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Old City Hall one of three Pierce County sites on Washington Trust’s 2011 most-endangered historic places list

Post by Peter Callaghan / The News Tribune on May 24, 2011 at 8:30 am with 7 Comments »
May 25, 2011 1:59 pm

Tacoma’s Old City Hall, once the inspiration for the historic preservation movement, has been placed on the 2011 most-endangered list by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

The list, which was to be unveiled at Fireman’s Park during a mid-morning press conference, also includes the historic prison structures on McNeil Island and the McMillin Bridge over the Puyallup River at state Route 162.

Old City Hall (Steve Bloom photo)

Old City Hall was all but emptied of commercial offices in a plan to convert the building to condos. But the economy halted that move and a November bursting of water pipes caused extensive damage. Though some cleanup work has been done, the building stands empty and financial problems continue to loom for the owner.

“With Old City Hall currently vacant, the hope is that the ownership group will be able to move forward with redevelopment plans,” the Trust said in a release today. “In the meantime, issues of deferred maintenance remain a concern.”

The building was nominated by Gerry Sperry of Puyallup.

Sharon Winters, president of Historic Tacoma, said she toured the building recently and was encouraged.

“We were pleased to find that not much of the moisture was left in the building,” Winters said. And insurance payments helped cover the cost of removing materials that will have to removed during any renovation including carpeting and ceiling tiles.

The McMillin Bridge is set for demolition once a parallel bridge is complete but federal law requires the state to consider alternatives because of the historic status of the bridge. It was nominated by retired state bridge engineer Robert Krier.

Here’s how the Trust described the significance of the bridge: “Inspired by Homer Hadley, Washington’s most innovative bridge engineer, the McMillin Bridge is unique, featuring heavy steel-reinforced through trusses strong enough to eliminate the need for overhead lateral sway braces.”

Both Old City Hall, built in 1893, and the McMillin Bridge, completed in 1935 are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Now closed as a state prison, McNeil Island still holds 50 structures.

“Overall, the goal is to ensure that historic resources are appropriately considered as the future of McNeil Island, Washington’s very own Alcatraz, is discussed,” the Trust said in a statement. The island’s historic and archeological resources were nominated by Ann Kane Burkly, who grew up on the island and is the president of the McNeil Island Historical Society.

Also on this year’s endangered list is the Green Mountain Fire Lookout in the Glacier Peak National Wilderness area and the former Northern State Hospital site in Sedro-Woolley.

Below is the press release from the Trust along with photos of the other properties (all photos courtesy of Washington Trust) ….

Trio of Pierce County Resources Headline List of Endangered Historic Places

Seattle, Washington: The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation today announced their annual list of Most Endangered Historic Properties in the state of Washington.

Headlining the list are three Pierce County properties, including Old City Hall in Tacoma, listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated a local landmark; the McMillin Bridge spanning the Puyallup River, also listed in the National Register; and McNeil Island, consisting of more than fifty structures comprising the former correctional facility recently closed by the state.

Constructed in 1893 by the San Francisco-based firm of Hatherton & McIntosh in the Renaissance Revival style, Old City Hall represents Tacoma’s aspirations to be the Northwest’s focal point for commerce and culture. Originally occupied by the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, the building eventually served as City Hall until the late 1950s. Following a period of vacancy, several attempts over the years to adaptively reuse the structure for a variety of purposes have met with mixed success.

The latest plan, conversion of the building to condominium units, has been sidelined due to the economic downturn. In November of 2010, broken pipes released thousands of gallons of water throughout the building, raising fears that structural systems could be compromised. With Old City Hall currently vacant, the hope is that the ownership group will be able to move forward with redevelopment plans. In the meantime, issues of deferred maintenance remain a concern.

Spanning the Puyallup River in Pierce County as part of State Route 162, the McMillin Bridge may be the only known concrete through truss structure of its type in the United States. Inspired by Homer Hadley, Washington’s most innovative bridge engineer, the McMillin Bridge is unique, featuring heavy steel-reinforced through trusses strong enough to eliminate the need for overhead lateral sway braces.

McMillin Bridge

When completed in the fall of 1935, the resulting bridge was hailed as the longest concrete truss or beam span in the country. Hadley is credited with numerous bridge designs, including the first floating concrete pontoon bridge in the world, now known as the Lacey V. Murrow Bridge over Lake Washington in Seattle. The Washington State Department of Transportation recently announced plans to demolish the McMillin Bridge once a new parallel bridge has been completed and traffic re-routed.

Federal regulations require WSDOT to analyze alternatives to demolition. Once this analysis is released, interested parties will have the opportunity to comment. If the bridge is unable to be retrofitted for continued use, the goal will be to retain it for foot and/or bicycle traffic.

Ezra Meeker first settled on McNeil Island in 1853, establishing an agricultural and logging community. The land claim was sold and exchanged hands several times over the next couple of decades when, in 1870, 27 acres were donated to allow for the establishment of a territorial prison, which opened in 1875. Officially becoming a federal prison in the early 1900s, the facility became a Washington State prison in 1981 under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Corrections (DOC). Facing tremendous budget shortfalls, the state has closed the general prison facility on the island.

