The Tacoma Hotel was the RMS Titanic of the City of Destiny. It was as posh and grand as the famous Red Star Line ship. Both also had tragic endings. The Tacoma Hotel’s end, however, would come from fire, not from ice.
The Tacoma Hotel opened in 1884, a time when the city was in a battle with Seattle to be the anchor city of Puget Sound. It was designed by the famous New York architect Stanford White to be a statement of Tacoma’s grandeur and prosperity to counter the wooden shacks of Seattle. It almost immediately gained the reputation as the grandest hotel north of San Francisco. It was much grander than even Tacoma’s City Hall, which would come a decade later.
“Probably at no other place in Northwest has there ever occurred a social entertainment of such magnitude and quality as that of the hop last night at the ‘Tacoma,’ which signified the formal opening of this splendid new hotel,” the Tacoma Ledger newspaper wrote about the hotel’s grand opening party on August 8, 1884.
Tacoma’s late historical guru, Murray Morgan, called the masonry hotel on the bluff overlooking the bustling waterfront a “focal point of pride” in his book, “Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound.” The hotel was located on what is now A Street, and was the first thing visitors saw as they sailed into Commencement Bay or arrived by rail on Northern Pacific Railroad’s new tracks just down the street.
The five story, Tudor-style hotel was constructed of red brick, white stucco and white stone trim. The hotel offered 185 rooms and 206-foot verandas as well as the fanciest of dining rooms, a well-stocked bar, and a full bakery to offer its guests the freshest rolls and croissants money could buy during the “Gilded Age.” Its rooms hosted distinguished guests that included six presidents, literary giants, celebrities and tycoons of industry. Its guest registry included presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Warren Harding as well as writers Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. Baseball great Babe Ruth laid his head on its pillows as did actress Sarah Bernhardt.
One of its most celebrated guests wasn’t even human – it was an 800-pound bear named Jack that had been raised in the hotel since he was a cub. He lived a life of drinking the finest cocktails and beers alongside the hotel’s suit-and-tie-wearing guests. Jack was treated like royalty just like any other guest. He woke up each morning and took a warm bath in a French tub before enjoying a hand-crafted cocktail in the bar for breakfast. He regularly enjoyed a gin and seltzer, but also treated himself to the bar’s liberally boozed Manhattans on the weekends. He would then shift to drinking beers in the afternoon and evenings as he held court at the Tacoma Hotel, greeting guests and lumbering around the grounds doing general bear stuff that included taking food from abandoned plates.
Unfortunately, Jack met a tragic end in 1893, when he slipped out of his collar and strolled around Pacific Avenue, blocks away from the hotel. No one paid much attention to him since everyone knew he would eventually stumble home when his beer-buzz wore off. But one Tacoma Police officer thought Jack was a wild bear rather than an icon of Tacoma’s upper crust. The officer shot him twice before bystanders swung into action and stoped him from dealing a fatal shot. They carried Jack back to the hotel in hopes of bandaging his wounds. He died days later, but some people say the still see his ghost strolling around his former “Bear Garden.” The newspapers called the police officer “stupid” and branded him as the most unpopular man in the city.
The Tacoma Hotel would live on after its most famous guest died, but it too would face a tragic end. A small fire started in the carpentry shop on the morning of October 17, 1935. The blaze grew despite the hotel being fitted with the latest fire-suppression system available at the time. Miraculously, no one died in the fire. Many survivors credited the Japanese bell boys for alerting the guests, floor by floor and door by door rather than fleeing for their own safety. But while lives were saved, the hotel was not.
“Within the space of three hours, the grand hotel was reduced to a dangerous shell of exterior walls and chimneys,” according to a recap of the blaze. “Thousands of gallons of water had poured through the hotel and down the bluff on the back, cutting deep ravines in the hillside and further threatening the structure. The walls were imploded the next day with the help of a team from the DuPont Powder Works.”
Souvenir seekers immediately swooped in to search through the cinders to salvage menus, door knobs, trays and plates. Many of the bricks used in the building were repurposed in the construction of North End houses and shops.
The site was later turned into a parking lot and then the headquarters of the Russell Investment Co. The former Russell Investment Co. building later served as the home for State Farm Insurance.
Tacoma Historical Society keeps the Tacoma Hotel’s memory alive online after staging an exhibit about the grand lodge in 2014.