–by Kim Davenport
I spread the fingers of my left hand on the table and looked at the ring on my finger. The bright blue sapphire twinkled back up at me, as it seemed capable of doing in any light. As had become a habit, I folded my left hand into my right, took the ring between the thumb and index finger of my right hand, and twisted it back and forth, a bit loose on my middle finger.
I have no doubt that it would have fit her perfectly, had she ever chosen to wear it. She and I were the same height and very similar in build, but my hands are much smaller. Hers were strong hands, with long fingers. Strong, and dexterous. I’ve tried to picture it many times: the first time she took the streetcar from her house in South Tacoma to the center of the city for a piano lesson with Paul Pierre McNeely, at his studio in the Bernice Building at 11th and Pacific.
Did he judge her first by her clothing, which would have revealed her status as a working-class daughter of immigrants? Pick up on the fact that she’d had to go to work rather than finish high school? Or did he see her hands, and her bright eyes, so intense and full of intelligence, and immediately see her potential?
Those hands, before she showed her potential at the piano, were put to work sewing upholstery for the Washington Parlor Furniture Company, a job made possible by her older sister Dora, who’d arrived in Tacoma first and worked for the Company as a ‘cutter’, very much a hard-labor job. The younger sister, though, had skills more oriented towards working fast and with great accuracy. But before there could be Chopin or Beethoven, there would be seat cushions.
I became aware of the light changing, a cloud gradually covering the sun and causing the room to darken, and so I was pulled out of my imagination and back to reality. Back to work. Back to my project for the week, which is to make my way through the City Directories for Tacoma, one year at a time, building a list of annual snapshots of the lives of my ancestors.
The old Polk City Directories contained far more information than the phone books of my childhood. More than address and phone number, the Directories include things like job title and employer, and list every adult living at an address, not just the name of the person paying the phone bill. And so, like finding pieces of a puzzle, they allow me to form a picture of who lived where, when, and what they were doing for a living. These facts, of course, tell me nothing about the thoughts and emotions of these people. And it is a puzzle which keeps growing bigger as my research goes on. Rather than finding the pieces I think I’m looking for, I am continually finding new pieces that indicate the puzzle is much larger than I knew. So, with each new piece, I am sucked into more exploration.
I love this place: the Northwest Room. I’ve always felt comfortable in libraries, so in that sense, it’s not surprising. But this place, specifically, has a powerful pull for me. It holds at least some answers, or puzzle pieces, or clues, to every story I grew up hearing about my family in Tacoma. As a child, growing up in Seattle with my parents, both somewhat estranged from their families, I listened to tales about the city to the south – not so far, geographically, but seemingly a world apart.
And so as an adult, choosing to move back to Tacoma, discovering this room was like finding a key to that past. In this single room, over a period of many years, whatever story I am trying to tell about my city and the people in it, I have always been able to find at least a crumb of new information to keep my research moving.
And just like the stories themselves, the room is a part of the past and the present all at once. I am the living, breathing descendent of all of the parents and grandparents and great-grandparents whose paths somehow decided to cross in Tacoma. And this room, now just that – a room within a larger building – was the original Carnegie Tacoma Library, built in 1903. Generations of collection-building and countless hours of work by dedicated librarians have built it into what it is today, this space to which I make a weekly pilgrimage in search of more family stories.
I pull the 1924 directory off the shelf. At this point in time, I’m searching for Davenports, Robertsons, and Tuttles. The Hendersons won’t arrive until about 1930. That will mark the moment that the families of all four of my grandparents are in Tacoma. The Davenports and the Tuttles have been on this continent for centuries. The Robertsons and Hendersons are families full of much more recent immigrants. Tacoma pulled all of them in, for a variety of reasons.
As I flip the book open, it settles closest to ‘D’, and so I begin with Davenport. Harry and Gay, 3734 Tacoma Avenue South. Wait, what? That house would be about five doors down and across the street from my own. Harry and Gay are my great-grandparents, and their son, Harmon, my grandfather whom I never met, once lived down the block from me?
Impatient, I picture myself running out of the building, jumping in my car, and driving home to remind myself which house it is, to stand outside, creeping out my neighbors as I stare at their front door, somehow trying to see into the past. But I squelch that somewhat silly plan, jot the fact down in my notebook, and move on.
