Last September, when Fred Roberson, a longtime commercial developer and historic preservationist in Tacoma, learned that his clock tower on Tacoma Avenue South was destroyed by fire, his first instinct was to rebuild and repurpose some of the charred wood.
But City of Tacoma, Roberson said, put a stop to that idea, stating that preserving any burned wood would turn a new clock tower into a tinderbox, should a fire occur again.
“I’ve had no cooperation from the city on the project,” Roberson said. “(The city and I) never discussed fire-prevention paint. All the city was concerned about was putting plywood around the building, so that (homeless people) couldn’t get in. They said they wanted me to tear it down.”
Over two weekends in March, the final remnants of the 40-foot tall tower were removed. For many years, the clock tower was home in University Place in that town’s Clock Tower Square, where now University Place City Hall is located. In 2004, Roberson paid $20,000 to have the tower hauled to the 1100 block of Tacoma Avenue South, across from Tacoma Public Library.
It is Roberson’s hope to one day build a clock tower again. But he said it’s unknown when he will turn his focus to that. His priority now, he said, is the ongoing renovations of the Armory at 715 S. 11th St. Roberson purchased the Armory in June 2013. Renovations done by Roberson and his Roberson Building Company were started almost immediately.
“(To work) on the clock tower and the Armory at the same time is too hard,” Roberson said. “Right now, my passion is the Armory building. I’m doing everything I can to preserve it. It’s in my will to give to the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts.”
Roberson said it was likely he would turn to the clock tower project once his work was done on the Armory.
The first room to be renovated at the Armory was the Roosevelt Room, with plans to transform it into a dynamic catering space for The Vault Catering (of which Roberson is a part-owner). Mat Shaw, commercial property manager for Roberson Building Company, said it was here they first lifted the vinyl tile and discovered beneath a fir subfloor.
“As it turns out, the entire building has fir floors,” said Shaw. “When we remodel a space for a commercial tenant, we simply remove the tile and sand them down. The fir is a little beat up, but still gorgeous when finished, and the marks fit the vibe up there.”
The other event space at the Armory undergoing renovation is the Drill Room on the upper floor. Roberson hopes this 200-foot long, 50-60-foot wide room will serve as a signature civic space for the city. He plans to transform about a 10-foot space in the room into a museum area that features a fish boat, an ox cart, farm elements, and other historic memorabilia to tell Tacoma’s history. Roberson invites the public to reach out to him should they have any historic Tacoma memorabilia they would like to donate to the museum. He may be reached at (253) 627-2663.
“There used to be boxing matches at the Armory. There has been a history of really great events there,” said Roberson. “I want to continue that legacy.”