The Travel Lunatic: Tacoma Doesn't Stink!
Wherein I explore "Grit City," Brent's hometown in Washington State, a place where tourists never go — but maybe they should.
The Travel Lunatic is a regular column about the amazing places Brent and I go, and the crazy things I do. Plus, cat pics — lots and lots of cat pics.
In July, Brent and I were supposed to be sweating, er, spending, another month in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Instead, we hurried back to the Seattle area to be with Brent’s dad Harry when he died.
Then, rather than traipsing all the way back to Asia, we decided to stay in the Pacific Northwest, enjoying the rest of the summer and seeing friends and family.
We’ve spent much of that time south of Seattle, in Tacoma, the working class city where Brent grew up, and the third-largest city in Washington State.
Tacoma is famous for being very close to Mount Rainier, and the mountain really does loom over the city in a spectacular fashion.
But Tacoma also has something of a sad history. Back in the 19th century, Tacoma was set to become the most important city not just in Washington State, but in the entire Pacific Northwest. It was originally the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad across the continental United States.
But on July 17, 1897, a steamship arrived in Seattle with dozens of prospectors from Alaska — and two tons of gold. Word of the riches spread like wildfire, and Seattle quickly became the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush.
Tacoma fell into second-tier status, and eventually became a place of heavy industry. Its central bay ended up one of the ten most polluted waterways in America, and National Geographic once claimed Tacoma’s “tideflats” area had the highest concentration of rats in the entire world. One local pulp mill emitted an especially foul smell which the entire region called “the aroma of Tacoma.”
Tacoma’s official nickname, The City of Destiny, took on a very ironic note.
Meanwhile, Seattle became increasingly cosmopolitan and trendy, the place where all the Cool Kids wanted to live. Seattle loved insulting Tacoma, which it thought of as its sad sack neighbor to the south.
Tacoma is still not a place a lot of tourists visit — and it’s not the sort of place Brent and I would normally write about as travel writers.
But the aroma of Tacoma has long since faded, and the city has changed a lot too. These days, it actually has a lot to offer.
In short, Tacoma no longer stinks!
Let’s check it out in more detail, shall we?
Okay, Michael, we trust your judgment — sort of.
Dare You Cross the Bridge of Glass?
Tacoma is home to something called the Bridge of Glass, which was the brainchild of famed glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, who was born in Tacoma and is one of the city’s most famous sons.
But before you get too excited, it’s not really a bridge of glass. Yeah, I was disappointed too. I mean, how cool would that have been!
Instead, the Bridge of Glass — technically the Chihuly Bridge of Glass — is a 500-foot (150 m) pedestrian footbridge over a freeway, connecting downtown Tacoma with the Museum of Glass, which is located along a nearby waterway. It celebrates all kinds of glass art — not just Dale Chihuly — and was one of Tacoma’s many attempts to revitalize its downtown area.
But the bridge itself is all about Dale Chihuly’s art.
There are three different installations by Chihuly on the bridge, including the Seaform Pavilion, which is one of my favorite things in all of Tacoma. This 15-meter-long portion of the bridge has 2,364 pieces of marine-life inspired glass suspended in the ceiling overhead.
As you stroll along, all kinds of swirling shapes float above in gorgeous colors that I never get tired of looking at. It really does feel like being submerged in some kind of magical ocean.
A little farther on stand two 40-foot tall towers covered with turquoise crystals — one is pictured above. These are called — rather unimaginatively — the Crystal Towers, and for my money, are the least successful elements of the bridge. They feel like they were just sort of stuck on there at the last minute. But they look like rock candy, and they inspired one nearby vendor to sell edible Crystal Towers — blue rock candy on sticks — which I think is pretty clever.
The third installation is the Venetian Wall. This 25 meter-long wall houses more than 100 pieces of Art-Deco glass works. It’s not bad, but, well, it ain’t Venice.
If you’re at all a fan of Chihuly’s work, a walk across the Bridge of Glass, and a visit to the Glass Museum is well worth a visit.
Okay, Michael, that’s pretty cool. I’m cautiously intrigued by this Tacoma place. What else do you have?
The Coolest High School You’ve Never Heard Of
The first house Brent and I ever owned was in Tacoma, just blocks from something called Stadium High School, and it’s such a cool-looking place that I still fantasize about attending classes there.
I’m certain it must feel very Gothic, with lots of ghosts of murdered students and teachers wandering around on rainy winter nights. Meanwhile, me and my friends would surely uncover hidden passageways.
The building wasn’t originally meant to be a high school; it was built to be a luxury hotel that resembled a French chateau. Building began in 1891, but a financial panic gripped the country in 1893, and construction soon halted. In 1898, a fire destroyed most of what had been built, and only the outside walls remained until the city bought it in 1904 to turn into a high school.
Stadium High School is called “Stadium” because of the massive bowl stadium that was built next to it, with an incredible view of the Puget Sound beyond. It opened in 1910, and many presidents spoke here, but over the course of the 20th century, it became clear that the stadium was far too heavy for the soil to support, and the seating was eventually reduced from 35,000 to a mere 15,000 seats.
Even so, Brent and I loved going down on crisp fall evenings to watch the football games.
You’d think such a fantastic location would have wound up being used in quite a few movies. But the only one of note is 10 Things I Hate About You.
