Tacoma’s Armory stands ready for a new future
Tacoma’s National Guard Armory and all its wonders could still be yours. The fortress of arms, concerts, horses and presidents is still on the market.
An interested buyer had toured, talked, run numbers and made an offer then, this week, backed out on the $1 million building.
There is still time to dream about its next role in Tacoma’s history.
It would make a great brewery, said Amocat Café owner Morgan Alexander.
It would be a great space for law offices, say most of the attorneys who practice in the County/City Building just down the hill.
“I’d think a nice little theater, or a casual night club, a jazzy, casual nightclub,” said Cristine Gunderson, who works at the parking lot kiosk next to it. “This little neighborhood could use something like that. It’s such a beautiful building. I hope someone good buys it.”
So does Washington National Guard Captain Keith Kosik, who, with Robert Wren, led a four-floor tour of the building that once housed cavalry horses, welcomed presidents and sent high school graduates off to their futures and guardsmen and women off to war.
“I wish you guys could have seen it a couple of years ago,” Kosik said, standing on the 20,000-square-foot drill floor and looking up at the balconies and arched wooden ceiling. “This was magnificent for over 100 years.”
Before the Guard decommissioned the building in 2011, the flags of every state hung from the balconies, with the United States flag at one end of the building and Washington’s at the other.
The floor, dusty as it is, still gleams in the sunlight more than a year after the power and water were turned off. It is made, Kosik said, of old-growth pine two-by-sixes standing on their narrow edge. Horses, including those of three costumed cavalry officers at the decommissioning ceremony, have galloped on these floors and left them unscarred.
The Armory, said Kosik, was the jewel of Tacoma in 1908, when it was built for $95,000. The city celebrated its completion with a New Year’s Eve ball, followed by the dedication on New Year’s Day, 1909. Even before the Guard commenced the building’s service as an armory, it shared it with the community.
Still, it was primarily a military installation.
Infantry trained and drilled there during World War I.
A few years later, Guardsmen responding to labor riots to the south and west came through the Armory. Nearly a century after that, The Guard deployed from there to the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle.
“In 1916, when we sent troops down with General Pershing to chase Pancho Villa on the original southwest border mission” Tacoma’s soldiers mustered at the Armory, Kosik said.
“There were stables,” Kosik said, for Cavalry Troop B.
“And there was a horse swimming pool,” said Wren, who tended the building for 38 years and is a maintenance mechanic at Camp Murray.
The streets of Tacoma were a poor place for warhorses to get exercise, so the Armory had a pool where they could work out. It is the boiler room now, on the lowest and darkest level, not far from the gun range, arms vault, small parking garage and the sunless quarters where the caretaker lived.
“When my unit was here, we used to do urban battle drills in these rooms,” Kosik said of the warren of small, low-ceilinged rooms.
He will take that training with him when he deploys to Afghanistan this spring.
The airier ground floor is short on history and long on practicality. It is divided into rooms large enough to house a small business or law practice, maybe even a shop or a bail bondsman, convenient as they are to the jail.
It was that convenience that put prisoners in the Armory in the 1990, when Pierce County Jail was chronically overcrowded.
With the crowding leading to lawsuits, Pierce County set up chain link fences on the drill floor, set out beds and transferred low-risk prisoners there.
“That’s when they installed the sprinkler system,” Kosik said.
“In the 1970s and ‘80s, the lawyers would come in every day and play basketball,” Wren recalled.
The hoops are still there, but the stage and podium from political rallies are gone.
When presidents came to Tacoma, it was most often to the Armory to give speeches.
“Three sitting presidents have come here,” Kosik said of William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman.
During World War II, the Armory saw troops off, and the community in. It hosted dances, Christmas celebrations and dances for troops on leave.
It was an ideal venue for high school graduations and weddings, Wren said.
“My brother and I went to dances here, and boxing and wrestling.”
And, oh, the concerts.
“Giant Band Battle Dance” “Battle of the Bands,” “Big Five-Hour Dance and Show” the ads and handbills read during the 1960s. Teens by the thousands rocked out to The Wailers, Viceroys, Sonics, Solitudes, Intruders, El-Caminos, Dynamics, Furies, Galaxies, Marshans, Noblemen and Paul Revere and the Raiders.
That was the rocking. The Dockside Derby Dames brought the rolling. The roller derby team practiced on that drill floor, and also failed to damage it.
That all ended when the National Guard ruled that the building no longer met its needs. There was not enough parking. There are other, more practical spots.
It dismantled what it could, removing every piece of furniture, every appliance. Wren helped pulled four pallets of carpet tiles and shipped them east to other armories, where they matched the flooring.
When they were done, they turned off the lights and water.
Decommissioned, the building reverted to the state. When local governments did not want it, the state put it on the market.
“Our phone has been ringing,” said Stefanie Fuller, acquisition and disposal manager for real estate services with the state’s Enterprise Services. “One interested party talked about redeveloping it and making it into housing units. People from Bates toured it. I have a spoken offer of $475,000, but, no, we’ve got time. This is not going to be a fire sale.”
After 105 years, the Armory has earned better than a bargain price. It merits a quality future in the city it has served so well, and in so many ways.
“I was a soldier here,” Kosik said. “As somebody who appreciates the Washington National Guard and Tacoma, the Armory connects our combined history. When I look at it, I hear the voices of many generations.”
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