Old City Hall
Tacoma's Old City Hall, with its prominent clock and bell tower
The Old City Hall and surrounding waterfront
The vacant interior of the building
The rooftop solarium near the clocktower
The basement of the Old City Hall, which used to house jail cells
The bells inside the tower, which were donated by Mr. and Mrs. Hugh Wallace in 1904
Hugh Wallace, the U.S. Ambassador to France during World War I, who donated the tower bells and chimes
Backstory and Context
When Tacoma was announced as the western terminus for the Northern Pacific Railroad, its nickname seemed fitting. Civic spirit swelled in “The City of Destiny,” and a building spree ensued at the end of the 19th century. The Old City Hall, built in the Italian Villa style, exemplifies the monumental architecture of this period. It was located across the street from the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot, highlighting the railroad's importance to the city at the time.
The Old City Hall was designed by the San Francisco architectural firm Hatherton and McIntosh, led by E.A. Hatherton. At a construction cost of $257,965, the 86,000 square foot building was completed April 23, 1893, just before the Panic of 1893. The main structure is five stories tall, and the ground floor has walls that measure eight feet thick. The foundations consist of local Wilkeson sandstone, while it is rumored that some of the exterior bricks were originally used as ballast on ships sailing from China, Belgium, or Italy. The basement housed the city's jail cells, as well as a boiler that heats the building to this day.
The bell tower is a free-standing ten-story structure with its own unique history. The bells and chimes were donated by Mr. and Mrs. Hugh Wallace on Christmas Day, 1904, to commemorate their daughter Mildred, who died the year before at the age of 12. Mr. Wallace went on to become the U.S. Ambassador to France during World War I, and signed the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of the United States. The four bells are made of 8,000 pounds of silver metal, and were cast by the same Baltimore company that was responsible for the Liberty Bell more than a century earlier. In addition to the bells, the tower also houses an impressive clock, with a 12-foot pendulum that hangs on a 40-foot wire.
The Old City Hall was the seat of Tacoma’s government from 1893 until 1959, when the city moved its base of operations to the City-County Building. The building was vacant for the next decade, and was almost demolished in 1962 before being saved by the Delphinium Garden Clubwomen. It became a space for boutique shops and restaurants in the 1970s, but the new Tacoma Mall diverted shopping away from the downtown district. It was then used as office space from the 1980s until 2008, when a new decade of neglect commenced. However, in 2018, the city selected the company Surge Tacoma to repurpose the building. While maintaining the Old City Hall’s original design, Surge Tacoma is hoping it can revitalize the building with new retail and office space, restaurants and an underground bar, micro-apartments, and historical displays.
- History, Old City Hall Tacoma. Accessed January 22nd 2020. https://www.oldcityhalltacoma.com/history/.
- Dunkelberger, Steve. Tacoma's Old City Hall Surges into the Future, SouthSoundTalk. Accessed January 22nd 2020. http://www.southsoundtalk.com/2018/11/26/tacomas-old-city-hall-surges-into-the-future/.
- Hartman, Sierra. Tower Bells to Jail Cells: A Rare Look Inside Tacoma's Old City Hall, Grit City Magazine. Accessed January 22nd 2020. https://gritcitymag.com/2018/05/tower-bells-to-jail-cells-a-rare-look-inside-tacomas-old-city-hall/.
- Schorr, Barnett P.. National Register of Historic Places Inventory -- Nomination Form, National Park Service. May 17th 1974. Accessed January 22nd 2020. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/8cfff8c4-fca7-49f9-ab4b-f51548c785f3.