Harry, it turns out, was a bit of a house-flipper. I knew through my dad that he’d owned many properties in Tacoma. But what I didn’t know until delving into the City Directories is that he seems to have lived with his family in each of the homes he purchased, typically for no more than a year or two, and then moved on to the next. 6449 South Ferdinand. 3734 Tacoma Avenue South. 2605 South 53rd. 5423 South Cedar. 5429 South Lawrence. Five addresses over six years in the late 1920s.
In 1930, Harry and his wife Gay moved to 6423 South Montgomery, where they would remain for several years. Their son Harmon would have been 14 that year. Dora and Edna Robertson, the sisters both working at Washington Parlor Furniture Company, lived on South 17th, in the Hilltop, which, according to their stories, was mostly a neighborhood of big Italian Catholic families at the time.
It was the 1931 City Directory that revealed to me the moment Harmon and Edna must have met. I paused and looked down at my ring – her ring – again. I reminded myself that these were again just more pieces to the ever-growing puzzle, that I still wasn’t finding any deeper answers, but I could feel a tangible sense of excitement growing as I flipped through the pages, making my way through the alphabet to Robertson, where I found the listing:
Robertson, Dora. Employee, WFPCo. Robertson, Edna. Employee, WFPCo. 6417 South Montgomery.
Edna would have been 20 that year. The 20-year-old daughter of immigrant farmers, an upholstery seamstress by day who had just begun to pursue her dream of becoming a concert pianist. Harmon didn’t appear in the City Directory yet, because he would have been just 15 that year, living with his parents just two doors down at 6423. Did he know yet that he was gay, or perhaps bisexual? I would guess so, as I was certainly aware of my own sexuality by that age. But what influence did the intolerance of the era have on his willingness to accept this fact about himself?
Harmon was the child of relatively educated parents, his father having been a minister in Kansas until he decided he’d be more comfortable as a house-flipping atheist who sold insurance in Tacoma. Edna, on the other hand, had left high school in the 11th grade, and was living with her older sister Dora – her much older sister, born in 1889 – in a home they could afford to rent only if they both worked long hours.
I’ve been wondering lately how much English Dora and Edna spoke by this time. Both undoubtedly began their life speaking a broken mix of Danish and German, the languages of their parents, and a bit of English picked up in the small farm town in Wisconsin where their parents settled after crossing the Atlantic.
By the time he reached high school, at Lincoln, Harmon had discovered his love for art – the world that would become his profession as a graphic artist working in advertising in Tacoma. And by all accounts, in addition to being attracted to men, he also found beautiful women enticing. Edna was most definitely that. Five years his senior, she would likely have presented him with an irresistible combination of glamorous beauty and musical talent.
But I’m getting carried away again. In spite of my determination to remain rooted in what few facts I have at my disposal, I’m getting carried away with my desire to flesh out the half-finished stories I heard as a child. It’s a desire that I can’t seem to shake; there is too much I want to understand better. And my joy of research, of spending time alone with city directories, or old newspapers, or historic photographs, makes it possible. I never got to talk to Harmon. Edna died long before I knew exactly what questions I wanted to ask her. And now my dad, the consummate story-teller, is gone, too.
I have always assumed there were people who grew up hearing complete, well-documented stories about their parents and grandparents. The photo albums come out on a Sunday afternoon over coffee and cookies, and the elders point at each picture, telling every detail of each life. More realistically, though, all families have mysteries. Half-truths, details omitted out of shame, tiny kernels of reality embellished over the generations into complete fiction. Perhaps in the end, we all tell just the version of our story that we are comfortable with sharing.
With the other fingers of my left hand, I adjust the ring which has twisted on my middle finger. I look out the window across Tacoma Avenue, pondering whether to keep going or leave the library for the day. I can feel a library headache beginning to form, the one that comes from dust and focusing my eyes on small print, and can be turned into a full-blown throbbing if I were to decide to look at old newspapers on the microfilm reader. But thankfully that’s not on my task list for today.
Washington Parlor Furniture Company. As I continued to gaze out the window, leaning, as Tacomans do, to catch a view of whether the mountain was out, a new question formed in my mind, one that would keep me at the library another hour more. I had grown up hearing the name Buffelen as the furniture manufacturing company where Dora and Edna worked. I don’t remember hearing about Washington Parlor Furniture Company.
