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Artist outrage is just one way we can prevent Tacoma from becoming a bland, concrete and steel wasteland

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Oh Tacoma. Of all the cities I’ve ever known, we know how to raise a ruckus about architecture. Case in point: Make No Little Plans, an arts exhibition that will mourn the demise of the historic Luzon Building (or what was left of it) beginning this Thursday at the Logical Diagram Gallery.

Tacoma notoriously-neglected Luzon Building is a sad story. One of the city’s most significant historical structures, the 119-year-old building at South 13th Street and Pacific Avenue sat vacant and neglected for decades. During that time, the building was subjected to some severe indignities. One owner after another failed to re-roof and secure the property, leaving it open to the elements, vandals, etc. Over time, this grand work of art became regarded as an increasingly-vexing eyesore for many Tacomans. It may have been beautiful once, they said, but let’s move on. ….

Tacoma-based developer the Gintz Group then came forward with some ambitious plans to renovate the building and turn it into a mixed-use office and retail space. It was a long-shot. The stalwart developers needed a hefty loan from the city, approval of a Limited Improvement District plan to pay for infrastructure repairs — mostly sidewalks — and more than $5 million in financing. Then the economy tanked. One buyer came forward in a last ditch attempt to salvage the project, but the Gintz Group rejected the not-so-generous offer.

Built between 1890 and 1891, the Luzon marked a transition in the building world. Designed by famed Chicago architects Daniel Burnham and John Root, the Luzon and a few buildings like it incorporated a light steel infrastructure that made it possible to build towering structures. Before the Luzon, building heights were limited because their weight was borne almost completely by masonry walls. The Luzon was among structures that paved the way for modern skyscrapers.

So why all the anger when the building finally came down?

Well, some say City of Tacoma officials didn’t do everything they could to prevent the tragic loss of a significant piece of historic architecture. In response, city officials are scrambling to figure out how to prevent the sort of neglect that led to the demise of the Luzon in the future. But let’s be honest — there are dozens of coinciding factors that made resurrection of the Luzon a seemingly impossible venture, and most of them have to do with the economic viability of bringing it back to life. 

Much of the drive to save sagging structures such as the Elks Lodge and the Luzon stems from a deep awareness that these structures are unique, infused with history, and — if I dare get a little metaphysical — a piece of Tacoma’s soul. Every Luzon that falls makes way for another Pacific Plaza. If there’s a sense of loss, it stems from a subtle awareness that we’ve caved to economic realities that dictate, more and more, the shape and spirit of our communities.

What we have, moving forward, is a chance to take an active role in making sure that Tacoma doesn’t fall prey to the aesthetic disasters that have turned cities across the country into bland, concrete and steel wastelands. So bring the ruckus, artists. Bring it early, bring it often. The economy is coming back to life sooner or later, and the building will resume.

[Logical Diagram Gallery, Make No Little Plans, Thursday, Dec. 17 from 5-9 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 20 from noon to 5 p.m., thereafter the show will be open through Jan. 10 by appointment only, 301 Puyallup Ave., Tacoma,]

LINK: Alec Clayton has the scoop on the exhibit

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