Totem set for bracing that will likely stand for decades

  • TOTEM. The Tacoma totem that has towered over the city for more than 100 years will have help standing once a brace is installed. The brace will allow time for a longer-term solution for the icon. (Photo by Steve Dunkelberger)

Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission has greenlighted a plan to brace the slowly deteriorating Tacoma Totem Pole in Fireman’s Park. The idea is for the 110-year-old totem pole to be braced up with a pole that is banded to the totem to keep the rotting wood structure from toppling over. The plan now is to install a steel pole along the back of the totem with two steel bands securing the totem to the support pole at a cost of about $40,000. The support bands and pole will be placed in ways to downplay their visibility, but also requires that bolt holes be drilled into the totem itself. The emergency measure is needed after city workers found the totem has become significantly weakened by dry rot and an infestation of carpenter ants.

While out of danger of collapse, its future remains unknown.

“This really doesn’t fix the problem,” said preservation and arts commissioner JD Elquist. “At the end of the day, it is still out in the rain and weather.”

The bracing, however, allows time for discussions about long-term plans for the totem. The support system is being installed to stand next to the totem for an extended period of time to allow for a full exploration of options.

“That’s part of the discussion that I am more interested in,” Elquist said. “That conversation will start happening in the near future.”

While the talks will start sooner rather than later, the bracing system is being installed to last for a generation.

“I won’t say it is permanent, but it is for several decades,” Tacoma Preservation Officer Reuben McKnight said.

The 80-foot totem pole dates to 1903. It was commissioned by Tacoma civic boosters and curio shop owners Chester Thorne and William Sheard and installed near its present location the day before President Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Tacoma, the staff report stated. Reportedly carved at a cost of $3,000, the totem was intended to rival Seattle’s infamous Pioneer Square Totem Pole and is symbolic of a broader historical narrative surrounding the role of Puget Sound in the Alaskan Gold Rush and the internationally significant Alaska Yukon Exposition that was being planned for 1909. The pole is not technically a totem since its origins are unknown, but its design is suggestive of Haida style of northwestern British Columbia.

The Tacoma Totem Pole is a city landmark and is part of the city’s art collection that puts it under the review of the Tacoma Arts Commission, which had already approved the concept of bracing the totem earlier this summer.

Preservation efforts could include moving the totem indoors to remove it from weather damage, bracing it with permanent supports or supporting it with an interior pole and treatment to control insect damage. Whatever the plan, all options include improved signage to explain the history and cultural significance of totems and this totem’s role in the city’s history.


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