Tacoma, Washington had its heyday during the railroad years of the late 1800's. For years it was in slow decline, but a renovation renaissance during the 1990's has restored the downtown to its former glory. This tour will take you along Pacific Avenue, the main street of the downtown area. Along the way you'll see historic buildings, museums and some spectacular art. What are you waiting for? Let's go!
Tacoma Transit Center and Freighthouse Square
To avoid any hassles with parking we'll start the tour at the Sound Transit Dome Station. Parking is free and you can catch a free light rail train into downtown running every 10 minutes. First though, take a stroll around the station to see some of the interesting art work and then wander across the street to Freighthouse Square. The Freighthouse was once the most western point and freight terminus for the old Milwaukee Railroad. Now it's been refurbished and is full of fun little shops and galleries along with some great spots to eat. Once you've explored, cross the street back to the transit center and hop on a lightrail train into the downtown area. You'll be getting off at the University Station.
University of Washington Tacoma – N 47° 14.712 W 122° 26.224
UWT is located in downtown Tacoma between Pacific and Jefferson Avenues, and 17th and 21st Streets. All but two of the campus buildings are renovated warehouses from the early 1900's. These beautiful buildings continue to go by their original warehouse names, such as the Birmingham Hay & Seed (BHS) building and the West Coast Grocery (WCG) building. The campus design by well known architect, Charles Moore, was designed at the same time as the downtown Tacoma re-design and the campus flows into the new museum district seamlessly. Even the original train tracks that ran along the sides of the old warehouses are incorporated into the design of the pedestrian areas, complete with train signals!
The campus has some beautiful art so be sure to wander around and explore. Two of my favorites are the brilliant red Chihuly glass chandelier hanging in the library (it can be seen from outside the building) and Brian Goldbloom's "Terminus" sculpture which references Tacoma's railroad days as the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. See the photo gallery for pictures of the campus and the "Terminus" sculpture.
Washington State History Museum – N 47° 14.696 W 122° 26.196
This museum houses interactive exhibits exploring the history of Washington State. The building, by Charles Moore and Arthur Anderson, is designed to echo the look of its next door neighbor, Union Station. For hours and admission fees link to the museum's Website.
Bridge of Glass – N 47° 14.739 W 122° 26.129
The Bridge of Glass spans I-705 to connect Historic Downtown and its museums and University Campus to the Museum of Glass (MoG), MoG Plazas, and the Thea Foss Waterway(a historic inlet off of Puget Sound's Commencement Bay.)
The bridge was designed by the architect Arthur Anderson to feature three large Chihuly pieces and also to create sweeping vistas of the waterway and downtown Tacoma. The first Chihuly piece that you will encounter is the Sea Pavilion. This is a covered section of the bridge with a ceiling created from a tangle of glass forms evoking the image of some surreal tidal pool. Next you will reach the two Crystal Towers. The towers are comprised of 63 large blue crystals made of Polyvitro, a polyurethane material, and they tower over the bridge and freeway. The final piece on the bridge is the Venetian Wall. This is a grid of open niches filled with Chihuly's different glass plant forms. See the gallery for photos of the towers and Venetian Wall.
Museum of Glass – N 47° 14.770 W 122° 26.056
After crossing the Bridge of Glass you'll walk down the stairs to the Museum of Glass. Along the stairs are series of plazas, each with its own water/sculpture feature. Wind around the museum's cone until you reach its entrance.
If you love glass art then Tacoma is the place to be. The glass at this museum is spectacular and there is a great hot shop exhibit where resident glass artists are working that is open for the public to view. The odd cone shape of this building is where the hot shop is located. Check the museum's Website for hours and admission prices.
Albers Mill and the Thea Foss Waterway – N 47° 14.715 W 122° 26.034
Warehouses, factories and steam plants once lined the western side of the Foss Waterway during Tacoma's grain exporting past. One of these industrial buildings was Albers Brothers Mill, built in 1904.
The Thea Foss Waterway and the surrounding area was declared a Superfund site in the late 1980's. Much of the area was razed during the cleanup, but the Mill building was left standing. When the city planned the redevelopment of the waterway (building the History museum, Glass Museum, Bridge of Glass and Hwy 509 stayed cable bridge) Albers Mill was redesigned and now includes 36 apartments ranging in size from 700 to 1,200 square feet, the William Traver Gallery, the Vetri Glass Gallery. The unique redesign keeps the historic warehouse, but adds modern metal elements to help it tie in with the neighboring Museum of Glass.
Browse the galleries and wander along the waterway, or have a picnic in the plaza. This area is often the site of local festivals. Once you're done exploring, climb back up the stairs and cross the Bridge of Glass, returning to Pacific Avenue.
Union Station – N 47° 14.756 W 122° 26.223
Built in 1911 at the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, Union Station is one of downtown Tacoma's shining jewels. A magnificent example of the Beaux Arts style of architecture, the structure served train passengers into the 1980s but fell into disrepair as interest in railroad travel diminished. In the 1990s, the City of Tacoma bought the building for just one dollar and renovated the station into a new federal courthouse.
The passenger terminal has 5 different Chihuly pieces that are a must see for visitors. The Chihuly chandelier is magnificent, but the best by far is the gorgeous "Monarch" window with it's abstract glass shapes that seem to float on the building's window like butterflies.
The lobby is open from 9-5 for visitor's wishing to see the art. It is also open in the evening until 8pm on the "Third Thursday Art Walk" each month. See the photo gallery for pictures of the station and its art.
Tacoma Museum of Art – 47° 14.825 W 122° 26.254
The Tacoma Art Museum is located at 1701 Pacific Ave in downtown Tacoma. It has a nice selection of Chihuly glass, including "Japanese Fishing Balls" - a part of the "Stone Garden" sculpture that the building is built around. TAM regularly rotates quality shows along with showing portions of their own large collection.
Downtown Historic Districts
Along the downtown length of Pacific Avenue you will pass through three separate historic districts located on the National Register of Historic Places. If you continue north past the Tacoma Art Museum you'll reach the Old City Hall Historic District. Key buildings include the city's original city hall, the Northern Pacific Office building and Fireman's Park. Stay on the city hall side of Pacific (west) and start heading back towards the University of Washington Tacoma campus. You'll pass through the Pacific Avenue Historic District as you walk back. Many of the buildings in this district have been torn down, but a great example that remains is the Sprague Building originally part of an upscale hotel and now home to the area's United Way offices. When you reach Union Station and the University campus you'll be in the Union Depot Warehouse Historic District. Key buildings here are Union Station, the buildings of the University of Washington Campus, Albers Mill, and the Thea Foss Waterway.
For now the tour is over, but there's much more of downtown Tacoma to see - the Theater district, Antique Alley, the historic Wright Park, the Victorian glass Seymour Conservatory... There's also Old Town and the Proctor District, Point Defiance with its gardens, zoo and fort. Be sure to check out my waymarks around the city for other great places to visit. You should also open up this waymark's photo gallery as I've included 1 or more shots of almost everything described in this tour.