NW Urban: Art and history remake Tacoma

The Tacoma Art Museum: Ground zero for urban revolution. Credit: Photo: Jack Hunter

People say adulthood is defined by the capacity for delayed gratification. By that definition, Tacoma may be the portrait of mature cityhood in the Pacific Northwest.

It is an increasingly urban, even urbane center, with its waterfront esplanades and light rail, creatively re-used historic warehouse buildings, growing museum district and downtown university. Not that it’s all about the knowledge economy. A logging truck can still cut you off as you come in on I-705, especially if you’ve been focusing on the shimmering hangar of Tacoma’s latest icon, the year-old LeMay America’s Car Museum. But after more than 20 years of innovative planning and investment, public and private, the city seems poised to fulfill its 140-year-old self-definition as a the “City of Destiny.” And the 78-year-old Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) is at the heart of it all.

TAM has occupied a steel-clad, Antoine Predock-designed building at the corner of Pacific Avenue and 17th Street since 2003. Director Stephanie Stebich calls the museum’s current, 50,000 square foot space “glorious, variable, and light-filled.” The spiraling series of different-sized galleries ramps up to an education wing with a rewarding view of Mount Rainier.

But the museum wanted a stronger presence on the street. Indeed, one of the primary goals in TAM’s 2008 Strategic Plan was to turn the location into “a gathering space for people, performances, and art.” When museum officials put out a call for the redesign of their entrance plaza in 2009, they said it should “be seen as the heart of Tacoma.” They commissioned Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, the firm that had served as the executive architects for their 2003 building, to imagine a new plaza. (The firm reorganized as Olson Kundig in 2010.)

The museum was not alone in its ambition to create a new public space at this critical junction between  the city’s commercial core and south downtown’s burgeoning cluster of new museums, university campus and housing. 

In partnership with the city, and with help from a National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant, TAM’s leaders grappled with how to better connect the museum’s plaza to Pacific Avenue and to the complex array of streets, rail lines, walkways and open spaces — like Tollefson Plaza at the northwest corner of the intersection — that converge at the corner of Pacific and 17th.

The museum anchors the northwest corner of a cultural precinct on the east side of Pacific Avenue, which includes the Washington State Museum and the Museum of Glass. Restored 19th and early 20th century buildings, now part of the University of Washington-Tacoma campus, line the west side of Pacific Avenue, wide and busy with a steady flow of cars, trucks and buses traveling in both directions. Light rail runs by on its way to the convention center. The Prairie Line Trail, an 80-foot right of way that was still running freight trains until 2004, cuts across the intersection. Plans for its transformation into North America’s newest linear park are underway.

The whole area cries out for a greater connection among the museum, the university campus and the waterfront just across the railroad tracks. But short of closing off Pacific Avenue, what kind of design can elegantly provide that cohesion? (Early ideas included temporary street closures and a canopy across the intersection.)

This puzzle was never going to be easy to solve, but it became more complicated in 2012 when the museum announced that, thanks to a generous gift of Western American art from Erivan and Helga Haub, its plaza was now part of a much larger, $15.5 million plan for a whole new wing, incorporating the plaza design and improvements to the existing museum.

The Haub Wing’s design team is led by the Seattle-based Olson Kundig firm — with Tom Kundig as design principal — and includes landscape architects Murase Associates. Kundig is celebrated for responding to landscape and place with an approach that is simultaneously abstract, material and mechanical. In Tacoma, he faces a formidable and compelling challenge.

The TAM design needs to do several things: Create a greater presence and utility for the museum and its plaza, telegraph the essence and importance of the new collection, make a clear connection between south downtown and Tacoma’s traditional commercial core, and solve a lingering neighborhood conundrum: How to fill the gap between the museum and the courthouse complex just south on Pacific, which includes the former Union Station, a handsome beaux-arts edifice by Reed and Stem, co-designers of New York’s Grand Central Terminal.

Kundig’s Haub Wing solution is a low-slung, 20-foot-hight dark bronze-colored pavilion, with a concrete and steel structure clad in Richlite, a Tacoma-made resin and recycled paper blend that many know best from the Epicurean brand of cutting boards. The new wing sidles up to the taller existing museum, its matte bronze a deliberate contrast with the more reflective steel surfaces of Predock’s design. Its entrance, on the right, leads to a 2500-square foot lobby that connects to the museum’s current lobby. The combined space is large enough for gatherings and events inside, and also opens up a view to Mt. Rainier and the waterfront. In front of the new, double-wide lobby, a steel canopy structure almost as high as the existing museum defines the immediately adjacent plaza, creating shelter from sun and rain and an additional gathering space.