You’re right, Michael, that is a shame. But that’s interesting too. Go on.
Googie Architecture? What the Hell is That?
Not far from Stadium High School stands another iconic Tacoma institution that is actually much more interesting than it might seem at first glance.
It’s a retro burger joint called Frisko Freeze.
Frisko Freeze dates back to 1950 — a time when the United States was filled with similar “drive-in” burger joints, most of which were locally owned.
Then the fast food monoculture of KFC/Pizza Hut/Subway/McDonalds came along stomping its way across America like a greasy Godzilla.
But somehow this restaurant managed to survive the change, eventually becoming a local institution — in part because Tacomans go absolutely bonkers for its burgers and fries.
These days, the institution is also appreciated for its super-cool retro look. This distinctive style of architecture is known as “Googie.”
Yes, Googie, not Google.
What the heck is Googie architecture? And what does it have to do with Frisko Freeze? It’s a futuristic style of building that originated in Southern California during the mid-1940s as an optimistic celebration of the Space and Atomic Ages.
Googie architecture is marked by geometric shapes, swooping lines, lots of glass, and bright neon lights — that era’s vision of “the future.” It was created to appeal to middle America, which is why it was so often used in diners, coffee shops, gas stations, and other places frequented by America’s then burgeoning middle class.
This may also be why “serious” architects sneered at it back then.
The Puget Sound area is home to one of the most famous pieces of Googie architecture in the world. Any guesses what it is?
Yup, it’s Seattle’s Space Needle!
But how is the food at Frisko Freeze? I went one night, and my review is … mixed. The burger was nicely charred but mostly tasted of the overly sweet sauce slathered over it. But the fries were nice and crispy. And at less than $10 USD, you can’t beat the price.
Okay, Tacoma is definitely winning me over. And now I also want crispy fries, thanks for that.
Elks Have a Temple?
I said before that Tacoma’s city government has been trying to revitalize downtown Tacoma for decades, and nothing has ever quite worked. Unfortunately, that means a lot of historic buildings were destroyed to make way for, say, vast parking garages that never ended up attracting people back downtown anyway.
But many grand buildings did survive — and some of those have since been gloriously renovated.
Near the top of the most spectacular is McMenamins Elks Temple. The structure was originally built back in 1916 by a French architect for the Fraternal Order of Elks, which is one of those old-fashioned organizations that were once very important to civic life, but now seem like weird anachronisms. I mean, what’s a Fraternal Elk?
But the Elks eventually moved on, and the temple fell into ruin. When Brent attended his high school prom here back in the 1980s, most of the structure was an absolute mess. Then a stand-off between the city and the building’s owner meant it was barely even maintained for many years.
But that stubborn owner finally died, and in 2007, the building was purchased by McMenamins, a local chain of brewpubs, breweries, music venues, historic hotels, and theater pubs.
It took many years to restore, finally opening in 2019. But boy, did they renovate the hell out of this thing!
The seven-story structure now includes an upscale hotel, a brewery, a tasting room, a ballroom, and five different bars, including the Vault, which is a speakeasy behind a “secret door.”
I asked a worker where the speakeasy was, and she said, a bit infuriatingly, “I can’t tell you, but I can give you a clue.”
Tragically, I never did find it, but I still had a great time exploring the building and appreciated the attention to detail in restoring it. The lobby was especially wonderful with elaborate chandeliers, red-shaded lamps with beads, and crushed velvet couches and chairs.
And now I want a cocktail with those fries. But this is definitely good stuff. Keep going!
Is Tacoma Finally…Happening?
Many Seattleites still mock Tacoma, but lately, Tacomans have been pushing back — and gaining new fans among the young, who appreciate how much more affordable Tacoma is compared to the city to the north.
Meanwhile, this young energy is rapidly transforming the city. It’s even acquired an unofficial new nickname — Grit City.
I think it’s a great name that nods to the city’s industrial past, but also the city’s determination to improve itself — which, by the way, doesn’t mean becoming Seattle-lite.
Along Sixth Avenue, you’ll now find great pubs, restaurants, coffee shops, tattoo parlors, and, yes, street art.
That street art is pretty cool! Go Tacoma!
It’s time for me to wrap this up, which is too bad, because I could write a lot more about Tacoma, including a park that celebrates another native son, Dune author Frank Herbert, and includes sculpted sandworms. And then there’s the University of Washington, another downtown restoration effort, which was built inside a series of restored brick warehouses from the 19th century.
Follow me on Facebook at Brent and Michael Are Going Places where I’ll share even more facts about Tacoma.
If you ever do come to Tacoma, consider Pretty Gritty Tours, which gives history-rich tours of the city’s various locations (but try hard to get founder Chris Staudinger as your guide). He has specific tours of Stadium High School and the city’s street art, and a “Get to Know Tacoma” tour, which includes the Bridge of Glass.
And if you visit Tacoma, you should also check out these places as well:
Lastly, I’m realizing I haven’t posted any cat pictures lately. So I give you Willow, the owner of the two humans we are currently staying with here in Tacoma. Willow is fifteen, has gorgeous eyes, and is a little bit cranky.
Okay, Travel Lunatics, that’s it for this edition. Ciao for now!
P.S. Previous editions of The Travel Lunatic: