The Drake could rise again

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The former Rudder Club within the building seems almost untouched from when it was a high-end social club during the middle of the last century. Photo courtesy Tacoma Public Library
The former Rudder Club within the building seems almost untouched from when it was a high-end social club during the middle of the last century. Photo courtesy Tacoma Public Library

In equity fund is gathering $3.5 million to modernize and update the Drake building along downtown’s reemerging bar district with hopes of capitalizing on what will likely be one of the more active entertainment strips in the city that would be anchored by McMenamin’s Elk Temple and the mixed-use offerings at Old City Hall.

The group plans to operate the 16,000-square-foot building as event and assembly spaces – it has three floors after all – with eyes on finding strategic partners for food and beverage services to keep in-house rather than renovate the building only to then lease it out to someone else.

“Instead of having tenants, we are looking for partners and will operate the whole building,” Gerald Allan Hennessey said.

Hennessey was the lead most recently on one of five development teams that pitched plans to buy Old City Hall last year. Those plans involved the creation of small retail spaces on the Commerce Street side of the building, with 46 loft apartments on the upper floors and space for a Tacoma History Museum and a bar and grill. The city ultimately chose Surge Tacoma’s proposal, which was similar, although its plan included different financing, shared office and more restaurant offerings.

With Old City Hall off the redevelopment table, the Drake building down the street made for the next logical option, particularly since the building is largely turnkey in terms of needed renovations. The most notable tenant in recent years was Drake’s Bar and Dance Club opened in 1995, making a splash with the return of entertainment in downtown. It closed after about a decade of operation, however, when business dropped off with the economic downturn of the Great Recession.

But the building’s history holds more than just the recent memories as a former dance club. The building has ties to some of Tacoma’s most lasting images. The 131-year-old building was the home of Richards Studio, after all. The Richards family documented Tacoma’s buildings, businesses, and people for almost a century .The Richards’ legacy ended in 1980. The studio closed 82 years after Paul Richards first started recording Tacoma’s memories, but most of the studio’s images have since been archived and indexed by the Tacoma Public Library.

And the building itself helped create the neighborhood’s first name. The building was designed by the architectural duo of William Farrell and Carl Darmer, with construction completed in December of 1887. Their three-story building at 734 Pacific Ave. drew its name from one of its first anchor tenants, Drake & Schreiber Wholesale Liquors. The booze maker would fuel the neighborhood’s nickname of “Whiskey Row,” with hard alcohol being produced by the barrel at the Drake on one side of the street and some of the roughest bars, brothels, music halls and gambling dens serving whiskey by the glass on the other. Most of them survived the passage of time and are currently in use, giving rise to the unifying charm of what is now Old City Hall Historic District.

The Drake building housed its fair share of saloons during the years, most notably the Merchants Saloon, the Zaugg Saloon, Clark & Keating Billiards and Congress Saloon. The Drake, also briefly known as the Weeks building, also had high-end joints, the fanciest of them all was the Rudder Club. The swank club only lasted a few years during the middle of the century, but it was the center of high society during the “war years,” with Tacoma’s notables holding birthdays and receptions in its banquet room that was located along the Commerce Street side of the building. One such reception, for example, was held in late 1945 in honor of Gen. Jonathan Wainwright. He was in Tacoma to receive an honorary doctorate in military science from the College of Puget Sound, now UPS, after his liberation from a Japanese prisoner of war camp following the infamous Bataan Death March of 1942. The Medal of Honor recipient would later attend the dedication of a Tacoma school that still bears his name. The Rudder Club then became the Tropics Restaurant in 1950, falling victim to the decline of members-only social clubs.

The space would also be home to the Tacoma Athletic Commission in 1956.

Now the next chapter of the building is ready to be written as it faces renovation for future generations of weddings, receptions, concert, conferences and performances.

More information about the effort can be found at DrakeTacoma.com.

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