A day in downtown Tacoma

Steven R. Lorton

"Tacoma is going through an extraordinary transformation," says Bill Baarsma, the city's new mayor, whose grandfather came from the Netherlands and settled here in the early 20th century. "It's the most exciting time since 1892, when the city was the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad and was the biggest city in the state."

Indeed, in the small, walkable area along Pacific Avenue between South 17th and South 21st Streets, you get a taste of the European street life that we Americans often envy: grand public spaces; clustered museums; and big bold outdoor art.

Start by meandering the esplanade along the Thea Foss Waterway. In addition to sculptures, you'll take in views of a delightful hodgepodge of boats, backed by the new suspension bridge and, on a clear day, Mt. Rainier.

Next, visit the Museum of Glass, then cross the 500-foot Chihuly Bridge of Glass, named for glass artist Dale Chihuly. As you stroll the bridge, look left, right, and up. In one display, you'll see hundreds of sculptures of Chihuly glass in large windows along the walls; in another, glass forms are crowded into ceiling panels. On the open stretches of the bridge, columns fitted with enormous, irregular, iceberg-like chunks of what looks like glass (but is, in fact, plastic) punctuate the view out and over the city.

The Bridge of Glass joins two museums and also links modern Tacoma with a piece of the state's rich past: the Washington State History Museum. One of the last projects designed by noted architect Charles Moore, the history museum echoes the arching shapes of the nearby Union Station. Inside, life-size tableaux re-create moments in history, like Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery meeting the native Nez Perce. A 42 1/2-foot transmission tower replica appears just as the original did when it was erected by Tacoma Public Utilities in the 1930s, blinking lights and all.

From the history museum, walk down Pacific Avenue to see the large dramatic display of Chihuly glass in the U.S. Federal Courthouse housed in the grand Beaux Arts Union Station built in 1911.

Finally, head across Pacific to the University of Washington, Tacoma. Of the campus's 46 acres, 15 are fully developed. The campus, which has won awards from the American Institute of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, fills one of the largest rows of late-19th-century brick warehouses remaining in America. At street level, the buildings are filled with galleries, shops, and hole-in-the-wall eateries.

As you climb the 70-foot outdoor central staircase connecting Pacific with Jefferson Avenue, turn left midway up and walk to the library. This building was once the Snoqualmie Falls Power Company's transformer house, providing power for the city and its trolley system. In a three-story tower added to the renovated building, you can see a 19-foot-long chandelier composed of 900 pieces of hand-blown glass, entitled "Chinook Red Chandelier"―yet another work by Chihuly.

Only the beginning

More amazing new developments are in store. The Tacoma Art Museum is set to open May 3 of next year in a 50,000-square-foot structure designed by architect Antoine Predock. A light-rail system through downtown should begin carrying passengers by the middle of 2003, and a new downtown convention center is scheduled to open in 2004. The Harold E. LeMay Museum, with the world's largest privately owned collection of automobiles, is on the calendar for 2006.

And how does favorite son Dale Chihuly feel about all this? In his typically unpretentious style, he sounds like the president of the Booster Club: "This is such an exciting time for my hometown. Tacoma is a wonderful cultural destination in the Northwest. I hope people will come and enjoy all that the city has to offer."

Which, in a word, is plenty.