The louvered, sliding panels on the Pacific Avenue elevation are typical of Kundig, who likes to include moving parts in his work. The panels, used to vary the light level in the Haub Wing galleries, evoke the doors of railroad boxcars. The design of the new wing can hardly help being influenced by railroads, past and present, from the old Prairie Line to the new Link Light Rail and the busy freight trains still operating along the waterfront. And then there’s Union Station. The dark patina on its 90-foot high copper dome reminds some of the “Boulder Bronze” color of the new wing’s Richlite, a connection that was noted when the new wing passed muster with the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission this spring.

Like the new collection it will house, the railroad also connects the site and the museum to the history and culture of the American West. Less than a dozen yards from the museum, the Prairie Line is the terminus of the transcontinental Northern Pacific Railroad line, completed in the 1888. “The West doesn’t stop in Wyoming,” says Kundig about his approach. “…the design of the Haub Gallery addition is intended to take those larger histories into account.”

In the end, the success of the new wing and plaza redesign as an urban proposition, as the “heart of Tacoma,” will depend on how well they connect to the properties both adjacent and beyond. Tacoma has invested heavily, and repeatedly, in its museum district, using design and art as an integral part of urban revitalization. The city’s development timeline for the area in which the museum is expanding is a model of patience and grit.

The courthouse opened in 1992, inspiring the exuberant string arches and domes of Washington State History Museum, which opened in 1996. The next year, on the west side of Pacific Avenue, UW-Tacoma opened the first building on its new campus, phase one of a 1993 master plan. Adaptive reuse was not a new concept in the 1990s, but it was bold, even for an urban university, to locate in a neighborhood of rundown warehouses, and create a campus identity around them. A central walkway connects the campus to the museums and waterfront across the street.

If the ‘90s laid down Tacoma’s south downtown vision, the ‘00s moved it forward.

The Chihuly Bridge of Glass opened in 2002, spanning the railroad tracks between Pacific Avenue and the new waterfront developments (including the Museum of Glass), which opened the same year, and the Thea Foss Waterway Esplanade. In 2003, with the opening of the new Tacoma Art Museum, came the first run of Tacoma Link Light Rail — six stops from the Tacoma Dome to downtown. That same year also saw the formal closing of the Prairie Line, which allowed UW–Tacoma to move forward with its long-term plan to turn the line’s right of way into a second spine for its urban campus. The convention center, to the northwest, opened in 2004.

Today, Tacoma is thinking big — and small — again, from the square miles scale of its urban core down to the square inches scale of its streetscape improvements. TAM is in the 600-acre South Downtown area where the City of Tacoma is working to finish the land use planning and concomitant environmental analysis that anticipates as much as 30,000 new residents and 40,000 new jobs. With federal support, the Puget Sound Regional Council funded the project as part of the Growing Transit Communities Partnership, dedicated to planning for growth in communities that have the type of infrastructure to accommodate it. Meanwhile, the projects are starting again, from the museum expansion, to the new Y announced by UW-Tacoma and the YMCA, to the first news of new housing on the Thea Foss Waterway since the Great Recession.

Michael Sullivan is a historic preservation consultant who has played a foundational role in Tacoma’s embrace of culture and history as part of revitalization. He is thrilled that the Prairie Line appears to be moving forward, both on the four blocks where it cuts through the UW-Tacoma campus, and at its two ends — south in the Brewery District, and north at Dock and 15th streets. Sullivan sees the Prairie Line as the link that, together with TAM’s new wing and plaza, could finally pull the diverse pieces of this unwieldy urban intersection together. “Fortuitous,” is how he describes the siting of the museum’s new Western art wing so close to the old railroad. “Imagine,” says Sullivan, “walking out of the museum and seeing the completion of Abraham Lincoln’s dream” of a transcontinental railway. 

Many factors will determine whether Tacoma can fulfill its vision of housing, jobs and equity — that elusive goal where growth benefits existing residents and newcomers alike. But plans are just plans if planners lack the will, and the patience, to make places that work for everyone. Even places that aspire to something as ambitious as the “heart of the city.”

Since the 1990s, Tacoma has been riding waves of transformation, with crests and troughs. This wave hasn’t crested yet.

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