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University of Washington, Tacoma - A Special Place

This is a water color of Bruce Dee's and Assciates
projected UWT landscaping as seen from Pacific Ave.

Late May 2003


There are places that have a special aura, are in someway hallowed, or create a mystical feeling. The church camp that I attended throughout my adolescence was one such place; the moment you stepped out of the car onto the grounds you knew that this place was dedicated to replenishing the soul. The redwood forest along highway 101 in northern California is another place that envelopes you in peace; step a few yards into the awe-inspiring grandeur of those majestic trees and the noisy intrusive world is left behind. Whether sitting on a weather beaten cliff top getting spindrift from the violent velocity of mighty waves crashing into the shore, or just sitting on the beach with the sibilant whisper of the Pacific Ocean tide coming in or going out and you are in one of these magical places. I believe that we all need these kinds of places; their type and significance vary from person to person.


I have a complexly simple soul. The University of Washington, Tacoma campus, in urban Tacoma, entangled my heartstrings beginning the first sunny when day I walked up the steps from Pacific Avenue to Commerce Street. On that day, my heart hammering within my ribs, armed with unofficial transcripts and letters of recommendation, I was going to request admission to the University. Now, I ask you, who wouldn’t fall in love with a place that opened its arms wide and welcomed you? That day was the first time I took a ramble around the campus grounds; at the conclusion of that walk, I knew this was one of my special places.


I cannot tell you exactly why this is a special place to me. It is not something that can be clearly defined, maybe because it is too close to the bone. It is feeling, not thought. It is not because my thirst for an education will finally be slaked here. It is not just because when one steps onto the campus grounds from Pacific Avenue the noise of the traffic becomes no more intrusive than waves lapping a beach. It is only partly because I am at peace here.


My first walk of discovery was in April 2002. I know I have watched the seasons come and go on the campus, but I do not remember seeing the leaves fall. I do not remember hearing or feeling the crispy crunch of leaves beneath my feet though it was a dry fall and winter. My head was elsewhere, my eyes turned inward, but my soul recognized this place and was at ease. And then Spring Quarter 2003, I was fortunate to be able to squeeze into Professor John Peterson’s creative nonfiction class, and even more fortunate to be able to adopt the University of Washington, Tacoma campus as my ‘special place’.


Fulfilling the requirements of the class taught me that changes to the natural physical world going on all around us is a free platter of wonders; just take the time to look. Research for the class gave me tacit permission to trespass, with careful tiptoes, on the beauty bark in the 1995 Bruce Dees & Associates designed natural areas of the campus; this allowed me to note the scattered placements of yellow daffodils with their frilled cuplike centers, the red, pink, and varicolored tulips, and differing ground covers. I saw Oregon grape put forth tight clusters of small yellow blooms; the solitary flame-red-leafed Oregon grape on the southeast side of the Keystone building entranced me.


I shall never forget what I saw on the night of April 7th when I chanced to look back up the stairs I had just descended. The cleansing rain had ceased and lit by the twin sets of lights marching up the stairs the grey-by-day concrete had become a luminous snowy white. The campus had an awe-inspiring beauty, an ethereal appearance as though it floated above the earthly plane. Since that time, the trees and bushes on the campus have donned their leaves of green until the campus grounds reflect every hue. Some of the trees and bushes have flowered, scattering a full spectrum of colors about the campus.


A crane working on "The Cherry Parkes Building".
The original names of these buildings were: Davies; Reese, Crandall & Redman Co; Weigel Candy Co.

As I watched the natural world of the campus resurrect itself this spring, pushing up from the ground or leafing out of bare branches, I knew that as the university taught me to think and analyze it was also changing me. I am shedding my chrysalis and in the process of becoming. I wonder, Am I being restructured from within by the university as surely as the two 1890 buildings, the Davies building and the Reese, Crandall & Redman Co. building, and the 1904 Weigel Candy Co. building?* From Pacific Avenue, the fašades from 1924 to 1930 Pacific Avenue remain much the same, but from Commerce Street the hollowed out buildings are awash in workmen and promise. Am I, too, awash with promise?


