McKinley, South Tacoma step closer to becoming historical districts

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University of Washington students partnered with Pretty Gritty Tours to provide walking tours of McKinley and South Tacoma neighborhoods this spring to promote historical preservation and gather stories from residents. Photo courtesy of University of Washington /Livable City Project

A group of University of Washington students just finished a year-long project that mapped and historically researched the city’s McKinley and South Tacoma neighborhoods as substantial steps toward seeking historical designations for the areas.

Both neighborhoods meet the threshold for being listed on the National Register of Historic Districts, which requires that 60 percent of the buildings date back at least 50 years. National designations are largely honorary, but still require a balance of the property owners to become official. The early results of the survey, attendance of historical walking tours and the detailed report of the individual homes and businesses, provide the basis of any future steps to bringing the designations to a vote – if someone were interested in championing the cause.

“We would certainly like to keep the momentum going,” said Tacoma’s Assistant Historic Preservation Officer Lauren Hoogkamer.

(Left) Steve’s Gay ‘90s restaurant was a landmark of the South Tacoma neighborhood for generations. (Middle) Tacoma’s McKinley neighborhood is one of the oldest in the city. (Right) South Tacoma’s RealArt operated as a movie theater during the golden age of cinema. Historical photos courtesy of Tacoma Public Library

The UW students conducted the surveys of the neighborhoods as part of the UW Livable City Year initiative between the university and the City of Tacoma to advance and promote livability and sustainability in the community. The initiative links faculty members, city staffers and students across multiple disciplines to work on city-identified projects. The McKinley and South Tacoma historical inventory work included efforts by 14 undergraduate and three urban planning and engineering graduate students.

Both neighborhoods date back to the earliest days of the city as well as evolved as unique communities because of their locations within the city limits.

McKinley, a neighborhood on Tacoma’s Eastside that marks the highest point in the city, is one of the oldest residential areas in the city. It was first platted in 1857, albeit as farmland with a business hub. The neighborhood them boomed in 1883, when the Northern Pacific Railroad’s transcontinental railway was completed less than a mile from McKinley Hill. Of course, it wasn’t called McKinley then. That name would come after the Tacoma Land and Improvement Co. gifted 22 acres for a park that was originally called “East Park.” The “McKinley” name came in 1901, in memorial of President William McKinley. He had planned to visit Tacoma that year only to be assassinated before coming to the City of Destiny. The landmark park then provided a name for the neighborhood around it. Residential and commercial development of McKinley Hill began in earnest in 1903 after the Tacoma Railway and Power Company built streetcar lines throughout Tacoma. The building boom continued two years later, when the Northern Pacific Railroad constructed the Northern Pacific Beneficiary Association Hospital, which later became Puget Sound Hospital and is now the construction site of the South Sound 911 complex.

The railroad and nearby sawmills fueled the neighborhood, which provided their workers with middle-class homes and shops to provide the goods and foods they needed. Trolley lines that webbed around the city linked them to the rest of the city. But it was not to last. Buses replaced trolleys by 1937. The construction of Interstate 5 in 1960 then cut the neighborhood off from the rest of the city, leading to decades of decline that preserved many of the turn-of-the-last century buildings that define the neighborhood’s charm. The television show “This Old House” even profiled it as one of the country’s best places to buy an old house.

The neighborhood of South Tacoma was known as Elk Trap by Native Americans who hunted the prairie before the 1870s, when white settlers established small dairy farms in the area.  Northern Pacific Railroad’s Tacoma Land Co. then established a cemetery and train maintenance shops that would become the largest rail yard on the West Coast in what was then called the Edison and Excelsior neighborhoods. Those neighborhood names were later merged into South Tacoma as they grew together.

The first car dealership that characterizes the section of the city dates back to 1907 when it began selling the new mode of transportation from a shop near 54th Street and South Tacoma Way. Soon after came a bank, a movie and performance theater and the Coffee Pot restaurant, known today as Bob’s Java Jive.

The 1940s then saw the opening of Steve’s Gay ’90s, with can-can dancers and seating for 700, as well as the USO Center that is the South Park Community Center and the world famous B&I Shopping Center. Much like McKinley, the construction of I-5 in the 1960s changed South Tacoma because Highway 99 was no longer the main route between Tacoma, Fort Lewis and Olympia. The Tacoma Mall then further diverted shoppers from its businesses, leading to decades of decline alongside downtown.

But it was that economic slump that preserved many of the historic brick commercial buildings and wood-framed residential houses that characterize the neighborhood.

Anyone interested in learning more about McKinley and South Tacoma can visit tacomamckinleyhistoricdistrict.com and southtacomahistoricdistrict.com.

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