Skip to content
Wandering in glass gardens
If you've never heard of Dale Chihuly, you must not know Tacoma. That's understandable, because the city is easily overlooked and underestimated, nestled as it is south of Seattle and bordered on three sides by extensions of Puget Sound.
On some maps of Seattle and Vicinity, Tacoma is part of the Vicinity.
But it has that native son named Dale Chihuly, the man who turns out startling art made entirely of glass or glasslike substances. Exhibits of his work - enormous flowers, gaily colored vases, abstract sculptures - have been permanently installed or temporarily exhibited all over the world.
Remember that lobby ceiling at the Bellagio Resort in Las Vegas, the one that looks like an upside-down garden with over-fertilized blooms? Dale Chihuly did that.
Still, it surprised me as I drove up Interstate Highway 705 and into downtown Tacoma that one overpass would sport two enormous crystal towers, jagged, transparent and as blue as the front of an Alaskan glacier. Chihuly made those, too.
For a newcomer, the towers almost constitute a traffic hazard. They make it hard to shift the eyes back onto the road.
In Tacoma, the art is hard to miss, and culture abounds: symphony, theater, opera, higher education, historic landmarks.
I managed to spend a few days here without ever feeling drawn to Seattle and its charms, even though Latte Land (as it's sometimes called) is only 31 miles up the road. Seattle will stay awake for another time. Tacoma commands full attention.
Consider the glass. Chihuly's Crystal Towers are best contemplated by walking across the pedestrians-only Bridge of Glass, which crosses the freeway and Dock Street. The bridge itself, the infrastructure, is made out of ordinary bridge stuff, but overhead and along the sides are scores of fantastic and rainbow-dipped forms that might be exotic plants, or containers holding psychedelic potions, or magic lanterns holding wild and crazy genies.
I crossed the Bridge of Glass slowly, because it offers so much to see, 500 feet of wonders all along the sides and overhead, every piece protected by plates of ... what else? Well, maybe some sort of plastic.
Not surprisingly, my stroll led to the Museum of Glass, a low-slung building distinguished by what appears to be an enormous smokestack similar to the ones that ocean liners carry on their backs. I considered the stack an interesting architectural feature, contrasting with the nearby Crystal Towers and echoing the modernistic 21st Street suspension bridge that spans Thea Foss Waterway.
I soon learned the smokestack has more than a decorative purpose. A few feet inside the Museum of Glass entrance, I found the Hot Shop and the broad interior of the smokestack. It really is a smokestack, and it's large enough to hold an amphitheater with a grandstand facing six open furnaces. There, a small band of glass-blowers and shapers were forming molten glass into beautifully colored shoots of bamboo, each one 8 feet tall.
Visiting artist Jean-Pierre Canlis led the project, and a museum docent holding a microphone explained to the 20 people in the audience what the team was doing. Her words bounced around the vast chimney, and the furnaces roared.
Some 90 feet above her head, I could see an opening and a circle of sky.
Anyone who thinks artistic creation is somewhat effete should visit the Hot Shop and see the sweating, begoggled glass workers turning red-hot blobs into aesthetically pleasing objects.
Elsewhere in the Museum of Glass, traveling exhibits in three large galleries demonstrated the amazing creations of Ginny Ruffner, who regards creativity as "a flowering tornado"; Paul Stankard's exquisite miniature flowers and insects; and assorted glass expressions of whimsy, myth and mystery by a variety of other artists.
That was late last year. Those exhibits have moved on, to be replaced by crystal torsos and costumes molded by Karen LaMonte - somehow - on real people, plus a collection of Czech glass pieces designed from 1945 through 1980.
On the other side of the Bridge of Glass, Tacoma offers a lot of attractions in a 21st century downtown that seems to be busting out from whatever was there before.
My brand-new hotel, the Marriott, still had vestiges of construction scrap around its lower regions. Behind it, the glass-and-stainless-steel convention center appeared to be fresh from the wrapper.
Across Pacific Avenue, the Beaux Arts-style Union Station certainly appeared old-fashioned with its imposing glassed-in arches and sturdy brick walls. But inside, it's a federal courthouse, festooned with more Chihuly glass.
Next door, the Washington State History Museum all but mirrors the Union Station architecture - arches, bricks, etc. - and then plays all the delightful tricks that an up-to-date museum should. Almost everything is hands-on and interactive, life-size or outsize.
Washington State has a lot of trees. An unimaginative curator could put that on a label under a photo of Douglas firs. Instead, far more dramatically, this museum commissioned a full-sized, free-standing tree, its branches laden with almost any object made from wood - tools, toys, chairs, chests, toilet seats ...
