will: If you make your historic buildings dependent on the market, then you will lose them. Seattle has a public authority that protects buildings. Tacoma has nothing like it. The city manager and council, in this case, blessed the authority of the developer, like the 1980s mayor before him, and voila! Rubble.
This makes me particularly sad because I love Tacoma. It is a complicated city with what is often a heartbreaking narrative, but it is never dull. I feel guilty for not having known this was going on. The Trib covered the story in detail but I'd checked out of Tacoma this summer, or I'd have read the words of always-awesome columnist Peter Callaghan, which are worth revisiting here and here. (The latter is written as a session between Tacoma and its psychoanalyst—an overworked character if ever there was one.) Here is the story on the day of the demolition; you can hear the pain and resignation in architectural historian Michael Sullivan's voice when the longtime Tacoma champion tells the reporter, "I thought we were just a lot more sophisticated on historic preservation stuff."
At the turn of the millennium, the Luzon was the lone building involved in an art installation that stretched the entire length of what Tacoma had lost in those downtown blocks; it was a memorial and a prayer for the future. White panels with changing light projected on them and a giant reflecting pool spanned the huge, several-block-long parking lot that met the Luzon on one end, in a temporary work by Seattle artist/architect Iole Alessandrini. You could still see the remains of the earlier buildings, where the demolition crews had left up chunks of wall. The installation was only activated at night—when this area of downtown was most haunted by crime and bad juju. People had avoided the area for years; now they were turning out to see it at midnight, at 3 am, at sunrise.
The side of the Luzon building, with its scars from having been separated from its neighbors (see the photograph at right), was a physical memory of what had happened. You'd never have thought that anyone would have forgotten.