Historic Stadium High School
Tacoma, Washington

An earlier version of this essay was written by Janice Lindeman Perry for the 50-year reunion of her Stadium class of 1942. David Lind Perry revised and updated her essay in July 1997 for the 20-year reunion of the class of 1977, drawing primarily on a massive collection of old newspaper articles on file in the Stadium principal's office, compiled by Mark Scharmer of the U. of Puget Sound class of 1989.  Eric Londgren, Stadium class of 1978, made some helpful editorial changes to this essay in 1998.  For those interested in the social aspects of Stadium history, the Tacoma Public Library has a collection of "Tahoma" annual yearbooks, and Stadium has old copies of the "World" student paper.

The Building

Stadium High School has been for over 90 years a source of tremendous pride, not only to its students, alums, teachers and administrators, but also to countless other Tacoma citizens who have enjoyed public events in the Bowl or simply stopped to marvel at the Old-World beauty of the Castle and its stunning natural setting.

The building was originally intended by its financiers, the Northern Pacific Railroad Company and Tacoma Land Company, to be one of the finest luxury hotels on the Pacific Coast. In 1890 they purchased a nine-acre tract of land on a high bluff overlooking Commencement Bay, and solicited architectural designs and bids for the building. The winning architects, Hewitt and Hewitt of Philadelphia, submitted with their bid a painting of their planned edifice in French Renaissance architectural style. (That painting hangs today in Stadium's main office.) Some sources have claimed that the building is modeled after an actual chateau near Tours (southwest of Paris) or Chaumont (southeast of Paris), but neither claim has been verified.

Construction of the hotel--known both as the Olympic and the Tourist--began in 1891, but came to a screeching halt in 1893 in the wake of a nationwide financial panic and depression. The unfinished shell was then used to store lumber, until a devastating fire (of suspicious origin) gutted the building in October 1898. That was apparently the last straw for Northern Pacific Railroad, which gave up the idea of finishing the hotel and began taking bricks from the burned-out structure in 1901 to build train depots in Montana and Idaho. Fortunately, a number of Tacoma citizens had other ideas for the building.

Since the early 1880s, Tacoma's high school students had been crammed into various buildings along with younger kids. Legend has it that three former members of the school board, businessmen Conrad Hoska and Alfred Lister and attorney Eric Rosling, seeing the ill-fated Olympic/Tourist Hotel being slowly dismantled, suggested to current board member W. B. Coffee that the structure be converted into a high school. Coffee immediately consulted the school architect, Frederick Heath, who determined that it was feasible. A deal to purchase the property was quickly made with the owners, but a special election was needed to fund construction. The first election failed in 1903, but a second one in 1904 passed, and the project was completed a few years later at a total cost of approximately $500,000. The first students began classes in what was then called Tacoma High School on September 10, 1906.

The Castle is built so solidly that it is considered virtually earthquake-proof. (The Bowl is another matter, of course--see below.) Steel beams in the building's foundation are embedded in solid rock. The walls are five feet thick at the base and 18" thick at the top. Iron bands 3" wide and 3/8" thick encircle the foundation and every floor. Two stone slabs which used to form the steps at the building's entrance were cut from a single huge boulder found near Fern Hill, and took two days to be hauled to the construction site by a 30-horse team. (Unfortunately it became necessary to replace those slabs with concrete in 1980 due to water leaks around the foundation.)

As Tacoma's population grew, the school board determined that a second high school was needed, and chose a site near Lincoln Park in 1911. In light of that development, what had thusfar been called Tacoma High School was officially renamed Stadium High School in 1913 in honor of its new Bowl (dedicated in 1910, as described below).

The Castle has seen many renovations. The auditorium was enlarged and remodeled in 1912. In 1913, Heath drew up plans for a three-story building in the style of a medieval fortress, to be located between the main building and the tennis courts and to contain the boys' and girls' gyms. When that plan proved too expensive, though, the gyms were instead built underneath the central courtyard.

The roof was replaced (with asbestos tiles!) in 1957, and copper finials (caps) on the turrets were substituted for the old iron ones. In 1958-59, the library and administrative offices were relocated, the two small gyms were converted into one large one, and repairs were made on the fire escapes, floors and windows. In the 1960s the cafeteria was remodeled and enlarged, providing a sweeping view of the bay. The auditorium was also renovated: desks were removed, theater seats installed and the stage enlarged. In 1974-75, the Industrial Arts and Science Building was erected across E Street and named after Angelo Giaudrone, a longtime superintendent of Tacoma schools.

The dilapidated swimming pool was finally replaced in 1988 by an Olympic-sized one built 45 feet below the surface of E Street. The brick courtyard was then extended over the pool area to join the Industrial Arts Building. That project cost approximately $5 million. (Plans circa 1973 had proposed building the pool where the parking lot sits. Knowing now what eventually became of E Street on that block, it's probably fortuitous that those pool plans were never implemented.)

Over the years, Stadium students have created and installed stained glass windows, metal sculptures, ceramic mosaics and other works of art, enhancing the beauty of the building. A large glass bowl created by Dale Chihuly was donated by a Stadium Booster and is displayed outside the school library.

Since 1977, Stadium has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Bowl

Next to the bluff upon which the school was constructed lay a deep, thickly wooded ravine known as Old Woman's Gulch, named for the women who lived there as squatters in little shacks and were said to be the widows of dead fishermen, loggers and/or longshoremen. When the Olympic/Tourist Hotel was under construction, there was talk of converting the gulch into a botanical garden for the amusement of hotel guests. The idea of creating an open-air athletic stadium there was apparently first raised in April 1907 by Charles Cutter of the Tacoma Boosters, who had just returned from an inspirational tour of ancient amphitheaters in Greece. Frederick Heath and others who had championed the transformation of the charred hotel into a high school now eagerly promoted Cutter's concept of a magnificent stadium. (The women squatters were eventually forced out by the stadium's construction; their subsequent fate is unknown.)