The boarded up 1892 Russell T. Joy Building that adjoins the north end of the West Coast Grocery Company building is the last remnant of what the future campus grounds looked like in 1985. That was the year the State Higher Education Coordinating Board first opened discussions with the University of Washington about developing a plan for higher education in the Puget Sound area. The Russell T. Joy Building with its wind battered, separating, rusting, corrugated tin awning over an ancient splintering, dangerously dilapidated, wooden loading dock, makes one appreciate the care and expense lavished in preservation by the University of Washington on the century old buildings of the campus.


Normally when man wants to make a change to a historic area, he comes laden with his ball and chain and demolition experts. Wham, wham, boom, bang, the area is now ready for the new modern look and usage. The University of Washington, Tacoma did not do that. In 1999, the university received a prestigious National Preservation Honor Award. In discussing the award the National Trust Organization news article of October 7, 1999, states, “Ten years ago, the Union Station district was nothing to be proud of. The crime ridden, run-down and abandoned warehouses were a blight on the neighborhood. . . . The University of Washington – Tacoma now occupies those buildings, and the district has become a city showpiece.”


I almost despaired of ever finding any history relating to the development of the University of Washington, Tacoma. My trusty internet had let me down. The truth is that I was not asking it the right questions. April 23rd proved to be my red-letter day of research. The wonderful staff at the university library discovered a treasure trove of information, a stack of books, photo albums, and the University of Washington, Tacoma Campus Master Plan, Final Draft 1993, written by Moore, Ruble, and Yudell. The architectural firm hired, in 1991, to develop a master plan (a timeline) to guide the growth of the Tacoma campus in gradual increments over a century.



It was a genuine relief to have the major portion of the search for history solved, but even though the necessity of finding history kept hammering at the back of my mind, I had not, to be truthful, been overly distressed by its lack. There was so much to discover in the natural world of the campus. I found baby golden topped mushrooms pushing through the ground in several places in front of the south end of the Keystone building.* The mushrooms eventually grew to about four inches in diameter. Later, as they prepared to die, they developed interesting designs on their tops: an unnatural, checkered appearance, irregular dark brown lines enclosing pale yellowish brown squares. I discovered a single scruffy scraggly pine and what I thought was the solitary dogwood tree on the campus, both of these were beside the north end of the library – later I found several dogwoods at the north end of Dougan Hall. When I discovered the first dogwood tree, the blossoms were just beginning to unfurl; they formed a cup that caught and held shimmering raindrops.

The University of Washington, Tacoma, library.
This building was formerly the Snoqualmie Falls Power Co. Transformer House.

Many of my natural discoveries were around the library building. The library evolved by adding on to the south side of the 1902 Snoqualmie Falls Power Co. Transformer House at 250 S. 19th Street. This is the showcase building of the campus with the purity of its almost Grecian temple design in red brick with oyster shell white trim. A plaza of brushed concrete squares fronts the library. On the east side of the plaza, there is a large square created natural area enclosed by curbing. In the easternmost side of this curbed square, there is an eastward facing bronze plaque mounted on a grey speckled white rock that designates the plaza as, “Kelso Gillenwater Plaza.” In a hundred years, when I come back to haunt the campus, the plaque will still be here.  I first noticed this square in April; at that time, a lovely young magnolia tree growing there was just forming its large tulip shaped blossoms of pale two-toned pink. Now, rhododendrons the, Washington State Flower, create a sea of red in the square as well as a mass of white bloom against the red brick library building’s south wall inside of the ‘U’ formed by the entry and wings.


The library is not the only ‘old’ campus building that has had new added to it. The Dougan Block at 1721 - 1725 Jefferson designed by Pickles & Sutton and built in 1891 was added onto in 2000. The 1912 Walsh & Gardner building at 1908 Pacific Ave, designed by C.A. Darmer is a third and more dramatic example of skilful, artistic grafting of new onto old. In addition, razing the flimsily built Shaub-Ellison building (1902 Pacific Avenue), which had been scabbed onto the north side of the Walsh & Gardner building in 1931, created bonus open space to showcase the natural areas of the University of Washington, Tacoma campus as one looks upward from Pacific Avenue. The farsighted planners of the university constantly kept in mind the importance of a green and growing natural world as a necessity to refresh and nourish the soul while the mind was being fed and shaped in the midst of an urban community.


