Last weekend, we zipped down to Tacoma for some cultural enrichment and relaxation. Less than an hour south of Seattle, Tacoma is the second largest city in the Puget Sound with a recently renovated downtown, featuring the University of Washington, Tacoma, several museums, a beautiful waterfront, dramatic convention center, and the Tacoma Link, an electric light rail that whisks people to the Tacoma Dome and other destinations and transportation, including Amtrak, Greyhound and Sound Transit.
Opting to be tourist, we leisurely drove down to Tacoma, stopping at Shari’s for a large breakfast, complete with the Saturday paper and elderly waitresses with fluffed up hair who called us "Hon," and chatted among themselves about local events. It was a radical departure from our typical on-the-go breakfast of an Egg McMuffin and flavored coffee from am pm.
I’ve never given much thought to Tacoma. It’s simply another traffic jam to-and-from Seattle. It always appeared very industrial and bleak with the dull gray Tacoma Dome and lots of refinery and manufacturing-like complexes. I was pleasantly surprised, however, as we drove through downtown. I could hardly wait for Rich to park the car so I could get out.
In the late 90’s, the University of Washington (UW) opted to renovate some of Tacoma’s oldest remaining industrial structures for campus classrooms and offices. No doubt, the University architects received numerous accolades for their innovative approach to melding the old with the new. The campus is a brilliant and scintillating blend of old brick buildings, industrial pipes, new additions, plazas, and walkways that run along and cross railroad tracks that divide the campus.
The former Snoqualmie Falls Power Company’s transformer house became the campus library. The Mattress Factory and West Coast Grocery buildings, their names still painted on the rough brick exteriors, were gutted and made modern.
The building of the University spurred additional improvements in the area, including turning other manufacturing buildings into trendy lofts, added pedestrian friendly parks and light rail, and cleaning up the waterway from decades of industrial waste and abuse.
Within walking distance is the Museum of Glass, Washington State History Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, Union Station, Tacoma Trade and Convention Center, Broadway Center for the Performing Arts (three historical theaters), and many restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques.
We wandered around the area for an hour before the opening of the Museum of Glass. In that time, I used up a camera battery taking pictures!
Chihuly Everywhere you Turn
If you know anything about glass, you know that Dale Chihuly is "the man." His work has ricocheted glass blowing from collections in art connoisseurs’ cabinets to public displays that can be enjoyed by everyone. His pieces are imaginative, gigantic, fragile, and seemingly impossible to create. If you’ve walked into the lobby of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, you’ve seen one of his sculptures/chandeliers.
Having grown up and stayed in the Pacific Northwest, Chihuly pieces appear in buildings throughout the area from Lincoln Square in Bellevue, Washington to Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Walking around the UW campus in Tacoma, we looked up to see a dramatic sculpture of red glass in one of the buildings.
Tacoma Union Station, now a U.S. court house has many of his glass pieces. The large windows at the back of the station are dotted with large red, orange and yellow platters of glass, which resemble psychedelic jelly fish.
Hung from the rotunda is a jumble of curly glass forms in a multitude of colors. Many of his pieces take on this form and it’s a mystery how he holds them together. A similar piece is on another wall. This one has a circular structure on which the glass is wired.
A short walk from Union Station is the Chihuly Pedestrian Bridge, which spans six lanes of a freeway along with three sets of railroad tracks and a waterfront access route. Completed in 2002 at a cost of $3.9 million, the "bridge of glass" showcases more than $12 million worth of blown glass, created by Chihuly and his team.
Across the bridge is the Museum of Glass, which on the day we went, featured the work of Lino Tagliapietra, considered the world’s greatest living glassblower. At eleven, he started working full-time in the glassmaking industry in Murano, Italy. Sixty-three years later, he’s still creating art and exploring new techniques from large display pieces like those done by Chihuly to breathtaking, traditional venetian wine glasses, and large bowls and vases of varying colors and techniques. Unlike Chihuly, however, he seems to have changed his style every few years. What he produced in the 60’s is radically different from his later pieces. In a film we watched on him, they elaborated on his ability to constantly come up with new ideas.
