By Emmett O’Connell
On July 5, 1923, President Warren Harding waved to 25,000 cheering Tacomans and Washingtonians as his motorcade made its way into the Stadium Bowl overlooking Commencement Bay. The Stadium Bowl sat in a gully below a stately French Renaissance style public high school. Stadium High School bore its name in honor of the the massive sporting facility at its foot.
Harding’s five hour visit wasn’t the first presidential visit to Tacoma to feature a stop at the high school and bowl. But, it would be the last. Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt had spoken at Stadium in Tacoma, but after 1923, the school would cease to be the main stopping point for presidents in Tacoma.
The high school itself didn’t start out its life as a school. If anything, its original buildings did envision presidential visits. They would have imagined presidents would stay as a guest in a fine hotel. Possibly, the gulley beneath the hotel would have featured a botanical garden in which the visiting dignitary would stroll.
But, in this version of events, Tacoma would also have been the primary city on Puget Sound, not quickly taking a distant second to Seattle.
The Northern Pacific Railroad and the Tacoma Land Company — whose dual corporate missions were to make Tacoma the principal commercial port in Washington State — wanted to build a big and fancy hotel. They broke ground in 1891, but a financial panic in 1893 halted construction. For five years the Northern Pacific dream for a showpiece hotel stood still until a fire gutted what was left of the interior. That put into motion the slow demolition of the building, as bricks were taken away one by one to build train depots in the interior West.
As the building itself shrank, Tacoma civic boosters turned their eyes to it as a home for a high school. An initial election to fund the purchase and refurbishment of the building failed in 1903, but finally passed in 1904. The first class to attend the then “Tacoma High School” sat in fall of 1906.
Soon, the eyes of the Tacoma civic boosters turned to the gully beneath the school. Northern Pacific hotel planners saw it as a possible site for a park, but Tacomans envisioned a grand stadium. Finally, in the summer of 1910, the structure (referred to a simply as the Stadium in newspaper coverage of the time) opened. Over a two day festival, thousands of students and school children celebrated the opening of the facility that had not match in Washington State.
In 1913, the school district changed the name of the school to Stadium (in honor of the Stadium Bowl) after opening the city’s second high school, Lincoln.
The most notable change to the school in those early years was the construction of the gym underground, below the school’s courtyard.
Throughout the years, the Stadium Bowl struggled with stability. Water flowing through the former gulch wreaked havoc with the playing field from the first year. Finally in the late 1970s new turf was added and several thousand seats were removed to improve stability of the site.
After years of decay, Stadium High School closed in 2004 for two years to allow for the most significant renovation in its history. The old underground gym was converted to a lunchroom while a new gym and auditorium was built across the street.
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