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10 in 10: The F.W. Woolworth Building

14 Sep

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of Art at Work Month, our 10 in 10 series is spotlighting a decade’s worth of fabulous things about Tacoma.

Woolworth's, a 1950's superstore. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library

The Woolworth Building. It’s an anchor of Tacoma’s downtown, a box-shaped receptacle of local lore, and a bastion of nostalgia for those who shopped at the famous five-and-dime or filled up at its homey lunch counter before it closed to the public in January 1994. It’s one of Tacoma’s best-loved buildings, with a varied past. Today, Woolworth’s broad storefront windows provide a unique, open-air exhibition space for art, and no longer advertise the inexpensive household goods that attracted windowshoppers from 1950 on.

The building at 955 Broadway is a landmark of local history and architecture. In the 1800s, it was the location of the First Presbyterian Church (and of a freshwater spring that sometimes leaked inside. Trickles persist to this day.). The church’s minister condemned the racism aimed against Chinese railroad workers at the time, but to no avail; they were driven out of town in the 1880s.

Waiting for the doors to open at Woolworth's. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library

In 1890, the church was replaced by a new altar dedicated to the world of finance: the Fidelity Building, designed by the great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, of Burnham & Root. (Another of the firm’s structures, the Luzon Building on Pacific Ave., was demolished last year against the protests of citizens and preservationists.) Exactly six decades later, the Fidelity Building was razed to make room for Woolworth’s: such was the success of the New York-based retail chain that it could afford to tear down a handsomely embellished 12-story skyscraper and replace it with a four-story, post-Deco structure whose style was dictated by its brand image. The superstore of the future opened during United Tacoma Days, on Nov. 2, 1950.

The five-and-dime was located across from the sprawling Crystal Sanitary Market where fresh produce filled the stalls; and from the classy Rhodes department store. Other neighbors included small specialty shops, dressmakers and haberdashers. Tacoma’s theater district, one block away, came alive at night; by six o’clock the independent businesses would close, but the behemoth retailer would stay open later, selling candy to moviegoers. Woolworth’s quickly became an important fixture for those who lived downtown, a place where one could find anything – housewares, shoes, cheap jewelry, Simplicity dress patterns and fabric, toys, even pets – and still have enough left for a grilled cheese sandwich and a ‘shake at the 62-seat lunch counter. Continue reading

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