Tacoma, Washington has some real architectural treasures. As I explored the brick buildings of yesteryear I discovered that Tacoma has a strong re-purposed building scene. Some of the transformations will surprise you. I encountered brewpubs, museums, shops and lofts… all new and all made more interesting because of the framework of historic buildings.
Friends who have lived in the Pacific Northwest responded to my finds with a bit of skepticism. Tacoma used to be known as a port city with polluted waterways. It was once a city filled with dark and uninteresting brick buildings. But I discovered that things have changed. The waterways are clean, the brick buildings are full of vibrant businesses and Tacoma is a marvelous place to visit.
Union Station in Tacoma—From Train Station to Courthouse and Art Glass Gallery
You can see domed Union Station from most anywhere in hilly Tacoma. The Union Passenger Station opened in 1911. Tacoma was the end of the line for the northern rail line of the transcontinental railroad.
But as people took to the roads in their automobiles, cross country rail travel declined. Eventually a new Amtrak station was built near the Tacoma Dome. In 1984, the last train passed through Union Station and it was left to deteriorate. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, renovation began in the 1990s.
Union Station, on Pacific Avenue, is now a functioning courthouse of the United States District Court, so bring your ID if you want to go in and look around. The distinctive architecture, dominated by a copper dome, houses beautiful Chihuly art glass installations viewable without charge. It is close to the Chihuly Glass Bridge and Museum of Glass so a visit to the station will fit right in to your tour of Tacoma’s art glass scene.
So what was once Tacoma’s train station is now an entry to the courthouse and stunning event space. You can get married under the immense Chihuly chandelier. Light now fills the space once again.
Discovering the Re-purposed Buildings on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma
We were staying at the beautiful art glass Hotel Murano a couple of blocks away from Union Station, so we started our explorations there. As we walked toward the University we passed buildings that were once grocery stores, manufacturing companies, a wagon works and a Teamsters and Chauffeurs hall.
Now gone, these businesses are replaced by coffee shops, clothing boutiques and—our destination—the former F. S. Harmon Furniture Manufacturing Company. No, we weren’t furniture shopping, we were checking out the beer scene at Harmon Brewery.
The Harmon Restaurant—From Furniture Factory to Brew House
The Harmon Restaurant is known as the flagship Tacoma craft brewery. Nearly all their beers are named after local icons. Their restaurants have a distinctly Tacoma feel, especially the one downtown in the former Harmon furniture factory.
We explored the University campus a bit and so entered the brewpub from the rear. It was clearly once a loading dock. We followed the signs down the old stairs, past worn brick walls and entered a spacious pub and made our way to the front to get a table. The restaurant and taproom is a favorite gathering place for locals and worth a visit.
We settled into the brewpub atmosphere and ordered a Harmon brew and some pub grub—fish and chips and a Reuben sandwich. The Brewin’ Reuben was made with corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and the house made Thousand Island dressing, served on grilled marbled rye. The Cod and Chips—two fresh Alaskan cod fillets rolled in panko breadcrumbs and Pinnacle Peak Pale Ale batter was served with house made slaw, parmesan garlic fries, house made tartar sauce, and lemon wedges. It made for a tasty lunch. If we were not out touring we would have stayed awhile and enjoyed a tasting flight of their brews.
But it was on to discover more. We made our way to Dock Street and noticed the walking route along the marina. In the distance we saw a large freighter being loaded with grain. Walking along the waterfront, we discovered that new condos had sprung up, offering a view of the waterways. We were soon to find out why the harbor was now such a popular place to live, play and dine.
Foss Waterway Seaport—From Grain Warehouse to Museum and Education Center
The Tacoma harbor was once busy with ships meeting freight trains, unloading and loading cargo. There were grain warehouses and docks where burly longshoremen worked. The water was full of cast-off equipment and was polluted. Back in the day, it wasn’t a place ladies would go—especially two ladies on foot!
We entered the glass fronted Foss Waterway Seaport building, a place where the region’s maritime heritage is on display. It’s also an education center where you can learn about the people, boats and industries that were once the heart of Tacoma.
