Written by Sara Stiltner, Senior Project Manager, Preservation Green Lab
Thanks to Tacoma’s Old City Hall, I finally got someone to laugh at my favorite joke, the only joke I’ve bothered to memorize.
The first time my husband Ryan visited Tacoma, Wash., we meandered through my hometown’s historic district. I showed off my favorite spots, rattling off both the histories and my memories of various buildings. Inspiration struck when we passed Old City Hall’s clock tower. I told him a tragic story about the tower’s two bell ringers. I recall him hanging on my every word and bursting out with laughter when he realized the end of the story was actually a pun-filled punchline.
Aha! Old City Hall turned out to be the secret ingredient that could bring my long-winded joke to life. The next stop on Ryan’s Tacoma tour was Stadium High School, another historic building that has also served as an anchor for my storytelling.
When I went to college on the East Coast, I quickly realized that hometowns were a key identifier when meeting new people. I was disappointed to learn Tacoma wasn’t a household name (except in my physics class when they showed the video of my hometown’s Galloping Gertie bridge collapsing in 1940).
I couldn’t get away with saying “Washington” without following it up with “No, no, the other Washington.” Claiming Seattle seemed disingenuous, despite the proximity of the two towns. I was raised in Tacoma; I’d be a different person if I grew up in Seattle.
Then 10 Things I Hate About You hit theaters. The movie was filmed at the high school's castle-like setting, perfect for a modern-day adaption of William Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew." All of a sudden, if I met someone who hadn’t heard of Tacoma, I could reference the movie and then launch into conversation about the town that I love.
Everyone first wanted to know why Stadium looked like a castle. The historic landmark was originally designed to be a luxury hotel overlooking Commencement Bay. Financed by the Northern Pacific Railroad Company and Tacoma Land Company, construction began in 1891 when Tacoma was booming.
Construction stopped two years later due to the nationwide Panic of 1893. After a mysterious fire, the railroad company began dismantling the building with plans to send the bricks to other projects around the country. Thankfully, the Tacoma School District had an adaptive reuse mentality and stepped in with a plan to prevent its demolition.
Both my dad and grandmother graduated from Stadium High, and, since both are prolific storytellers, I grew up hearing many tales about the origins of Tacoma’s first high school. Understanding the history of this building gave me an entry point to sharing the history of Tacoma with those who had never heard of the city before.
To me, Stadium symbolizes the hope Tacoma had in the late 19th century, when it nicknamed itself the “City of Destiny.” The Northern Pacific Railroad designated Tacoma as the western terminus on their transcontinental railroad, inspiring much optimism in the future. Unfortunately, with the Klondike rush and its better rail line, Seattle’s location trumped Tacoma’s. As a result, much of the city's economic activity and aspirations were diverted north to the Emerald City.
Despite setbacks, Tacoma found strength in its revitalization of historic buildings and neighborhoods. In 1990, Tacoma’s Union Station was re-purposed into a federal courthouse. The U.S. General Services Administration considers the U.S. Courthouse at Union Station a highly successful adaptive reuse of a Tacoma landmark. Across the street, the University of Washington re-adapted historic buildings into its Tacoma branch campus, an act often credited as the catalyst for the downtown revitalization.
Like many buildings in the downtown district, Stadium was modernized recently. The school closed for two years to update its electrical, mechanical, and seismic systems, all while restoring the building’s historic character. Like most capital projects, it turned out to be much more complicated than expected, yet the renovation was finished with pride. Despite the challenges, I’m proud of Tacoma for reinvesting in this one-of-a-kind high school.
I came to the National Trust's Preservation Green Lab five months ago as an efficiency geek; I thought preservation was simply the best way to use existing resources. I’ve since realized that preserving and reusing historical buildings saves so much more than just energy.
When I visit Tacoma, my regular detour through the historic districts is much more meaningful now. Though, I admit, it’s partly because my tour has one more fun fact: Old City Hall, the setting of that one time I got someone to laugh at my cheesy bell tower joke.
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