Tacoma Union Station, Tacoma, WA

U.S. Courthouse at Union Station, Tacoma, Washington

Building History

The U.S. Courthouse at Union Station is a highly successful adaptive use of a Tacoma landmark. Tacoma's reputation as the "City of Destiny" began when it was chosen by the Northern Pacific Company in 1873 as the western terminus of the northern route of the transcontinental railroad, then under construction. The city became a center for industrial and commercial development. Its economy expanded rapidly over the next two decades, and its population skyrocketed from just under 2,000 in 1873 to 37,714 in 1890.

The city's first rail station was built in 1883, then moved to the site of the present Union Station on Pacific Avenue and enlarged in 1892. In 1906 the architectural firm of Reed and Stem was selected to design a new station more befitting Tacoma's image as a prosperous, thriving metropolis and railway terminus of the Northwest.

Construction of Union Station began in 1909 and was completed in May 1911. Acclaim for Reed and Stem's design was immediate. The Tacoma Daily Ledger praised it as "the largest, the most modern and in all ways the most beautiful and best equipped passenger station in the Pacific Northwest."

Despite optimistic forecasts by the railroad companies early in the century, the future would not be kind to the passenger rail industry. Railway rider ship peaked in the 1930s and again during World War II, then quickly declined as the automobile became America's preferred mode of transportation. In 1971 national passenger rail service merged into Amtrak. The Tacoma offices relocated to Seattle. The last passenger train left Union Station on June 14, 1984, and the abandoned building soon fell into disrepair.

In 1987 Congress authorized the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to lease Union Station for thirty-five years to provide space for the federal courts. After three years of work, the historic building was completely renovated and restored, and a three-story addition was constructed. The federal courts began occupancy in 1992. Today, though it no longer serves its original function, Union Station is once again a source of pride to the people of Tacoma.


Tacoma Union Station is a magnificent example of Beaux-Arts architecture that combines awe-inspiring elegance with spatial efficiency. The architects Reed and Stem were already well known in the field of railroad station design, particularly for their organization of space and movement. At the same time Union Station was under construction, they were collaborating with two other architects to design a world-renowned Beaux-Arts masterpiece—New York City's Grand Central Terminal (1903-1913).

The building's focal point is its ninety-foot-high central dome, which stands out in the Tacoma skyline and has become one of the enduring emblems of the city. Clad in gleaming copper and adorned with four large cartouches, the dome rests on a central pavilion with large arched openings on each side. Flat-roofed symmetrical wings flank the pavilion to the north and south. The exterior of the reinforced-concrete building is faced with multicolored red brick set in a Flemish-bond pattern, with limestone base and ornamental detail. The entrance doors, of stained oak with bronze hardware, are recessed within the arch on the west elevation. A large window fills the arch above the doors.

The dome creates an impressive rotunda in the building's interior, which is visited by up to 300 people a day during the summer season. Shortly after the building's completion in 1911, the dome's skylight began to leak, causing serious problems during the heavy rains regularly experienced in the Northwest. The skylight was eventually covered over, but the leakage—and the structural and cosmetic damage it caused—continued, growing more severe in the decades that followed. Concerns over falling plaster ultimately prompted officials to close the rotunda to the public in the early 1980s. It remained closed until the building was renovated in the early 1990s for its new use as a federal courthouse. At that time, 40,000 pounds of new copper were brought in to re-cover the dome; holes in its plaster interior, as large as eight feet square in size, were painstakingly repaired, and the skylight was reopened.

Today, natural light once again streams into the rotunda, which houses a stunning collection of glass art by renowned Tacoma artist Dale Chihuly. Suspended from the center of the domed ceiling is one of Chihuly's most breathtaking pieces, a 20-foot chandelier consisting of over 2,700 multi-colored, balloon-like glass globes. The rotunda also retains several historically significant features, including a large clock, marble water fountains, and wooden benches.

Most of the railroad tracks and platforms and part of the original concourse were removed during the rehabilitation for the federal courts. A simple, three-story addition, designed by Tacoma architects Merrit Pardini in collaboration with the Seattle firm of Bassetti Norton Metler Rekevics was completed in 1992. The sympathetic addition is located to the north and east of the original building. The two buildings are separated by a courtyard but linked by an interior connector, which extends from the east side of the rotunda.

Ten courtrooms were needed for the federal courts. Two were created within the north and south wings of the 1911 building, while the addition provided eight more. All the courtrooms offer state-of-the-art technology, and are designed so that each can be used, inter-changeably, for District, Bankruptcy, or Magistrate proceedings.

