Union Station: Tacoma’s Historical Landmark Inspires Modern Downtown

Once a bustling train station, Union Station was restored in the late 1980s to function as a federal courthouse and stunning piece of historical architecture. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library.

 

By Carly Calabrese

Pacific Ave and Union Station circa 1941. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library.
Pacific Ave and Union Station circa 1941. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library.

Tacoma’s Union Station is a grand, historic building worth the visit of any tourist, history buff or local resident. The building, which is located in downtown Tacoma on Pacific Avenue, is a Beaux-Arts architectural masterpiece consisting of a 90-foot-high central dome that was implemented in 1903, opened as a Union Passenger Station in 1911, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Outfitted with a 20-foot Dave Chihuly chandelier, marble water fountains, terrazzo floors and other decorative details, Union Station is contemporarily used as a courthouse and as a rental for weddings and other major celebrations — although, it almost wasn’t.

 

Preserving a piece of local history

Once a bustling train station, Union Station saw its last passenger train during the mid-1980s. Out of service and in disrepair, citizens groups from across the city and state took it upon themselves to breathe new life into the historic landmark.

Former Tacoma mayor Bill Baarsma says with the support that came from the governor, house and senate leaders, and committee chairs from Pierce County to preserve the historic piece of Pac Ave, the state decided to help stabilize the building by making it the new site of the Washington State History Museum.

Aerial view of Union Station in 1975. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library.
Aerial view of Union Station in 1975. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library.

With plans in place to repurpose the building, Union Station’s future looked bright. However, when the city brought in a team of architects and engineers in the late 1980s to begin preparing the building for its new purpose, the contractors determined that the building was not appropriate for a museum.

Unable to restore the building as the new site of the Washington State History Museum, Baarsma and other community leaders — including the governor, state senators Ken Madsen and Lorraine Wojahn, and Washington State Historical Society President Dan Grimm — started brainstorming other uses for the stunning piece of architecture.

While these politicians brainstormed ideas, Tacoma-area residents were racking their brains as well. Local citizens sent a letter to the Tacoma News Tribune suggesting that the building become a federal courthouse. When congressman Norm Dicks read the letter, a light bulb went off, and he decided to make it happen.

As Dicks worked together with citizens, the state and the federal government to transform Union Station into a courthouse, the state also put in motion a plan to build a history museum south of Union Station that mirrored the architectural concepts of the soon-to-be courthouse. New life was being breathed into downtown and Tacoma’s future was bright.

Revitalizing downtown Tacoma

Union Station was ultimately restored as the result of a $50 million project and today it stands as a symbol of our local history and an inspiration for much of the vibrance downtown experiences.

Photo courtesy of WSHM
Today, the Washington State History Museum is located just south of Tacoma’s historic Union Station — across the street from UW Tacoma. Photo courtesy of WSHM.

“What’s important about all these things is that Union Station and the history museum on Pacific Avenue became the catalyst for the decision of the state to build UW Tacoma right across the street,” says Baarsma. “The other important thing is that generally when a branch campus is built, the model that the university follows is to tear down old buildings and build new ones of glass and steel. Because of what happened with the restoration was that instead of tearing down historic buildings, [UW] decided to restore those buildings as well.”

The preservation of downtown Tacoma’s many historic buildings can be credited largely due in part to the efforts made to restore Union Station nearly 30 years ago.

“The restoration and preservation of the Union Station’s most important factors were truly transformative,” adds Baarsma. “There were good things that followed after the Union Station: the new Washington State Historical Museum, UW campus, the world class Tacoma Art Museum, the Museum of Glass, the restoration of Foss Waterway, and the two billion plus private and public sector investment all triggered, in my opinion, the decision to restore and preserve Union Station.” Baarsma says the bustle of downtown Tacoma has been a tidal wave of positive change for the city, and that change can be thanked to the restoration of Union Station.

“Take a look at [Union Station]; it’ll knock your socks off,” says Baarsma. “There is no other building like it in the state of Washington.”

 

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