An enormous part of the charm of the campus is the blending, the integration, of the old and the new. This blending of the old with the new is a hallmark of the Union Station Historic Area where the university is situated. The old, decrepit, disreputable Union Depot/Warehouse Historic District that was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 has been transformed into a cultural center of Tacoma. Renovation of Union Station into a United States Courthouse was completed in 1992. The opening of the new Washington State History museum followed in 1996. The University of Washington, Tacoma moved from rented facilities in the Perkins building to the present campus, 1900 Commerce Street, in 1997. The Tacoma school district enhanced the cultural revival of this historic area when they opened The Tacoma School of Arts in 2000. Two other cultural attractions were added to the area in 2002 and 2003 respectively, the International Museum of Glass and the Tacoma Art Museum. Soon there will be a major convention center, a motorcycle museum and an automobile museum. If you use the University of Washington, Tacoma as the central hub, everything is within walking distance.


There is much on the campus that is old revamped. And there is squeaky new, like the three-storied Science building and the Keystone building (whose architects won an award for the design). Both buildings were completed in 2001. Also new, although they would more properly be termed young, are the trees, shrubs, and plantings that bring grace and beauty to the campus. Ferns begin anew each year; they push themselves up through the ground emerging like a mass of writhing coiled fuzzy tan reptiles. Within a few days, they have sorted themselves out into flat spearhead shaped fronds. The early unpromising clumps of ferns alongside the Walsh & Gardner building have now become a collection of knee-high fronds so lush and thick you can barely see the ground beneath and between the plants. My favorite bush at the south end of the GWP building is shedding; it seems as though it was only a day or two ago that it was covered in lush, fragrant, purple loganberry-like blooms whose sweet scent wafted to those twenty or more feet away.


Now, with every touch or breeze, it snows still fragrant purplish-white segments of the flowers to create blossom drifts on the ground; the bees seem to have abandoned my bush. Those who planned the campus grounds thoughtfully planted bushes that bear masses of flat, scentless, short-lived clusters of white flowers and pink wild rose bushes that have very fragrant blossoms in this same area. These bushes dress in glory almost immediately after my bush begins to fade. They help to remove the sting of loss. My saner self knows it is silly to mourn the natural cyclical loss of a plant’s beauty, but my heart does not know.


I am sure that this is not the first time that wild roses have bloomed on this land. Before man came and cleared the timber and natural growth from this site, they must have been here. Wild roses grow everywhere throughout the Puget Sound. Nor is the current metamorphosis the first rebuilding of this area. Wooden warehouses were built in anticipation of the prosperity the railroad would bring to the city that had been known as “Commencement City;” building continued following the arrival at Tacoma of Northern Pacific in 1873. The early warehouses burned to the ground in 1884 and 1885 and were subsequently replaced, in the 1890’s and very early 1900’s, with the resplendent brick buildings that are familiar to us today. Union Station, designed by Reed and Stern in 1909, was completed in 1911 at 1713 Pacific Avenue; with its spectacular modified Byzantine architecture, the station was the crowning jewel of the area. It is from Union Station that the district derives its name.


1914 promotional postcard of Tacoma's Union Depot

The renovation of Union Station may have started the visible metamorphosis of this district but it cannot hold a candle to the magnetic attraction, beauty, and significance of the University of Washington, Tacoma as a hub for the resurrection of “The City of Destiny.” The University of Washington, Tacoma will nurture generation after generation after generation of young and young-old students. It will aid in the development of those who will make history and those who will preserve history: actors, artists, attorneys, authors, archeologists, architects, politicians, physicians, journalists, ecologists, educators, the entire gamut of all who will perform and create on the stage we call life. As the inner focus of the University of Washington, Tacoma continues to be life and the future while preserving an important part of our heritage in the buildings of the campus, the exterior will continue to grow, to bloom, and be a natural jewel to enhance this urban district.


