An Inside Look at Tacoma’s Historic Armory

On South 11th and Yakima sits a building where Prince Olav of Norway, President Taft, President Truman, President Wilson, and Orson Welles have all paid a visit. A building that holds over 100 years of monumental history, it once held home and garden exhibitions, boxing matches, car shows, and rock concerts. It was also home to the Washington State National Guard.

This is the Tacoma Armory.

Architect Ambrose James Russell, also known for other Tacoma landmarks such as the William Ross Rust mansion and the Temple Theater, designed a two level training facility and arms storage for the Washington State National Guard. The lower level was designated for cavalry and the upper level for infantry.  Completed in 1908, The Armory kicked off 1909 with a New Years Gala.

As the Pacific Northwest grew, the Armory not only served its military purpose, but became a bustling social hub of the city. It saw everything from galas to Halloween dances for local teens. Think of the Armory as the Tacoma Dome of its time. It was even a jail for a while in the late ‘80s.

The drill hall held an array of sporting events over the years. Home games for Tacoma’s professional basketball team, The Coast League Mountaineers, were played here along with basketball games for local colleges like University of Puget Sound (formerly known as the College of Puget Sound) and Pacific Lutheran University. The city’s short-lived Tacoma Rockets hockey team (1946-1953) also played a handful of matches in the space.

Boxing matches were widely attended with local fighters like Roy Hawkins. Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey was once a guest referee for a match in 1945. The Tacoma Athletic Commission began the tradition of the Golden Gloves Competition here, recently celebrating its 70th year at the University of Puget Sound Fieldhouse.

The first President to visit the Armory was William Taft in 1911. Next was Woodrow Wilson in 1919 who gave a historic speech to the National Guard. During Tacoma’s Norwegian Festival in 1939, Prince Olav of Norway visited with his wife, enjoying a banquet dinner beforehand in the Crystal Ballroom of the Winthrop Hotel. Harry Truman visited in 1952.

Despite less than perfect acoustics, the Armory has seen its share of notable musicians. A Veterans Day celebration (then known as Armistice Day) brought John Philip Sousa’s band in 1919. Pacific Northwest legends like The Wailers, The Ventures, and The Sonics all performed here before their big breaks. Battle of the band contests were widely attended in the ‘60s and ‘70s, along with concerts by Roy Orbison and Eric Burdon and The Animals.

The Washington National Guard closed the Armory in 2011, but it was purchased two years later by Fred Roberson, who had a vision of giving this building new life. Since then, hard work and dedication have gone into renovating this 110 year old piece of Tacoma history. The lower level is now home to offices and the drill hall holds events from roller derbies to auctions. The Armory will be the temporary home to the Pantages Theater as they complete renovations for 2018 and 2019.

As I walked through the old building I’d driven by countless times, I heard the echo of footsteps in the drill hall with 40 foot ceilings, saw the candy almond green walls, walked through the bleachers where people once gathered for boxing matches and presidential speeches. A journey up three ladders to the roof revealed a view of foggy and misty downtown, and reminded me of just how lucky we are to have gems like the Tacoma Armory in our city.

The Broadway Center for Performing Arts will be hosting its Tacoma Wined Up event (21+) at The Armory April 7, 2018.

Photos by Jessie Koon

Historic photos courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library and Northwest Room.

  1. Having grown up in old town back in the 50’s. One of my many childhood jobs was working at the Tacoma Armory wrestling matches selling pop to the fans in the stands. Saw all the famous wrestlers ( Gorgeous George, they appeared at the Armory. Great memories. Later, car shows, dances, etc.

    D. Seaholm

  2. I work there in 1983 with Abe Coleman through the city of Tacoma low income job program. What great memories there. Thank you Bob Holloway- I remember being told to go upstairs dust mop that stadium type area there. There was a bicycle in the broom closet tied the dust mop to the back and rode that whole area hahahaha. What I wouldn’t give to go back to that time again.

    1. Larry, Abe is my dad. He passed away 9 years ago at the ripe old age of 93. Thanks for mentioning him..

  3. Being a member of the Washington national guardian was assigned to the 506th transportation company a unit of the 144th transportation battalion. I later became a warrant officer and was mate of the FS 313 and rhe 100 ft tug. I retired out of the service in 1999 with 38 years in the guard reserves and active duty. I was the property book officer and designated supply officer when the 144fh was transferred to the army reserves under the army command ar fort Lawton. A lot of memories during my stay there. Bob irving CW4 ret.

    1. Bob, you might have served with my dad and brother. Abe Coleman was command sergeant major for the battalion for years, and my brother Bob Ball was also a warrant officer in that unit.

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