A plaque installed at the southwest entrance to the Bowl by Stadium students in May 1993 describes the construction process:

Construction began in June 1909 [April, actually]. A steam shovel and sluicing pipes moved more than 180,000 [cubic] yards of dirt down the sides of the gulch until it half-filled the great cavity to form a level playfield of two and a half acres. Thousands of board feet of lumber were hand cut to make the forms for the seats, which were molded in concrete. The original seats (with an estimated seating capacity of 32,000*) rose 31 tiers high, with the top seat 52 feet above the field level.

(*Estimates of the original seating capacity vary widely, from 23,000 to 40,000. The largest crowd ever to fill the stadium was said to number 70,000, but that would have required thousands of extra chairs and bleachers, and probably included standing spectators as well. Parking has always been a problem at the Bowl, but until the 1930s a streetcar line ran on E and North 2nd streets, easing traffic congestion.)

Dedication ceremonies for the new stadium on June 10-11, 1910 were extravagant: as many as 50,000 people from all over the state attended the festivities; 10,000 schoolchildren performed a variety of massed drills and folk dances; wrestling, tumbling and jujitsu exhibitions were featured, as well as a track and field meet; a march composed for the occasion by Paul Engell was played by a brass band; and a song composed by Carrie Shaw Rice and Mrs. W. H. Opie was sung by a choir of 900 children. (The title of that song, "Tacoma, the Rose of the West," suggests that the city had not yet become infamous for smelter and pulp mill aromas.)

Unfortunately, drainage problems plagued the Bowl from day one. The first football games played in September 1910 rendered the rain-soaked field a "mudhole," so the remaining games that season had to be played elsewhere. There was much public criticism of the contractor, who had originally promised to complete the stadium by August 1909, but whose work had remained unfinished even at the time of the dedication ceremonies in 1910. The school board was also lambasted for its weak monitoring of the contractor. But when a group of Stadium seniors confronted the board with a petition complaining about delays in fixing the field, the board chairman retorted that they "ought to be spanked." Construction of the Bowl's concrete stands and repair of its drainage system finally ended in April 1911, at a total cost of approximately $160,000. (A retaining wall for the Bowl's eastern edge appeared in early drawings, but was never built.)

For decades the Bowl served as the forum for many important city events. A re-enactment of the burning of Rome in A.D. 64 was staged in the Bowl in September 1911, preceded by "gladiator combat" and races between horse-drawn chariots. In the early years, competitions between marching bands were very popular, regularly filling the stadium to overflowing. The appearance of John Philip Sousa and his military band was especially memorable.

Every July Fourth, tens of thousands would gather to watch fireworks shows, augmented in the 1920s and '30s by searchlight displays from battleships anchored in the bay. Grade school children from all over the city gathered each May in the Bowl for athletic programs. And every Thanksgiving Day, Stadium's football team went up against its cross-town rival, Lincoln.

Louis Armstrong performed in the Bowl, as did famous opera singers. Many national luminaries spoke to capacity crowds on various occasions, including Gen. John Pershing, France's Marshal Foch, Babe Ruth, Rev. Billy Sunday, William Jennings Bryan, and presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding.

Sadly, the Bowl proved to be vulnerable to earthquakes and floods, in part due to substandard construction methods (some not discovered until the 1950s). In January 1932, a large sewer pipe broke (perhaps due to an earthquake), and the resulting flood opened a large hole in the Bowl's eastern end, sending tons of mud onto the railroad tracks below.

A major quake in 1949 caused so much damage to the steel and concrete stands that the Bowl was declared unsafe for use. Throughout the 1950s there were calls by many disgruntled citizens to dismantle the Bowl for good. But in 1960 the school board authorized renovation of 5,000 seats. (You'll recall that during our years at Stadium, huge portions of the stands remained condemned and fenced off.)

The classes of 1976, 1977 and 1978 worked hard to help raise $80,000 to install "Tiger Turf" in the Bowl. The fundraising campaign attracted donations of lumber, tubing and wiring from local companies, as well as cash donations and revenues from the sale of commemorative coins, t-shirts, and one-foot-square pieces of turf. Dedication of the new field with its elaborate drainage system took place with great fanfare on May 18, 1976. Students returning in September, though, were dismayed to see that much of the Tiger Turf had turned an ugly brown, apparently due to mistakes in fertilizer application (soon corrected).

In late 1977 the Bowl was awarded a federal grant of $2 million for renovation. The western section of seats was removed entirely. Stairways were added and reinforced. The remaining seats were rebuilt to accommodate 15,000 people, roughly half the original capacity. Rededication ceremonies were held on September 12, 1980. However, on October 6, 1981, another major disaster occurred. A storm drain under E Street burst under the pressure of a heavy rainstorm, sending enormous quantities of mud into the Bowl and wiping out a large chunk of its eastern edge.

Some citizens argued once more that the Bowl should be abandoned, but others advocating repair won out in the end. A full block of E Street was removed to permit the steep angle of the Bowl's western side to be reduced. The floor of the Bowl was regraded, and structural reinforcements, a new track and artificial turf (to the dismay of some) were added. On October 25, 1985, a fully renovated Bowl was dedicated once again, and remains to this day (knock on wood) a spectacular site. 

 

Click here for Stadium High School's official web page.