Union Station was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Six years later, a seven-block area surrounding the station, known as the Union Station Warehouse District, was added to the National Register. The renovation and the addition have received several preservation awards.

Significant Events

1883: Tacoma's first rail station is built.

1892: As railroad use increases, the station is moved to the Pacific Avenue site, and enlarged.

1909-1911: Union Station is constructed on the site of the 1892 station.

1940s-1960s: As the automobile becomes increasingly popular, the passenger rail industry begins a prolonged decline.

1974: Union Station is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1980: The seven-block area surrounding Union Station is designated a historic district and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1984: The last passenger train departs from Union Station and the building is abandoned.

1987: The U.S. General Services Administration, with Congressional authorization, arranges a 35-year lease of the building from the city of Tacoma.

1990-1992: Union Station is rehabilitated and converted for use as a courthouse. An addition provides more space for use by the courts.

Building Facts

Architects: Reed and Stem

Renovation and Restoration: Merritt Pardini in association with TRA (The Richardson Associates)

Courthouse Addition: Merritt Pardini and Bassetti Norton Metler Rekevics

Construction Dates: 1909-1911; Courthouse addition: 1992

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places; contributing building in the Union Depot-Warehouse Historic District

Location: 1717 Pacific Avenue

Architectural Style: Beaux-Arts

Primary Materials: Brick and concrete with copper roof and limestone trim

Prominent Features: Ninety-foot copper dome and interior rotunda; Glass art displays by Tacoma native Dale Chihuly

U.S. Courthouse at Union Station, Tacoma, Washington

The Union Station Building is located at 1717 Pacific Avenue, on the east side of Pacific Avenue, west of Highway 1-705 and north of South 19th Street. A section of the UW Tacoma campus is situated across Pacific Avenue to the west and a new Bridge of Glass passes by the buildings south side providing access to the Museum of Glass across I-705. Its site is approximately 232' deep and extends approximately 970 feet from the south exterior stair of the Depot to the north end of the adjacent parking lot, to form a wedge shape at the intersection of the 15th Street freeway ramp and 1-705. City Waterway is located an estimated 700 feet to the east as the crow flies, and Tacoma's downtown core one half mile to the northwest. In 1996, the Washington State History Museum opened immediately to the south of the depot and in 2003, the Tacoma Art Museum opened at the north end of the site.

In the late 1880s when this area of Tacoma was developed, the Station was the dividing point between commercial and banking uses which were located north on Pacific Avenue, and manufacturing and warehouses which were to the south. The area which surrounds Union Station was placed on the National Register in 1980, and named the Union Depo/Warehouse Historic District. It contains 39 historic structures and is recognized for its national significance in association with the development of railroads in the nineteenth century American west.

The District also represents the city's historical, financial, and physical evolution and, as exemplified by the Union Station Depot building it contains structures with significant architectural character. Union Station's architectural and historic significance were recognized by its individual listing on the National Register in 1974.

The Union Station site slopes steeply down from the front or west elevation on Pacific Avenue approximately 30' to what was once the track and yard level of the Northern Pacific Railway. The linear quality and wedge shape of the site are derived from original Northern Pacific tracks and rail spurs which extended north-south through the city. The site was transformed after the passenger depot functions were relocated to a new building, and Union Station rehabilitated and expanded to become a federal courthouse. A new, flat roofed addition was constructed on the east and north sides. A circulatory road and metal fence was provided along the east property line, separating the building and site from the adjacent highway.

The sloping open site south of the depot was landscaped with plantings of shrubs and ground covers as a part of the adjacent project, the new State Historical Museum. The site north of the new addition contains a large parking lot and the adjacent Tacoma Art Museum. The parking lot is enframed by a densely planted, landscaped area on the eastern edge of the site.
A paved, landscaped courtyard was created on the north side of the historic depot structure in an effort to distinguish it from the new addition. The original stairway along the south side of the depot was reconfigured to allow public access from Pacific Avenue to the Track Level at the east side of the building; on the north side, the reconfigured stair leads down from Pacific Street to the new courtyard below, but public access is prohibited by metal gates. These stairs to the courtyard and south side are constructed of concrete with painted metal ornamental railings.

The original depot is connected to the addition on the east side of the historic rotunda. The connection includes a semi-circular, flat-roofed "extension" of the glazed rotunda which projects out from the large arched window on the east wall. The extension is clad in vision and spandrel glass and enclosed by a raised platform and exterior screen wall, and contains secondary public entries at the first and second floor levels. On the exterior, a pair of flanking stairs leads from the sidewalk to an enclosed platform at the Lobby Level.