I put the 1931 City Directory back on the shelf, gathered up my notes, and walked back to the center of the room, where the sun was once again shining through the beautiful stained-glass skylight above. Good, one of the computers was free. I clicked on the link to the Tacoma Library website, opened the Tacoma-Pierce County Buildings Index, and typed in my search term: “Washington Parlor Furniture.”
The Buildings Index is a phenomenal resource. A searchable index of every address in Tacoma and surrounding communities. Nearly complete from the earliest days of white settlement up through about 1960, it contains references to anytime an address appeared in the newspaper, as well as links to photographs. It has proved invaluable for every single Tacoma history research project I’ve ever engaged in – whether personal or professional.
But this was the first time it made me cry. There was just one result for my search, and it came with just one photograph. I stared at the screen in disbelief, looking at a building which was very familiar to me. A three-story, wood-framed building with lots of windows – every one of them four panes across and six panes down.
The Washington Parlor Furniture Company was located at what is now roughly the corner of 11th and East D Street, just across the Foss Waterway from downtown at the base of the 11th Street Bridge. The building still stands, and I have spent hours staring at it, fascinated by its obviously hard life and strong bones.
When I first took the job as administrator for UW Tacoma’s operations at the Center for Urban Waters, I felt compelled to balance the new furniture and new lab equipment and new LEED-certified Platinum green building with a smattering of historic photographs. It was both an aesthetic decision and an educational one. Looking back on that time – 2010 – I realize now that my interest in local history was already beginning to follow me everywhere I went, even though it would be a few years more before I took it beyond just a hobby, made it a professional activity.
So, in between writing policies and procedures, checking packing lists against equipment deliveries, and hiring scientists, I picked out historic photographs. Some to hang on the walls for all to see, some for my boss’ office, some for my own desk. The one that I chose for my own desk, after browsing the Tacoma Library’s Image Archive, was a picture of a three-story, wood-framed building with lots of windows – every one of them four panes across and six panes down. The image, dated ca. 1916, featured several young men, employees of business which occupied the building, posing for the camera near a corner of the building’s exterior.
Everything about the image fascinated me, and I spent hours staring at it: while on a phone meeting; while eating my lunch at my desk; while shifting gears between different tasks. The straight lines of the building in its early years, versus all of its wobbles and slants that had developed by the present day. The faces of the young men, doing factory work far too young, and yet most of them smiling, cheesing it up for the camera. The faces of the few older men in the photograph, obviously worn down by years of hard work.
Every day on my way to and from work, and usually also on foot for a walk mid-day, I would pass by the building, now vacant, and study its details. It made fascinating shadows, as old buildings often seem to do. Occasionally the light would catch a particular window, drawing my eye in as if there was still some activity taking place there, when of course it was just my imagination. And the old, brick-red paint had a way of looking distinct at different times of year, different times of day, in different light. But I had no idea that my own family had a connection to the building.
I wiped a tear from my cheek, long past being embarrassed when something discovered in the Northwest Room made me cry. And speculation and stories and facts now began to come together around a very particular story. My grandmother, Edna, had told me about working in the factory. About the strength and speed required to do the stitching of stiff leather required for her work. About taking piano lessons with Mr. McNeely downtown.
But because I’d associated her work with a different factory, in a different part of town, I’d never pictured it before as clearly as I now could. She and Dora caught the streetcar in South Tacoma and rode it into downtown, and then walked across the 11th Street Bridge to the factory. They would run back at the end of the day, back over the bridge and up the 11th Street hill, not wanting to be late for the streetcar home.
And I can now picture Edna leaving work and making her way to Mr. McNeely’s studio in the Bernice Building at 11th and Pacific. Sitting down at the keyboard to play Chopin or Brahms or her favorite, Schumann. Treating her teacher with great reverence and respect. Utilizing the strength and speed of her hands to create beautiful sounds, completely impractical sounds for a working-class girl, but building the skill that would make it possible, within just a few short years, to quit her job at the factory and begin teaching piano lessons of her own.
At least this one moment in her life now seemed vivid to me, real, even if so many others still left me with so many questions. And I still couldn’t shake the eerie feeling of how connected I felt to this building, without ever knowing why. Connections like this don’t make me feel warm and fuzzy, in that “everything happens for a reason” sense. I prefer logic and rationality. Just as I would have preferred that my grandmother would have told me about the name and location of this factory. But I realize now that it, just like the fact that she left high school before graduating, was a source of shame for her. She didn’t see the story as I do, one which reveals her impressive talent and determination to pull herself out of a life she found dreary into one she found much more fulfilling.
