by Gabby Quinnett
Picture yourself. It’s the middle of summer, your car windows are down, the cool wind blowing through your hair, and you’re blasting your favorite tunes. You’ve decided to take a scenic drive through Tacoma this fine afternoon. Driving past Wright Park, you’ve decided to take South Yakima Ave into the Hilltop area. Your sights are soon set upon a large, castle-like building. Slowing down as you pass, you can fully take in the foreboding architecture.
Built in 1908 as a part of the Washington National Guards’ improvements to the state, the Tacoma Armory has stood tall for multiple purposes for over a century. Seattle and Spokane also received armories around the same time Tacoma did. Over the next couple of decades, cities throughout the state became home to armories as well. Similar to the Tacoma Armory, many of these buildings existed as a multipurpose spaces. Befitting of their names, the armories had military purposes in the beginning. Training and mobilization for both World War I and II occurred within the large drill hall of the building. However, the Tacoma Armory was not only used for its military purposes over the years. Graduations, dances, concerts, and even sporting events occurred within the spaces of the armory over the years. The News Tribune documented hundreds of wrestling and boxing matches that occurred at the armory. Pictured below is George Wright (right), a Tacoma native, giving a right hook to his opponent, Ramon Hernandez (left).
As of 2011, the armory’s involvement with the military ceased completely. Our focus today is not on the military events that occurred within the walls of the armory, but on the musical events. Beyond its military purposes, the armory served as the gathering place for many dances, concerts, and musical performances over the years. The Polish pianist Paderewski and Tacoma bands such as The Fabulous Wailers filled the main hall with pleasant sounds for the local community.
The Wailers often performed at the armory, playing songs such as “Out of Our Tree,” or “Tall Cool One.” The News Tribune often advertised their performances at the armory, inviting readers in the community to dance with the band. The advertisement below was published in 1959, just a year after the band’s founding.
In 1958, five Tacoma-born high schoolers formed the band The Wailers. Their fast-paced, energetic sound landed them in comfortable fame during the late 50s and 60s. Hailed as one of the first American garage bands, The Wailers were proudly accepted by their home of Tacoma and their frequent venue the Tacoma Armory. Sadly, the band did not stay together long. After cycling through multiple members, The Wailers split in 1969.
Along with concerts, dances were held within the halls of the Tacoma Armory. Published by The News Tribune on October 30, 1964, an unknown author writes of a Halloween dance put on by multiple community groups such as the Downtown Lions Club and the Tacoma Police Department’s Youth Guidance Division.
The event was formed in order to give the teens of the area a safe place to go (and not wreak havoc) during Halloween. It is not listed what band played at this “Dance a Treat,” but I’d like to think the kids got to listen to some music from the Wailers. In the same year as the dance, they released their album Tall Cool One, which contains one of my favorite songs by The Wailers, which is “Seattle.”
The image below shows a large group of teens gathered in the armory for the same dance just a few years prior in 1951. This was the armory’s third Halloween dance. The Tacoma Public Library’s image archive does provide information about which band played at this event in 1951. Performing for these 2,800 teenagers was Larry Carino and his orchestra, a local ten-piece band. I was unable to find recordings of Carino’s music, but it may have sounded something similar to Kurt Edelhagen’s Big Band.
Looking at the armory today, with all of its history now nestled into our brains, it’s hard not to appreciate what it has done for the community in the past. But what does it provide for our modern-day Tacoma community?
The entire reason I felt urged to write this blog was because of my own personal experience within the walls of the armory. For my mother’s birthday, my family decided to gather together and experience Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition. I had never seen the armory up until this point and was completely left in awe by the building– which now sticks out like a sore thumb against the modern looks its surroundings have. The spire that once sat behind the armory (old Piece Country Courthouse) is now a parking lot. Sadly, not all buildings were allowed to enter the twenty-first century as the armory was. Pictured below is a picture of the armory as it stands today.
The event itself was held in the ginormous hall of the armory. Projections of Van Gogh’s work were displayed on large white sheets. Gogh’s paintings were accompanied by lovely classical pieces of music. In some cases, the projected slideshow matched up perfectly with the beat of the song. Pictured below is a picture I took while enjoying the show. If you look at the floor you can see images projected there as well. It was quite a dreamy experience.
I wish I had entered the armory knowing what it had stood for all of the years between its groundbreaking and my sitting on its floors. I’ve found that knowing the history of a building allows for more appreciation to accompany your experience with it.
Overall, the Van Gogh Exhibit was a beautiful mesh of art and music that I feel wonderfully characterizes what the Tacoma Armory stands for today. It is a place where music and performance have always had a home, and I’m glad that gets to continue into the future.
Enjoy the rest of your summer drive. Perhaps in the future keep your eye out for more peculiar buildings around Tacoma, you’ll never know what kind of history they hold until you enquire!
Tacoma Arts Live
Grit City Mag
Pacific Northwest Bands
Northwest Room Image Archive
The News Tribune
Washington State Historical Society
About the Author
Gabby Quinnett prepared this article as her final project for TARTS 225: Musical History of Tacoma, taught by Kim Davenport at the University of Washington, Tacoma. At the time she took the class in Autumn Quarter 2022, she was a senior majoring in history.