Design of the historic Union Station was based on classical architectural precedents including the Roman Pantheon and seventeenth century Italian Baroque architecture. These influences gave rise to the building's impressive massing -- a prominent, domed central portion with symmetrical wings on its north and south sides. The concrete framed building rises over two tall stories above the sidewalk grade on Pacific Avenue and has two additional floor levels below this grade, visible from the east side of the structure. The central portion of the building is a large, open rotunda under the copper clad dome. The dome rests on pendentives and rises nearly 70 feet above the two flat roofed wings.

The exterior of the historic depot is brick masonry set in a Flemish bond pattern. Limestone is used extensively for exterior horizontal banding, door and window trim, and at the base at the sidewalk level. The parapet cap was replaced with sandstone. Painted concrete and exterior insulated finish system (EIFS) is used as wall surfacing below the Lobby Level. Flat roofs on the north and south wings are clad with membrane roofing.

Historic exterior doors are of stained oak, and have raised wood or glass panels, original bronze hardware and kick plates. The exit hardware is a contemporary brighter bronze. The west entry doors are composed in pairs or triplets below the large metal-framed arched window. A similar large window is set into the east-facing arched opening. Individual wood framed windows include large casements set into flat arch or rectangular openings. At lower floors, the windows are rectangular and smaller in scale.


In 1990, when the historic Depot Building was rehabilitated for its current use as a federal courthouse, most of the railroad tracks were removed along with the platforms, boiler service buildings and portions of the concourse. Pivotal and primary spaces of the original building were retained and new functions fit into secondary and less significant spaces. The general waiting room, located in the rotunda space at the Lobby Level, became the main public lobby which is used for public access to the secure court and office spaces and as a public reception space. The perimeter balconies above the lobby were also retained.

Two so-called "historic courtrooms" - District Courts A and B with their associated judicial rooms and judges chambers - were inserted into the original station spaces at the Lobby and Balcony Levels. Portions of the original Depot's concourse, located at the floor directly below the lobby, were retained to serve as a public food court. Offices, service and storage spaces and associated judicial facilities were placed in less significant areas in the Depot's Lobby and Concourse Levels.

The historic structure's large rotunda space retains its public use as a lobby and is used also as a reception space. It contains installations of privately owned art glass designed by the renown Tacoma-born artist, Dale Chihuly.

The interior connection between the old and new portions of Union Station occurs at the east side of the lobby rotunda through what was originally the Depot Ticket Office, where a glazed, semi-circular, flat-roofed section seems to extend from within the large, arched opening of the original station's waiting room. Within this extension are public elevator lobbies at the Lobby, Concourse and Track Levels, and the security station at the Lobby Level. This secure lobby is adjacent to and accessible from the historic public lobby below the original depot rotunda and leads to main corridors and courtrooms in the historic section. Public corridors extend from the historic building through the addition and terminate at glass block end walls. New corridors, public elevators and stairs provide access to courtrooms, offices and service spaces.


The courthouse addition, completed in 1992, is a low, three-story, brick and concrete structure located to the east and north of the historic Depot. Its massing was derived through studies by GSA architects dating from 1988 which sought to complement the historic structure with a harmonious, non-competitive form. Thus the addition was designed as a simple, flat-roofed mass set discreetly on the site with an intervening courtyard separating it from the north wall of the Depot.

The addition is set back approximately 20' from the sidewalk along Pacific Avenue on the west, with the intervening space landscaped with evergreen groundcovers. A concrete base, which encloses the first floor, is below the grade. It emerges on the north end of the addition where it encloses the secure parking garage. Above, the walls are clad in brick with windows of glass or glass block. The three-story east facade varies with several bays projecting from the upper floors, an expanse of glass and a recessed area at the south end of the east wall. Masonry at all facades is a smooth, red brick laid in a common or Flemish bond and punctuated by light colored, pre-cast concrete units, banding, window sills and lintels.

This federal courthouse complex has many innovations including an arrangement whereby all ten courtrooms are interchangeable -- for use by District, Bankruptcy, or Magistrate proceedings. Courtrooms in the new building each have movable bars separating spectators from attorneys, thus providing greater flexibility to meet changing seating requirements. Jury boxes in the new courtrooms are expandable to accommodate additional jurors. The courtrooms are wired for future video and computer needs, and are designed to maximize working space for attorneys. This last innovation is exemplified through the offset judges' benches in the new building and balcony seating in the historic building. Finally, the courthouse was constructed to permit the future growth of the courts with expansion space north of the addition.