 Although ‘creative’ is first word in the title of this class, as I write, I always try to keep in mind the nonfiction writer’s vow: “I shall tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (as I see it).” Therefore, the following is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.


A 1995 Moore, Ruble, and Yudell mock-up of the
proposed future University of Washington, Tacoma campus.

In a hundred years when the University of Washington, Tacoma is 99.9% complete, I shall climb out of my moldering grave and my spirit shall blithely climb the 15% slope that comprises this campus. I shall not notice when I float up the stairs from Pacific Avenue to Tacoma Avenue that I have climbed upward one-hundred-and-sixty-five feet. I shall not huff and puff when I reach the top. I shall stop and visit my tall sturdy mature dogwood tree; I may just pet the bark, but it is possible I will throw my arms around it and give it a hug. The scruffy scraggly pine tree will have become a mighty, magnificent, and wonderful tree wafting piney fragrance across a campus that is shaded by trees that march two-by-two up the central S.19th Street stairway and around the perimeter of the completed campus. My favorite bush, at the south end of the GWP building, will have been allowed to grow until, in May (I shall return in May), its fragrance competes with that of the pine and the wonder of its beauty is as dominate a feature of the campus as the venerable Snoqualmie Falls Power Co. Transformer House. The gray concrete base of the Science building will be hidden beneath the thick varicolored vine clinging to and covering its walls.


The Russell T. Joy Building, with its red brick back, along Commerce Street, and sandstone colored brick front, trimmed with egg and dart molding, on the Pacific Avenue side, will have been classrooms and offices for nearly a hundred years. The unique Swiss Hall building, at the corner of S.19th and Jefferson, will be classes and faculty offices. Its tower room might have easels catching the northern light, and the ground floor may be the hub or cafeteria for the campus. The solitary little pie-shaped Teamsters and Chauffeurs building at 1701 Commerce Street will be surrounded by flowering shrubs and just might possibly be the home of Tahoma West. My eyes might not recognize all of the campus but my soul will know this special place.


Oh, how wonderful this campus will be, and I shall be a shameless peeping, eavesdropping Judi. Oh, yes, I will return. The only problem will be that my impatient soul must learn to wait those one hundred years. Wait to peep and listen to the twenty thousand or more bright inquiring young and young-old minds who will daily roam forty-six acres of campus. Dramatic school buildings will nestle among exteriors dressed in ever-evolving beauty - natural beauty that was deliberately designed to rest tired book-strained-eyes and refresh the soul. The railroad tracks will have been removed and Hood Avenue will have become manicured green, green grass dotted with small plazas, benches, flowers, and flowering bushes and trees.


Will a curious student look up into the translucent, rain-drenched cluster of frilly ballerina skirts on a rhododendron as I did? Will any of those university students of the year 2103 reflect on and thank the long ago campus planners who thought of the welfare of the whole student, not just the student’s mind? For that matter, would I have given it a thought without this creative nonfiction class?


Maybe a descendent of one of the remarkable birds that I saw on Monday, 19 May 2003, will display itself to a lucky 2103 student. I thought this bird uniquely adorned with two small red spots, one on each side of the neck beneath the liner brush handle round black bill (long, straight, slender, and tapering). About an inch beneath the bill there was a wide black crescent shaped medallion adorning the lower neck; a narrower white crescent beneath the black completed the jewelry that topped the pale tan breast of this grey/brown bird. However, I had not seen anything yet. Looking at the bird from above when it spread its wings and tail feathers to fly it appeared as though there was a red feather between every grey/brown feather on the tail and wings, but the wings and tail of the bird, seen from beneath when it was in flight, looked like sunlight streaming through red-orange stained glass. The bird is metamorphosis in the air; it is breathtaking beauty on the wing. The University of Washington, Tacoma and I, similar to the bird, are metamorphosis at work.


Goodnight burgundy red thorn bush.


2004 Update:

* The Davies building, the Reese, Crandall & Redman Co. building, and the Weigel Candy Co. building are now known to the university as the Cherry Parkes Building.

*The Keystone building is now Carwein Auditorium