Back to the ring. Edna and I are connected in many ways. Like her, I am a pianist and teacher. Like her, and like my father, I have big blue eyes. The big blue eyes that Harmon was honoring when he bought her the ring. This ring that she never wore.
Back to the story of Harmon and Edna. They were married in 1938. My next visit to the Northwest Room will take me through that year in the City Directories, and I’ll learn the details of exactly when they began living together and where. I’ll see what other facts I can add to that list, but admittedly, I’ll probably never know exactly when the cracks in their marriage began to show.
Amber was born in 1939. Amber had Harmon’s rich brown eyes. My father came along in October of 1943, bringing into the world a new iteration of his mother’s blue eyes, bright as sapphires.
As the story goes, Harmon made a trip to Gunderson’s Jewelers, a high end store in the Bostwick Building, facing Broadway, and picked out this ring, as a gift to his wife on the occasion of their son’s birth.
Any number of things could have caused her to make the choice to keep the ring in its box, rather than to wear it. Very likely, she thought Harmon spent too much on the ring. A constant battle for the couple was his extravagant spending on clothes, jewelry, or antiques. His income as a graphic artist fluctuated, and could be quite high by the standards of the time, but his spending often exceeded his income, leaving Edna to cover the essentials of the household with her solid but small income from piano teaching.
She could have resented having a second child, and found the ring an annoying reminder of that event. Harmon’s struggles with his sexuality, and with his mental health, were likely becoming more prominent by this point, and putting a strain on their relationship.
But she didn’t ask him to return the ring, to get his money back. And she didn’t throw it away, as she did many things which represented Harmon, when they divorced 15 years later. The latter can probably be explained because it was an object of obvious, and objective, value, rather than more personal or esoteric items such as his artwork. But she also didn’t sell it years later, when she chose to sell her home, and everything in it, to her second husband’s son, an antique dealer.
No, that ring would remain in her possession until the end of her life, when she was living with us in the year before she died. That is when she passed it on to me, her only granddaughter. And so that leaves me with this ring, which for some reason she chose to keep, and yet never wear. A reminder of both her husband and her son, but a reminder which she kept in a box, safe from any light to cause the stone to twinkle, safe from any questions of “Oh my, what a beautiful ring, where did you get it?”
And so, several years after her death, I chose to start wearing it, beginning to let the stone lose its perfectly-cut edges as I bump into the objects of my day, each day, every day. As I wash my hands, drive my car, mow my lawn, and yes, play the piano. I wear it stubbornly, with a determination that it will no longer spend its days in a box. I wear it in an effort to have a connection to Harmon, who I doubt I will ever be able to learn enough about to feel satisfied.
I imagine the day he walked into the shop on Broadway, with ‘GUNDERSON’ in large gold-painted block letters above the door, and ‘JEWELER’ and ‘IMPORTER’ in slightly smaller letters above the huge plate-glass windows to the left and right, respectively. Imagine him browsing, until his eye is caught by this big blue stone, which so obviously reminded him of his wife’s beautiful eyes, which had just been reborn in their new son.
I imagine him bringing it home, making a grand presentation of this gift. And then the film playing in my head stalls, goes black. I have no idea what happens next. A fight? A warm embrace? Did she try it on? Throw it back at him? I will never know. These are the kind of moments that live only in the memories of those who witnessed them. Everyone who was in their house that day is now dead.
And so I will continue to visit to the Northwest Room, to piece together what I can to tell parts of stories. There is something about Tacoma that feels like a deeply-rooted home to me. There is something about Tacoma that drew my grandparents’ parents here. There are interesting stories to discover and tell about their lives, about how their paths crossed and, eventually, led to my existence. Stories that can teach me more about this place I call home.
Kim Davenport serves as Communications Manager for Tacoma Historical Society. She is a musician and educator who teaches at both UW Tacoma and the University of Puget Sound, as well as in her private piano studio. She has written several books and articles about Tacoma history, with a particular interest in our city’s musical past. Visit TacomaMusicHistory.org to see her and her students’ research into those stories.