The building that is now the Tacoma Municipal Building was destined to house city government, but it took more than four decades to make it a reality.
The building started its life as the Rhodes Medical Arts Tower in downtown Tacoma. The 17-story Art Deco building opened in 1931, after more than two years of construction, to serve as a one-stop shop for all things medical. It was said that people could get their teeth pulled, eyes examined and car’s oil changed without leaving the building. The saying became a bit of an inside joke since the architect, John Graham, had been the official architect for the Ford Motor Co. before going on to design hospitals around the country, including Virginia Mason in Seattle.
Tacoma already had hospitals, of course, but backers saw the need for spaces to house private practices and dreamed up the Rhodes building to house some 150 medical offices under one roof. It was a point of pride for Tacomans because it would be the second tallest building in the city at that time. It stood at 233 feet, right behind the nearby Washington Building by just four feet. At a cost of $2 million, it was dubbed the “Spirit of 1931” for providing some 750 construction jobs at a time when roughly one in four Americans were out of work during the lowest point of the Great Depression.
It’s staggered-tier design was meant to make it a landmark from the start, complete with its light-brown sandstone facade, marble finished entryways and a gold-painted grand staircase. All elements featured the most modern design and construction processes for skyscrapers of the era. It was called the “finest of the West,” in newspaper accounts from the time.
The building would be home to countless medical, dental, pharmacies and healthcare offices through the years, including even beauty salons and a small grocery store. A Tacoma Daily Ledger article in 1936 went so far as to mention an archery range located in the building. World War II brought a Civil Defense observation station to the roof so sentries could stand guard against a possible enemy attack.
Looking through the many news articles that chronicled the building’s milestones and new offices, it is striking to see how early talks about turning the grand dame of Tacoma into government offices actually started. The first formal mention of the Rhodes Tower becoming City Hall happened in the local newspapers in 1938, just seven years after the building opened. A plan even made it to the City Council later that year, but the idea was soundly rejected.
The tenant mix at the Rhodes Tower would ebb and flow over the years, as medical offices opened and closed and spaces on the building’s Market and Broadway streetfronts housed a parade of retail shops and eateries. Upper floors also included Internal Revenue Service bureaus and billing operations for the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co. During the early years of the Cold War, the building’s basement had even been renovated to serve as a bomb shelter.
The building was then sold to Development Inc. of California in 1970 at a pricetag of $2.2 million. That transaction re-sparked talks about the building becoming City Hall. A deal was finally struck in 1977, with the first city departments moving into their new home later that year. Other city departments would shuttle from the County-City Building and other locations around the city as the leases of medical and retail spaces in the Rhodes tower expired. The city’s governmental seat had already left Old City Hall by 1957.
Tacoma City Clerk Doris Sorum remembers that time well. She started in the city’s Finance Department in 1980, giving rise to the joke that she has been working at the city so long that she actually came with the building. She says that older Tacomans who come into the building for a pet license or to pay a bill or file a permit still wander the halls and talk about how the righthand side elevator was the one reserved for patients since it is larger and could fit hospital gerneys.
“They’d say ‘I went to the doctor’s here, got my eyes checked here and my dentist was here,’” she said.
Such impromptu tours are easy to navigate since what is now called the Tacoma Municipal Building hasn’t changed all that much, although its uses certainly have. The building underwent renovations in 1978, 1990s and again in 2000, with only minor upgrades and reconfigurations over the years to allow for shifts in city departments. The City Council Chambers, for example, were renovated two years ago to add seating capacity and upgrade the city’s live broadcasting capacilities. Those upgrades marked the first time the chambers had been renovated since councils began holding meetings there in 1979.
One project that has been in the works for years is cleaning the building exterior. Water, grit and plant life give the building an aura more akin to Gotham City than the City of Destiny.
“It is in desperate need of a cleaning,” said Facitlities Manager Justin Davis.
The last record of a cleaning dates back to 1968, when the exterior was sandblasted. The trouble now is the cost. Pressure washing the building could cost upward of $3 million to $4 million due to needing to contain the sprays of water from showering onto the street below.
The building is located at 740 St. Helens Avenue and 747 Market Street in downtown Tacoma. It’s open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekdays.