Exploring Downtown Tacoma

Written by and Photography by Charla in Travel

The first thing for a visitor to remember about Tacoma is that it is not pronounced “Tack-coma” but “Tuh-coma”. That’s a rookie mistake that hopefully I’ll make only once. Then again, a part of my heritage tempts me to say “We’re in Warshington” rather than “Washington”. While vaguely permissible elsewhere, this will definitely not fly in the Pacific Northwest.

Tacoma, a port city simmering and seething under Seattle’s shadow, has struggled for years to find its place in the landscape of cities on the Puget Sound. The pessimistic stories about Tacoma’s imminent demise are tempered by other stories of defiant boosters, creative types, people fiercely proud of their city. The Tacoma-based publication Post Defiance speaks for itself: an outspoken showcase of what the city is, and what it should be and could be, if only.

And then there is the glass. In the midst of a gritty, industrial port town with brick buildings on a historic grid overlaid on top of low hills, the internationally acclaimed artist Dale Chihuly has splashed the downtown core with bright glass sculptures. Gigantic, multicolored flowers, organic shapes, impossibly-shaped bricks that reflect the light behind them are stacked, piled, and jumbled on top of each other in art installations that defy gravity.

What must be incredibly heavy glass structures appear to float, lighter than air, above and around people walking across the Bridge of Glass, or through the Museum of Glass, or even standing in the stern lobby of the U.S. Federal Courthouse. Their energy is infectious and was not lost on 6-year-old Brooklyn who ran – sprinted – several laps around the courthouse lobby from one sculpture to the next. If she ever saw the glares of the courthouse security officers, she could not have cared less.

Any visit to Tacoma will benefit from a stop at the Original House of Donuts. They were really good. They were better with coffee and better yet with the flashes of lighting and ear-shattering cracks of thunder under an angry patch of of dark rain clouds.

The theater of nature’s glory and anger hovered over the smaller Rialto Theater, a historic relic built in 1918. The Rialto was built in the style of a Viennese opera house called the – wait for it – Redoutensaal, and retains much of that character today. You will not likely see that kind of charm down at the 20-plex theater in the burbs.

The Rialto reminded me of those fantastic historic buildings that somehow survived the disdainful bulldozers of the urban renewal decades and lived to breathe life into their neighborhoods with new residents.

“What if Tacoma, instead of Seattle, had been the jumping-off point for the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s?” lamented the Seattle Times last spring. “What if the city had not allowed its downtown retail to be lost to malls and many historic buildings with good bones to be torn down?”

Good bones. A great metaphor used by those who love old buildings in old neighborhoods and who love the potential new life that they bring, over and over again.

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Dale Chihuly was born in Tacoma and discovered glasswork while at the University of Washington. He learned the craft over the years in Wisconsin, Rhode Island and at a glass factory in Venice, Italy. A serious car accident in England in 1976 led to the loss of his left eye.

An observer might be forgiven for remarking on the irony that the partial loss of sight can still lead an artist to produce such stunning, powerful works of art that rely on light in order to tell their stories. And yet each item speaks for itself: crafted by a team of artisans overseen by Chihuly, each glass flower, each sharp glass rock, each whimsical vessel or pot, is lovingly made on its own and carefully placed into some larger fantasy setting.

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The Tacoma blog Post Defiance describes the local art scene with passion and determination. Far beyond the marquee headline works of Chihuly, Tacoma’s art scene promises a healthy community of artists and a defiant (get it?) defense that Tacoma’s scene is not the same as that of other cities. “You can’t force a California business model onto a Tacoma City. It just won’t work and it ain’t Tacoma’s fault,” said a gallery owner. And that’s fine. This isn’t California, anyway.

Eat here

Original House of Donuts
887 St Helens Ave
Tacoma, WA 98402


Visit here

U.S. District Court (Federal Courthouse)
1717 Pacific Ave, Tacoma, WA 98402
The public lobby of the Tacoma courthouse, located in Union Station at 1717 Pacific Avenue, is open weekdays from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. The building is closed on federal holidays. Government-issued photo I.D. is required for entry.

Tacoma Museum District

Museum of Glass and the Chihuly Bridge of Glass
1801 Dock St, Tacoma, WA 98402

Washington State History Museum
1911 Pacific Ave, Tacoma, WA 98402

Rialto Theater
310 S 9th St, Tacoma, WA 98402