Saturday, July 22, 2017 This Week's Paper

Public Art: Dome District Palms

Sometime just after the year 2000, the movers and shakers of Tacoma's Dome District began to kick around ideas for some public art that would be distinctive enough to serve as a territorial marker for the Dome District (though the Tacoma Dome itself does a fairly good job of that). The Dome District pooh-bahs also wanted their art to provide a funky accent to mark the district as a “funkadelic” realm of used book stores, antique shops, new-age bazaars, delis, bars, restaurants and gun stores. Funky little businesses have been popping up like mushrooms all over the district.

The result of the quest for funky and distinctive public art was Seattle artist Kurt Kiefer's row of five palm trees that were completed in 2003. Entitled "Washingtonia Domus," the name is a playful derivation of Washingtonia Robusta, the Latin name for the species of Mexican fan palms whose spiky leaves are the inspiration for Kiefer's aluminum fronds. At the base of each "tree" is a concrete pot with the words "Dome District" cast in the side. The trunks are recycled telephone poles and the precision-made metal palm leaves attached via square steel tubes. The tops of the leaves are painted green but the bottom sides are done in a reflective coating that catches the light that shines upward from mountings on the poles. This uplighting makes the palm trees more stunning at night than in the daylight.

A party called “Midnight at the Oasis” (featuring belly dancers, buried treasure and Mediterranean food) was held during the Tacoma Art Walk in March 2003 to officially celebrate the completion of the trees. Funding for the project was provided by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Tacoma Neighborhood Council, Tacoma Arts Commission, PCT Contractors, Dome District President Keith Stone and City of Tacoma's Public Works Department.

The row of palms along 26th Street seems made to be appreciated by the motorist as much as the pedestrian. Coming off I-5 and down the Tacoma Dome exit, one comes face to face with the palms at the 26th Street stop sign. Big wooden arrows fixed to the "tree trunks" point out the direction of the various businesses and sights of the Dome District.

Holder of a Master of Fine Arts degree from California College of Arts and Crafts (in Oakland, CA), Kiefer spent over a decade as the Campus Art Administrator at the University of Washington. He simultaneously worked as an artist, creating numerous gallery installations and public art commissions in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco as well as Tacoma.

In 2008 a second group of five of Kiefer's palm trees was placed along D Street just south and up slope of the Tacoma Dome.

While the artificial palm trees are no doubt noticeable – it is almost impossible not to notice them – they come across as more cheesy than funky. They feel like the municipal equivalent of a pink lawn flamingo (whose revival came and went with John Waters films and the television show “Miami Vice" back in the 1980s). It is not until one stops to examine the “Washingtonia Domus” palms closely that their craftsmanship is really appreciated: they are not the cheap, simple cutouts that they appear to be in passing.