Security is accommodated by a U.S. Marshal station at the new secure lobby. Prisoner circulation is entirely separated from public circulation. All of the courtrooms, jury rooms, and offices have contemporary computer and communication technology, security systems and soundproofing.

U.S. Courthouse at Union Station, Tacoma, Washington


The city of Tacoma, as a platted piece of land, was founded in 1868. According to U.S. Census statistics the population at that time was 1,098. Before this, it was known as "Commencement City" and remained largely undeveloped. The deep waterway to the north of the city's location, Commencement Bay, was deemed in 1873 by the Northern Pacific Railroad to be superior to other speculative sites for the Pacific Northwest terminus of the transcontinental railroad. Tacoma was chosen over cities such as Portland, Seattle, and Port Townsend for this reason, in addition to the virtual monopoly the company held over estate development within the city. This allowed Northern Pacific to purchase 1,100 acres with an option on an additional 1,600 acres, over two miles of which were located along the waterfront.

Commerce and building development flourished in Tacoma between the years of 1873 and 1893. Part of this is attributable to the 1887 completion of the mainline rail link from the East through the Cascade Mountains over Stampede Pass and the economic boom of the same year. This economic growth was reflected in Tacoma's population which increased from fewer than 2,000 individuals in 1873, to 37,714 by 1890.

Up until the early 1870s, commercial construction was limited to a portion of Pacific Avenue, north of the present site of Union Station. In 1883, a small wood framed passenger station was erected on the north side of the tracks, to the south of South 17th Street, and to the west of Pacific Avenue. Named "Villard Depot" after railroad magnate Henry Villard, the structure was moved and enlarged in 1892 to the present site of Union Station to accommodate increased passenger service. The economic boom which spurred this activity would cease with the onset of the nationwide depression between 1893 - 1897.

In 1906, the nationally known architecture firm Reed and Stem was commissioned for the design of a new depot. Reed and Stem specialized in railway station design. At the time of Union Station's opening, the firm had 61 railway stations under construction across the country. Eventual collaboration on New York City's third Grand Central Station would secure their recognition as prominent designers in this specialized field.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, the area around Union Station and the nearby warehouse district became the subject of competition for nationwide railroad companies as the site for a new terminal. Interested railroads thus pooled their resources, acquiring rights to utilize the Northern Pacific Railroad's passenger station of Union Station. Construction of the new station was completed on May 1, 1911. It is estimated that between 1906 and 1914 the Milwaukee, Great Northern, Union Pacific and Northern Pacific companies spent $20 million in land acquisition and the construction of track and support facilities in Tacoma.

The completion of Union Station helped to ensure continued progress and growth in the city of Tacoma. A local newspaper heralded the station as the "largest, most modern and in all ways the most beautiful and best equipped passenger station in the Pacific Northwest." Tacoma residents enjoyed the status and importance their city had gained. Their new station was over 50% larger than Seattle's King Street Station and totaled more than 49,000 square feet. The Beaux-Arts style chosen for Union Station served as a statement of the Northern Pacific's importance and prestige in the fields of commerce and transport. The citizens of Tacoma received a tangible reminder as to the role their city played in the growth of the nation. On the opening day of Union Station, an estimated 20,000 people flocked to see the three trains, each a separate representative of the three railways utilizing the station for new services to other cities.

Tacoma's Union Station was designed to accommodate considerable future growth based on enthusiastic business forecasts by the railroad companies. However, railway ridership peaked in the 1930s with 28 passenger trains departing daily. The advent and popularization of automobiles would decrease railroad ridership until a final and brief-lived peak during World War II. At that time, portions of the Union Depot were utilized by the USO as a Troops In Transit lounge, providing a rest stop for military travelers, emergency sleeping accommodations, and activities for servicemen and family members in need of services. After the war, the decrease in ridership necessitated a reorganization of some of the station's public spaces. No longer requiring vast spaces for waiting areas, dining facilities and concourses, parts of these interior spaces were remodeled to provide offices for the Northern Pacific Company. With continuing change and development in travel modes, rail service would again be altered in the 1960s. Fueled by the merging of Northern Pacific and Burlington Northern into Amtrak, many of the offices in Tacoma's Union Station were relocated to Seattle.

