Near the heart of Tacoma’s Proctor District – outside the Wheelock Library at the corner of North 26th and Adams streets – stands a dapper, bronze figure. In his top hat, coat and tie, the bearded man of modest stature stands with right hand extended for a handshake. That hand thrust forward to clasp the hand of anyone and everyone is an iconic attribute of the salesman.
This bronze monument is indeed meant as a portrait of a salesman: Allen C. Mason, the first man to sell Tacoma to the world. Along the way he helped transform a sleepy fishing and lumber town into a thriving metropolis on the bay.
The official title of the life sized portrait-in-bronze is “Allen C. Mason – Tacoma’s Super Salesman.” The piece was created by Tacoma native Paul R. Michaels, who has created a number of notable works of public art including the seated bronze figure of Ben Cheney at Cheney Stadium and the “Puyallup Berry Farmer” at Pioneer Park in Puyallup. A product of the art programs of Tacoma Community College and Washington State University, Michaels began his artistic career as a carver of custom carousel figures. He now works almost exclusively in bronze.
The bronze figure of Mason was done in conjunction with the Proctor District Association and the Tacoma Historical Society as the centerpiece for the Mason Plaza project that was dedicated in Dec. 2008. Situated near an ancient oak tree on the grounds of the Wheelock Library, the plaza includes a casting of Mason’s iconic “Star of Destiny,” which Mason designed as an advertisement to boost Tacoma. There are also six sandstone columns that are all that remains of the grand mansion that Mason had built of native wood and stone in 1892.
Originally from Polo, Ill. where he was a chicken farmer, teacher and lawyer, Mason moved to Tacoma in 1883. Legend has it that after he’d rented a house and an office he had a grand total of $2.85 left in his pocket. He went on, however, to deal in real estate and to make large-scale improvements to Tacoma’s infrastructure such as streetcar lines and viaducts that spanned some of the many gulches that characterize our slice of the planet’s geography.
Within a decade of his arrival, this man of humble means was a multimillionaire. It was Mason who dubbed Tacoma “The City of Destiny” and he promoted the city using the aforementioned “Star of Destiny” as an advertising device. The design shows Tacoma’s place on the map as a star with lines of script radiating in all directions. These lines describe the many charms that might attract folks from other parts of the country to Tacoma.
Mason’s mansion was located along the north end of Stevens Street, at the site now occupied by the Northwest Baptist Seminary. The mansion fell into the hands of John P. Weyerhaeuser, who leveled it to build his own palatial mansion. All that remained of Manson’s mansion were the six stone columns that the Baptist Seminary generously donated to the Mason Plaza monument.
Metal plaques mounted around the little plaza give information about Mason and his mansion as well as endless lists of the numerous donors who made the plaza possible.
The artist, Michaels, follows in the footsteps of Tacoma’s Larry Anderson, who was the first to erect street level, bronze figures throughout the city. Unlike Anderson’s generic everymen and historic archetypes, Michaels’ sculpture is of a specific person of note – one of the fathers of the city. Michaels’ version of Mason, however, is not put on a pedestal to be looked up to as to a demigod. Rather, the figure stands with his feet firmly planted on the ground. He reaches out to take the hands of viewers and passersby.
In one pocket Mason has two cigars. In another there is a pocket watch attached to a chain with a key that dangles around a vest button. In his left hand he carries a folio entitled “Tacoma and Vicinity,” presumably one of Mason’s key promotional tracts.
Mason’s top hat more than anything else distinguishes the figure and marks it as a character from the past. The top hat immediately brings to mind colorful and legendary associations: one thinks of honest Abraham Lincoln, Willie Wonka or the Mad Hatter. The sight of the figure thus loosens a fanciful spirit in the imagination. With its old tree, rustic columns and top-hatted figure, the street corner becomes like some scene from a storybook. And what more could one ask from an art work that is located on the grounds of a public library?