Warden's House at McNeil Island

The multi-agency jurisdictional responsibilities include DOC, the Department of Fish & Wildlife (whose interest include retaining the island as a wildlife preserve), and the Department of Social & Health Services (which currently operates the Special Commitment Center constructed in the 1990s). Complicating matters are deed restrictions put in place when the federal government turned the property over to the state in the 1980s.

In the meantime, over fifty structures related to the operation of the prison facility remain on site, their future uncertain (a handful of residences are already slated for demolition). Overall, the goal is to ensure that historic resources are appropriately considered as the future of McNeil Island, Washington’s very own Alcatraz, is discussed.

The remaining historic properties being named to the Most Endangered List are described as follows:

Constructed in 1933, the Green Mountain Fire Lookout in the Glacier Peak National Wilderness Area is a rare example of a fire lookout remaining in its original location. In 2010, with support from local advocates, the United States Forest Service (USFS) completed a comprehensive rehabilitation of the lookout, addressing needed structural deficiencies.

Green Mountain Fire Lookout

Following the rehabilitation, Wilderness Watch, a national group based in Montana, sued the USFS, arguing that by using a helicopter and making repairs to the lookout, the USFS violated stipulations of the Wilderness Act that prohibit the use of motorized vehicles in designated Wilderness Areas and prohibit new building construction.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has filed an amicus brief in support of the USFS, with the Washington Trust, the Darrington Historical Society, and the Forest Fire Lookout Association serving as co-signatories. If Wilderness Watch is successful in its lawsuit, the USFS may be forced to remove the lookout. It could also set the course for future treatment of historic structures/resources in Wilderness Areas nationwide.

Northern State Hospital in Sedro Woolley is a sprawling campus of over 100 buildings spread over 300 acres of lush landscape in the foothills of the North Cascades. In October 2010, a recommendation was made to the National Park Service to list the entire campus as a National Register Historic District, a recommendation subsequently approved. The site features over 80 contributing historic buildings representing the work of several notable regional architects, while the landscape plan is a major project of the Olmsted Brothers landscape firm.

The near complete execution of this plan, conceived and revised from 1910-1919, makes Northern State Hospital a rare intact example of the Olmsted design work purposefully merging health care and agricultural functions. The largest hospital building at nearly 100,000 square feet anchors the center of the campus and features Spanish Colonial Revival design, an architectural style prevalent throughout the site. Given the state’s budget situation, Northern State Hospital has been slated by the State Department of General Administration to be sold as surplus property.

While the entire site is listed in the National Register as a historic district, this designation confers no protection for the historic buildings/resource/landscape. If sold to another entity, structures and other elements of the district could be demolished. The Department of General Administration is exploring potential institutional clients interested in purchasing the site and utilizing the historic structures that remain.

Mature landscaping at Northern State Hospital
Leave a comment Comments → 7
  1. scott0962 says:

    Where does it all end? Yes, lots of old buildings have history but can we really afford to preserve all of them? If they were useful they would still be in use, that they are not should tell us something. Just because a building is old and has history or interesting architecture does not necessarily make it worth saving.

    You’ll notice the people fighting to preserve these old buildings don’t propose using their own money to buy them and preserve them.

  2. Kevindot1 says:

    scott0962, 6that is one of the dumbest comments ever made here. Of course the task to buy and refurbish these old building are out of the price range of 99% of the general populous. The only hope is for corporate entities to step up and see the value in preserving our history. All we can do as the general populous is to voice our love for these pieces of history. So, there strikes your last paragraph. As to your first paragraph, people around here are anxious about saving the historic buildings we have remaining because most of us remember the 1980’s when it was fashionable in town to raise every old building without thought of preservation. Imagine if Boston had taken that same approach 50 to 100 years ago. They didn’t and have a nice mix of historic and new construction side-by-side. The best of both worlds. The more talk and debate that goes on about historic structure means these decisions about the future and fate of these structure will not be taken lightly and without proper forethought. We don’t need another developer coming in and tearing down or history. We don’t want another Luzon on our hands.

  3. guidocarmasi says:



  5. Gotta save old city hall…Losing that icon would be worse than two Luzons and an Elks club…The only plus side would be the addition of another great surface level parking lot Downtown!

  6. Steven W Lindsey says:

    How ’bout the last survivor of the Battle of Dutch Harbor, and Washington State’s last chance to acquire a WW II museum ship?

    The former coast guard cutter Onondaga lies in the waters of the ship canal in Ballard. EPA divers surveyed it for pollution in April and found none. But it is slated to be removed by Washington state’s new derelict vessel law.

    Far fetched? The Onondaga’s sister ship, the cutter Mohawk (WPG-79) is a museum in Key West. Why not recover the hull, like the Turks did with the WW I mine-layer and rebuild the super structure from the deck up?

    As I said, this is Washington state’s last chance to acquire a WW II vintage vessel.

    Steven W Lindsey
    state rep
    Keene, NH
    (former coast guardsman aboard the Seattle based USCGC Polar Sea)

  7. steilacoomtaxpayer says:

    Selling off the old Northern State property is a great idea. Sell Western State off, too. These relics have to go and have none of the significance of Boston’s treaures of American history. Been there? Go, you will note an immediate difference. Hundred year old asylums just don’t have the gravity of 400+ year old churches, public markets and Bunker Hill.

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