The Tagliapietra exhibit comprised most of the museum’s galleries. The other half of the museum, the Hot Shop, is in a 90-foot, tilted steel cone. Inside is an amphitheater where you can watch glassmakers at work. Throughout the year, sometimes weekly, a visiting artist can be seen in the Hot Shop. The Saturday we were there, an artist from England (or maybe Scotland) was creating a black and white sculpture with the help of six of the resident glassblowing team. They were using three of the six available furnaces with one group making the base, another creating a vase and a third forming a strange stem that emerged from the side of the vase.
History Can Be Eye-Opening
Hungry after a morning of site- and glass-seeing, we hopped on the Tacoma Link and headed to the Tacoma Dome. Across the street, in old cargo warehouses, were numerous shops and small restaurants. An enthusiastic salesperson roped us into ordering from his Thai fish and chips establishment. Normally, we won’t eat fried fish, but his pitch was very convincing. And we weren’t disappointed.
Rich had a plate piled high with lightly battered fish filets with fries. I had two pieces of fish with a Caesar salad. It was very decadent and delicious!
Our hunger satiated, we took the Link back to downtown and the Washington State History Museum. I was anticipating zipping through the museum, but we barely saw everything before the doors closed. The more interesting exhibits were about "Hard Times and Homefront" and "Wageworker’s Frontier." The former showcased Seattle’s Hooverville shantytowns during the Depression, Japanese internment camps, and women having to join the work force, building airplanes for Boeing and other defense contractors during World War II.
"Wageworker’s Frontier" illustrated the challenges of utilizing Washington natural resources and related industries, including logging, shingle mills (very dangerous work), fishing and canning (primarily done by Chinese immigrants), farming (orchards and wheat), and mining in Roslyn, Washington.
The best part of the museum, however, was the traveling exhibit, "Art of the Stamp."It featured 100 small works of original art, which are used to create postal stamps. There were a couple of paintings by Norman Rockwell and other famous artists. The detail of some of the images was mind-boggling. Many took months (and several took years) to draw.
Our favorite stamps were done by Michael J. Deas and Mark Hess. They created miniature portraits that must have been painted with brushes, one or two bristles in size. Walter DuBois Richards has created 37 stamps and creates impossibly detailed drawings of buildings. Howard Koslow paintings are like photographs. It took great discipline for me to stop staring at his lighthouse paintings.
Our motel was south of Tacoma, near one of the many casinos that line the I-5 corridor. It took about 15 minutes for us to slip off our shoes, sip some cola then curl up on the bed and fall asleep! We woke an hour later then went out for Mexican food before calling it a day.
Zoo on a Point
The next morning, we drove to the 702-acre Point Defiance Park on the Puget Sound. Originally, a military reservation, the park was opened to the public in 1888. Along with containing the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, it has numerous formal gardens (Japanese, iris, Northwest native, fuchsia, rose, rhododendron, etc.), hiking and running trails, salt water beaches with a marina, pagoda and lodge that can rented for events, an old fort, logging museum, and much more.
We drove around the park until the zoo opened. We were one of the first to the gate and were greeted by an elegant peacock outside the gates. He was obviously very used to humans because he casually walked around even though I "chased" after him. The peahen was meeker and stayed in the bushes.
I was excited about visiting the zoo because it has two beluga whales that you can view from underwater. There are only four zoos in the United States that have beluga whales… and at one of those zoos, the beluga whales refused to swim where anyone could clearly see them! Let’s put it this way, we visited the whale enclosure twice!
Worse, the polar bear and penguin exhibits were closed. Half of the animals were in hiding and I only saw one large cats. Dumb zoo!
In fairness to the Point Disappointment [Defiance] Zoo, the previous zoo that I visited was the Fort Worth Zoo, which is huge, has many fabulous animals, birds, reptiles, and water creatures, and is rated one of the top zoos in the nation.
Next time I want to see animals, I’m going to the Vancouver Zoo in British Columbia, Canada! And if I want to really see beluga whales, I’m going to the Vancouver Aquarium.