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.
THE NEW FEDERAL COURTHOUSE
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.