Tower Bells to Jail Cells: A Rare Look Inside Tacoma’s Old City Hall

Old City Hall is one of the most prominent structures in Tacoma, but for the last decade it’s been little more than a curious ornament on the city’s skyline. Before the city bought the building, it had fallen into disrepair after a failed attempt at converting it to condos. Throughout the building, remnants of past lives can be seen.

After the new City-County building opened in 1959, the building was slated for demolition. A Save the Old City Hall movement was mobilized and various ideas from museum to community college were tossed around.

In 1969 the main floor was converted into a sort of indoor shopping promenade, complete with brick walkways and street lights. In the 1980s, the retail stores were traded for office space. All manner of private sector offices occupied the building before the last lonely tenant vacated in 2008.

The trapezoid-shaped building, built in 1893, was designed after Italian Renaissance architecture. The campanile (bell tower) is actually a freestanding structure. The bell housing holds four enormous bells, cast by the same company that made the Liberty Bell. They were donated by the Wallace family on Christmas Day of 1904 in memory of their young daughter.

Just below the open air bell structure is the actual clock mechanism with arms extending out to each of the four faces visible from outside. Cables reaching up through the ceiling once tugged on the weights that rung the bells.

On the outside, copper roof tiles were removed from the tower when they became a falling hazard. These roof tiles can now be found all over Tacoma thanks to Alan Gorsuch, owner of Sanford and Son, who noticed them being loaded onto a truck bound for the scrap yard. He brought some to Earthwise Architectural salvage, kept some to sell at the store, and has given some to his daughter, Jenny Aarde, who has made them into beautiful jewelry.

The rooftop solarium was once home to a restaurant called Mama Lamoyne’s but was most recently some kind of lending office. The two eastern corners of the building once housed a pair of penthouse condos, one overlooking Pacific Avenue and the other looking toward the Elks Lodge and Thea’s Park. These condos are identifiable from street level by rows of three large circular windows.

The fifth floor, where the tower meets the main building, the floor plan is particularly impressive. It’s wide open space was designed specifically for its original use as the Tacoma Public Library. From there to the ground floor, the building exists in a bizarre limbo of reconstruction; bits of 19th century relics intermingled with drywall and bare 2×4 framing. You might expect contractors to come back to work at any moment but for now, no solid plans have been established.

The thousands of square feet of open space, brick walls, cedar flooring, and copious natural light is the stuff of dreams for many real estate developers. It’s just a matter of finding someone willing and able to take on such an enormous project. After deciding that the building will not be part of the McMenamins project—or the headquarters for a space elevator company the city will be issuing another request for proposals sometime soon.

Descending past the level of Commerce Street, you get to a landing even with Pacific Ave. From there, another staircase drops below street level to what is likely the creepiest basement in all of Tacoma. The facade of a boiler, once the size of a small apartment, sits in front of a group of jail cells. Other sections of the substructure still hold original cells. This is where the ghost of a night guard named Gus is said to make his presence known.

Over the door of one cell, the faded word SIBERIA can be seen under a thin layer of paint. Prisoners were held here before a new jail was constructed across the street in the late ‘20s. Since Washington State actually took up prohibition in 1916 (four years earlier than the rest of the US) many of the cells were likely occupied by local bootleggers.

Once they were vacated, the cells were used for document storage at least into the ‘50s. Further under the building, the eight foot thick sandstone footing holds narrow passages and wide open rooms. Corridors and stairways end abruptly after more than a century of modifications and remodels.

For the rest of you history buffs who just can’t get enough, be sure to check out the Northwest Room at the TPL main branch for more.

Photos by Sierra Hartman

Historic photos courtesy of TPL’s Northwest Room

  1. My Great Grandmother, Gertrude Reichel, wrote in her memiors about herself and her sisters skipping school in her teen years (she was born in 1912) and going to Snoop at this jail and then feeling terrible because it was full of their neighbors who had gotten picked up for bootlegging/moonshine. They lived in the Bald Hills area outside Yelm.

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