The Well-Known Webster

At the corner of Seventh Avenue and St. Helens Avenue in sits the Webster Apartments: the oldest apartment building in the downtown core of Tacoma.

Prominently located on a hill rising out of Commencement Bay, the southeast-facing Webster apartments provide an incredible view of the water and Mount Rainier. The Webster is situated in a historically significant nexus of Tacoma, just a few blocks from Old City Hall and the Northern Pacific Railroad building and in view of what used to be the Tacoma Hotel and the 11th Street Bridge.

I’ve lived in the building for almost two years. My boyfriend and I first found the place through a craigslist ad on padmapper, where I was surprised to discover an ad on the map awfully close to one of my favorite local bars, the Mix. Oh wait, it’s the same building.

The neighborhood sports a walkability score of 94, a “Walker’s Paradise” according to WalkScore.com. During Tacoma Pride celebrations, the block in front of the building is host to a block party that has attracts thousands. Still, the building manager told us they’d been advertising our particular apartment for three months.

I haven’t met a local who wasn’t familiar with the building I live in. Even if they haven’t lived here at some point or another, they likely know someone who has. At minimum, they know the ground floor businesses–Someone who doesn’t like coffee or gay bars probably at least likes pizza.

I had heard some tidbits about the history of the building from small talk here and there, especially about the fire in the ‘60s that created my remodeled apartment. So when I was assigned a term paper for Michael Sullivan’s History of Tacoma class at UWT I decided to write about my building.

In order to find out more about the Webster for my class, I headed to the Northwest Room at the Tacoma Public Library Main Branch. When I asked the librarian about the building I was handed a two-page printed list of appearances in the Tacoma-Pierce County Buildings Index, searchable on old-school microfilm.

The construction of the building took place over a hundred years ago. Comprising 37 apartments, the building was first mentioned in an announcement in the August 2, 1903 edition of the Daily Ledger, “Another Large Apartment House: Frank B. Cole Will Build on St. Helens Avenue.”

The Daily Ledger noted that it originally cost “in the neighborhood of $22,000.” According to an inflation calculator at westegg.com, $553,553.87 had the same buying power in 2012.

The newspaper’s January 18, 1904 issue featured a photo of the building under construction. Materials in the original construction included Douglas fir posts and frames for the windows.

This was a boom period for Tacoma, not too long after the announcement that this City of Destiny would be the terminus of the transcontinental railroad.

Each apartment was pre-sold before its construction as people eagerly rushed to belong to the hustle and bustle of a burgeoning city.

Building an apartment building was considered a risk, but when each apartment in the Webster pre-sold, investors of this time followed suit. Other apartment buildings were constructed near the Webster, explaining why so many apartment buildings, both historic and new, exist in the vicinity today.

Unlike many other structures from the same period, the Webster has a storied history no doubt augmented by the fact that it is located next to where one of many Tacoma newspapers at the time, the News Tribune, used to be. There is no easily available public record of previous residents, but the building’s location and multitude of studio apartments would make it easy for a resident to access the business district, the theater district, various fraternal organizations like the Elks Lodge, the brothels of what is now Opera Alley, YMCA and YWCA, Foss Waterway, the Stadium District, and Wright Park.

So I don’t have to wonder if the path of my daily walking commute from UWT to the Webster is one that’s been tread for many years.

In 1924, the Ledger ran an obituary of the man who commissioned the building, Frank B. Cole, an editor of a lumber industry magazine. He had been in Tacoma since 1889 and was a known toastmaster, a member of the Elks, the Knights of Pythias and the chamber of commerce.

Cole died in 1924 at the age of 73, the Webster sold to Henry A. Rhodes of the Rhodes Investment Company for $45,000. Rhodes put in $25,000 for renovations to the Webster not too long after building the Winthrop.

The building appears in many historic photographs, including the tiled mosaic that appears down the street in Ledger Square that shows a 1926 photo of a swarm of people waiting for World Series scoreboard updates via telegraph.  The photo predates the addition of the elevator to the Webster, which can be compared to its modern version in view of the square.

One story I found in my microfilm search is a report of when 12 girls got stuck in the elevator at 10 p.m. while planning a surprise party for their beauty culture instructor who lived in one of the apartments. There were no injuries, just laughing and singing until they were freed.

Finally, history hits me in the face when I see a dramatic photo of firemen battling the blaze on the high point of the north side of the building– the location of MY apartment. The searing headline emblazoned across the top of the newspaper proclaims “MANY FLEE APARTMENT FIRE.” The fire was blamed on a cigarette tossed haphazardly into the gutter. The article reports no injuries and says the building manager evacuated the buildings’ mostly elderly occupants immediately. One resident refused hospitalization and instead rested on an ambulance stretcher while attendants administered oxygen to her for three minutes. Turns out smoking is bad for your lungs and for your apartment buildings!

In 1974, the building got its third owner: Bruce Lodge.  Lodge added the Tudor/Bavarian facade we are familiar with today and commissioned a painted mural and crests. Perhaps in part because of the building’s history, Lodge also installed a comprehensive fire safety system with a light board of alarm indicators on the main floor.

In 1979, the News Tribune featured the Webster’s renovation, saying that it was “originally built as an exclusive downtown hotel catering to visiting dignitaries” in 1909 (which is a contradiction to the original records) and notes, “tenants are mostly elderly.”

An peculiar obituary appears in the News Tribune on April 26, 1976, “TNT restaurateur Bruno Matt dies”. In it, the author writes how Matt’s Café (which occupied the spot where Puget Sound Pizza is today) had served TNT staffers for 40 years. Matt had originally come to Tacoma from Como, Italy in 1906 and died at age 86. According to the obit, “Reporters said they had ink in their blood because Matt would clean his grill with old newspapers.” The description of the café seems extremely casual compared to today’s code standards. The chef gave regulars access to the kitchen, allowing them to cook for themselves. In accordance with his Italian roots, he would start his soup at the beginning of the week, leaving it to simmer on the stove and adding to it as the days wore on.

In the year 2000, around the time of the recent downtown resurgence, ownership of the Webster was transferred to Steve Rose of Bristol Equities in Portland. Rose is quoted by the paper as saying, “It’s in great need of rehab, which I’m real comfortable doing…[i]f I worked in and around downtown, I’d want to live in one of these buildings. I might eventually do loft apartments in the warehouse.”

The warehouse to which Rose refers is a former garage attached to the Webster. Today, the warehouse provides free space to qualifying businesses through the city’s Spaceworks program. It served as the successful launching point for both Poppy & Co, a furniture store now on Broadway, and Feather & Oar, a men’s fashion shop now located around the block, next door to the Municipal Building.

About the same time that Rose acquired the Webster, the News Tribune reported the Webster among historic buildings that received tax breaks, a “break in assessed valuation” at $511,446. The article says that under the tax break rules; owners must spend 25 percent of the assessed value on the building’s restoration. The building manager credits Rose with providing ornate accents like antique chandeliers and radiators.

In recent years, local newspaper articles have kept track of the commercial enterprises that have made the Webster home: the Busy Bee Café, which is now Puget Sound Pizza; Ida’s Pub is now the Mix.

Every newspaper in Tacoma covered the opening of the Amocat Café, which is also home to the growing Tacoma Brewing Company.

According to the building manager, all but two of the apartments are currently occupied.

 

Photo courtesy of News Tribune in 2003.

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