The Pagoda was the loveliest, newest streetcar station in the state in May 1914. Built of brick, old-growth timber and topped with clay tiles, its walls of windows looked out over Point Defiance Park and the entrance to Commencement Bay. It had easy chairs and couches for park visitors tired after tramping the trails as they waited for their ride home. It had restrooms with attendants, a concession stand and, for the men, a smoking room. Its first-aid hospital room had bandages, instruments and an operating table, but no doctor. Park planners figured that a serious accident would draw a crowd big enough to include a doctor.
For the new building between the trolley tracks and the bear pits, park commissioners had chosen the Japanese style for its charm and harmony with nature. When costs rose from the original estimate of $16,000 to $32,956, they were not perturbed. They called it a wise economy to build an excellent building “for use by the fourth generation.”
They were right.
Generation by generation, Tacomans have loved the building through all its changes – the switch from streetcars to buses in 1938, the partnership with Capital District of Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs in 1962, the switch to a rental facility in 1983, a renovation in 1988.
Then on April 14, 2011, The Pagoda burned, torched by a teen who rode his bike past the go-karts, Lodge and rose gardens, forced a window and lit up a pile of stored items in the basement under the kitchen.
The flames grabbed a pile of fiberglass figures in the basement. The ones on top melted, and protected those underneath – the storybook characters from Never Never Land.
The smoke blew itself up the marble stairs, against the wooden windows, all over the ceramic floor and fireplace tiles.
The fire shot up through heating ducts, escaped into the kitchen, then went for the roof.
The firefighters first on the scene looked in the windows, saw the flames and resolved to save not just the building, but as much of its history as they could. They broke only one door to get in. Almost two years after that morning, their decision brings Metro Parks Tacoma historian Melissa McGinnis almost to tears.
“They did not break a single window,” she said. “When they started fighting the fire, they poked a hole through the front, then said, ‘We’re really sorry, but we have to rip the tiles off the roof.’”
Getting those tiles back on the roof, restoring every salvageable piece of marble, metal, wood and glass began the minute the fire was out. The effort has demanded imagination, innovation, perseverance, luck, 21 months and $7 million.
“The wheels were turning before the fire was out,” said Curtis Hancock, who managed the project. “The remediation crew was standing by.”
They were talking about how quickly smoke can settle into marble and how caustic some firefighting materials are. They were lining up the materials to deep-clean everything, from the beams to the basement, before the smell of smoke settled in for good.
“They were inside as soon as the building was released to us,” McGinnis said.
Downstairs, they donned hazmat suits to explore a basement stuffed with the random items a major park can accumulate in a century.
When they found the Never Never Land figures, they gave each of them a bath, bundled them into bubble wrap and toted them to safe storage. The memory of the hazmat guys carrying off the bubbled-up Three Little Pigs gives McGinnis the giggles.
Because the restoration was so vast, renovations had to bring The Pagoda up to modern building codes. That’s made for architecturally subtle changes – seismic supports in the brick walls, accessible bathrooms, barriers to keep kids from slipping through balustrades, automatic doors with their machinery concealed underneath them in the basement. There is a wheelchair lift built onto a new railing between the basement and great hall.
Oh, and the famous exterior concrete steps, site of a zillion bridal party pictures. They’re all new.
No one knows why they were still standing when the fire hit.
“We punched a hole in the side to see what was holding it up,” McGinnis said. “There was nothing there. Nothing.”
McGinnis and Hancock mobilized the effort to clean what could be saved and to replicate what could not. They located the English company that made the original floor tiles, and ordered replacements. They re-purposed marble from old restrooms and the wood from the tongue-in-groove ceiling that shrank in the heat of the fire. A Port Townsend foundry re-cast the light fixtures.
They all worked from scratch.
There were no plans, no architectural drawings for any part of The Pagoda, which had wriggled a little with time.
“It’s out of level, out of plumb, out of square, and there’s nothing straight in it,” Hancock said.
“When the fire happened, we were a little short of alarms,” said Metro Parks information officer Nancy Johnson.
No more. The Pagoda is hooked into every kind of alarm system imaginable. Pity the poor raccoon that triggers them.
The engineers and architects who figured out the new heating and cooling systems, and who transformed the old basement into conference spaces, a catering kitchen and wedding anterooms never cursed its failures of symmetry as they fit everything together. Nor did the builders who made it work, the gardeners who are replanting the grounds or the team that made every detail just so.
They were good stewards of the $5 million in insurance money and the $2 million available through bond money, Johnson said.
They knew they were building for generations, and we will see this treasure again at its reopening celebration from 2-5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12.
All of these Tacomans through all of these generations, have returned to us the loveliest, oldest, newest gathering place in the state.
2 p.m. Welcome
2-5 p.m. Self-guided tours and Metro Arts exhibit.
2:30-5 p.m. Make origami paper cranes to complete a 1,000-crane blessing.
2:30 p.m. Melissa McGinnis, parks cultural heritage and resource manager, recounts The Pagoda’s history.
3 p.m. Restoration project manager Curtis Hancock speaks on “Life After Arson- Restoring a Cherished Architectural Icon.”
3:30 p.m. Parks Superintendent speaks on “Looking to the Future – Japanese Garden Restoration.”