We were inside a re-purposed grain storage warehouse, right on the water. We met with Wes Wenhardt, the Executive Director, who helped us understand a bit about the history. I was interested in the name Foss and how the waterway became named after what I knew as a tugboat company. What I learned was that the Foss story was one of a strong, entrepreneurial woman—Thea Foss, a Norwegian immigrant. She was the inspiration for the story, Tugboat Annie!
It is said she turned a rowboat into a fleet. The Foss business started with an old rowboat that Thea refurbished and sold. She bought, sold and rented boats. All this was done while her husband was away earning money. Eventually they joined forces to grow the fleet.
Foss Maritime, now sold, is a legacy to Thea and Andrew’s hard work and vision. The green and white colors she painted the first rowboat are still used on the company’s state-of the art tug. And the waterway was named for this well-respected family. “The Other Country,” a play about the life of Thea Foss will be performed at the Foss Waterway Seaport August 10-13, 2017.
As we toured, Wes showed us a children’s education area that focused on pollution awareness. What once was designated as a Superfund site is now a clean waterway and education is one way of ensuring it will remain clean for generations to come.
At one time, people dumped waste into the water. During the massive cleanup, sediments contaminated by more than a century of environmentally insensitive practices were either removed or capped. Marine habitats around the Foss Waterway were restored. In fact, the Foss Waterway Seaport has touch tanks where you can see examples of the area’s newly thriving marine life.
The Foss Waterway Seaport is now a site for special events as well as maritime collections and a boat shop.
The Rhein Haus—From Car Showroom to German Pub and Restaurant
In the evening, we took a short taxi ride along streets with yet more historic buildings and homes to the Stadium District. We entered a huge building that once was an automobile showroom. The Rhein Haus was a brand new restaurant and pub that was making good use of the large open space.
The décor was eclectic yet decidedly European “hunting lodge.” The place was bustling. Not only did they serve beer from massive bars, they had full size games to play. Bocce (also known as boules) and shuffleboard courts were available by the hour.
We were seated in a comfortable booth, a distance from all the activity. Since the restaurant is open, it’s easy to see what’s going on and focus on the interesting “European hunting lodge” décor. We later learned that the wooden crowns above the “stein trees” at the bar were from an old church in Munich. The large taxidermy deer was from a 1920’s Elks Lodge. There were German carousel plates, lights from Safeco Field over the Bocce courts and more interesting details to explore.
But we were hungry after our walking tours through Tacoma history. I once lived in Germany and kept my fingers crossed that the German food and Bier was authentic. The menu was extensive but I decided on a German favorite of mine, Jaeger Schnitzel. Their version is made with Wagyu beef cutlet with pretzel breading, mushroom and bacon gravy, red cabbage, parsley, red wine vinaigrette and mashed potatoes. I did ask for Spargel Spätzle instead of the potatoes. I was in a German food mood. And I’m glad I did. The Spätzle was embellished with asparagus, grana Padano cream, basil pistou and crispy Kessler ham.
All together this dish was the best I have experienced since living in Germany. I paired the dinner with a Washington wine despite their impressive and extensive beer list (I am not a beer drinker, unfortunately). Our group enjoyed chicken and schnitzel dishes and all agreed the food and service were both excellent. I definitely will return to The Rhein Haus. They do German right!
Finding Tacoma Repurposed Buildings
What was once old and deteriorating is now vibrant and cool in Tacoma. Walking Pacific Avenue both ways from Union Station will ensure you see some re-purposed historic buildings. We walked even farther and happened on a coffee shop and art school in an old 1910 Court House and Customs House Building (Courthouse Square at 1102 A Street) and noticed the Children’s Museum on Pacific was in a brick building, the historic Kress Building.
The City of Tacoma maintains a list of walking tours through historic areas. HistoryLink.org offers a photographic tour of Tacoma’s buildings. The Evergreen Wanderers walking club offers mapped self-guided 5K and 10K walks taking you by historic and scenic areas in downtown Tacoma available for walking any day.
When You Go in Search of the Cool Tacoma Historic Districts
Walking is the best way to enjoy the historic districts of Tacoma. There is a light rail that goes through the downtown area. We recommend staying at the Hotel Murano, centrally located in downtown near the Convention Center.
You can find more information on visiting Tacoma Washington online.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations and meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.