Union Station was individually nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Continued neglect plagued the structure. In 1981, the rotunda was closed to the public due to leaks and falling plaster. In 1980, the Union Depot/Warehouse District, comprised of a seven-block area around the station, was also named to the National Register of Historic Places as one of the oldest examples of urban-industrial districts in the Northwest. At that time, the district contained 39 properties, with Union Station serving as the pivotal one in terms of scale, visibility, design and function.

In the early 1980s, Amtrak opened a new, smaller, passenger-only station approximately one mile southeast of Union Station. The last passenger train left from Union Station on June 14, 1984. During the following year, the building was abandoned by Burlington Northern Railroad and the projecting concourse was demolished to clear a path for the new highway spur to the east, I-705.


In 1987, Congress authorized and directed the General Services Administration to acquire use of the Tacoma Union Station for the purpose of housing United States Federal Courts. This project specified the restoration of the Union Station building and called for the construction of additional facilities to meet the space requirements of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Tacoma. This was accomplished through a new, three-story addition, constructed to the north of the historic Union Station building. The addition houses eight of the ten courtrooms in the complex.

The federal courts at Union Station began occupancy of the building in November 1992. The complete facility includes ten courtrooms and individual chambers for use by the U.S. District Court Judges, U.S. States Magistrate Judges, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judges, and the Western District Court of Washington State Judges. In addition, the courthouse houses the offices of the District Bankruptcy clerks, petit and grand jury facilities and law library, probation and pre-trial offices, U.S. Marshals office, a U.S. Congressman's office, and U.S. Attorney's offices.


The firm of Reed and Stem of St. Paul, with offices in New York City, was nationally known for their design expertise in train stations. At the onset of construction of Tacoma Union Station in 1909, the firm had already designed 35 stations along the Boston Westchester Railway. In Washington State, they were responsible for the Ellensburg and Yakima stations for the Northern Pacific Railroad, Seattle's King Street Station and Everett's Station for the Great Northern Railroad. Along with these accomplishments, the firm also collaborated on the design of New York City's third Grand Central Station. This, along with the St. Paul Auditorium Hotel, helped secure more work for the firm in the East, and led to their eventual opening of a New York office.

Allen H. Stem, the junior partner of the firm, was born in Van Wert, Ohio in 1856. After attending the Indianapolis Art School, he formed a partnership with J. H. Stern in 1880. In 1884, Stem moved to St. Paul, where his partnership with Charles Reed was established. Other works attributable to Allen Stem include the St. Paul Athletic Club, the medical buildings at the University of Minnesota, the Denver Auditorium and the Michigan City Library.

Charles Reed was a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and served as the executive head of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company Architects. This firm was set up to manage projects at Grand Central Station in New York City, and Union Station in Detroit, in collaboration with the architectural firm of Warren and Wetmore. Charles Reed died in 1911, two years prior to the completion of Grand Central Station.

Initially, the firm of Reed and Stem sought the assistance of L. G. Tong, an engineer, to act as site construction superintendent on Tacoma Union Station. Tong was from St. Paul, and had experience in reinforced concrete construction projects. Tong was replaced by John Lloyd in 1910. Lloyd's previous experience included supervising the construction of several central New York City rail stations. Union Station was completed under Lloyd, who later settled in Seattle.

The renovation and restoration of the historic depot building occurred under the direction of Tacoma architects Merritt+Pardini, in association with TRA , Architects and Planners of Seattle. The new courthouse addition was also completed in 1992 by Merritt+Pardini, in collaboration with the Seattle firm of Bassetti Norton Metler Rekevics who are the architects of record.

Description Architect
1928 ADD ELECTRIC SIGNS Northern Pacific Railway
1945 ADDITION OF OFFICES TO CONCOURSE Northern Pacific Railway
1964 BOILER AND 6,000 GAL. FUEL TANK INSTALLATION Northern Pacific Railway
1998 Roof Leak Investigation
2000 Reroof Depot Flat Roofs
2005 Reroof 1992 Courthouse Addition
2008 Depot Capstone Repairs
2008 2010 Exterior Limestone Repair and Cleaning
2008 2010 Exterior Metal Canopy Cleaning and Repainting
2008 2010 Replace Dome Lighting
2008 2010 Selective Interior Repainting, Brass Cleaning and Art Glass Cleaning
2008 2010 Rotunda Terrazzo Flooring Restoration
2008 2010 Door Restoration
2008 2010 Wood Window Restoration
2010 Tunnel Leak Repairs
2010 HVAC Modifications at Marshal's Area and IT Rooms
2010 Fire Alarm and PA Upgrades
2010 2010 Entry Door Hardware Restoration and Cleaning
Last Reviewed: 2019-12-19