A cutaway depicts the ups and downs of the Columbia River, and a caption mentions that its basalts are 6 million to 15.6 million years old. Huge photos show World War II fighting ships and airplanes under construction. Crates of lifelike (but plastic) Pacific salmon stand near a filleting machine. Indian costumes, ceremonial and everyday, are hung with artistic flair.
I wandered for hours, moving from a life-size diorama of a Lewis & Clark encampment to a full-size Northern Pacific passenger car holding an immigrant family and then on to a tin and scrap-lumber shack. Of course, there were plenty of educational television monitors and displays that come alive at the touch of a button.
It was too late in the day for grade-school field-trippers, so I had the fifth-floor electric trains all to myself. Freights and passenger liners barreled through masterfully detailed towns and mountainous countryside - Washington State commerce on the run and looking dynamic, thanks to the Puget Sound Model Railroad Engineers Club.
That kept me going almost till closing time. From there, I crossed Pacific onto the campus of Washington University-Tacoma, a new-but-old collection of classrooms, laboratories and lecture halls installed in former factories, stores, office buildings and warehouses.
On a rainy afternoon, that part of downtown had just the proper Pacific Northwest feel. Students - hoods up, umbrellas open - ran into and out of buildings with faded signs that said Washington Machine Depot or Slumberlite (mattresses), or Harmon Manufacturing Co. (furniture). Besides University of Washington facilities, some parts of campus structures had been refitted for cafes, a coffee shop, art galleries and a beauty salon.
Back across Pacific Avenue on another day, I found the Tacoma Art Museum to be ultra-modern and exploding with color. Some of its showcases hold more vases and things by Dale Chihuly, pieces perhaps too fragile and precious for the Bridge of Glass or a casino ceiling.
After I walked through a traveling exhibit of photographs by Margaret Bourke-White, my notes became pencil scratches, barely legible, because a young gallery guard told me politely, "We do not allow pens in here." She smiled and handed me a pencil.
Let's see, a nice Edward Hopper called "Methodist Church," a couple of Eugene Boudin landscapes, an Auguste Renoir ... a big-league collection (to keep things short), including abstractions. One artist, Michael Brophy, paints images of the Pacific Northwest - real and surreal - with fished-out rivers and landscapes destroyed or rejuvenated through human intervention. Maybe I'm getting it wrong, but I came away from his work with the feeling that his message is something like this: People and the rest of nature are in a constant battle, and the rest of nature is barely hanging on.
One morning, I decided to shake loose from the Museum District and venture farther out into the city. My first stop was another museum, but one a little more removed from downtown. The Karpeles Manuscript Museum occupies a former American Legion Post in a residential neighborhood that faces Wright Park.
The museum is part of a project started in 1979 by real estate investor Dave Karpeles. He has collected more than one million rare and significant documents, and exhibits them at eight museums scattered across the country.
In the Tacoma branch, documents marking the end of the Civil War were on display, including the Confederate constitution, Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the surrender signed by Jefferson Davis and Lincoln's death certificate from the State of Illinois, Sangamon County. Protective cases all around the dimly lit room held scores of other original documents, such as the Vicksburg surrender, various contracts and post-war amnesty papers.
I had no time to read everything, of course, but just to see them, some with elegant calligraphy, others scratched and nearly illegible with words crossed out, made me feel as if I had stepped into a time warp.
Elsewhere, a cabinet held a typewritten page from Orson Welles' 1938 "War of the Worlds" radio drama, and another had part of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" manuscript. At the Karpeles Museum, a piece of sheet music from the entre' act of "La Vie Parisienne" is in the same room as Benjamin Harrison's 1892 proclamation making Columbus Day a federal holiday.
Later this winter, curator Tom Jutilla told me, the Civil War-ending documents would be replaced by writings by and about women in aviation. The museum has too much material to show it all at once.
Jutilla brought out a few items from storage, all in transparent envelopes. "This is the captain's log for the Carpathia, the ship that came to the rescue of Titanic passengers," he said. "This is Stalin's arrest record for civil disobedience. This is writing by Helen Keller. She used a block of wood behind the paper so she could feel the raised lettering. This is Richard Nixon's resignation letter. It says, 'I hereby resign the office of President of the United States. Sincerely, Richard Nixon.' "
Jutilla had more, of course, but I was beginning to forget what year it was and said I had to push on. Before I left, Jutilla explained that many well-heeled collectors have made manuscripts available for public viewing in the Karpeles Museums around the country.
"History should be shown to the people," he said, "and that's where we're very fortunate that the Karpeleses were able to take these manuscripts and show them. A lot of manuscripts are bought up (by other collectors) and never seen again."
Contrary to popular conception, the Pacific Northwest doesn't have a calendar completely filled with rainy "museum days." In fact, this day was sunny, so I stayed outdoors for awhile. I drove out to the tip of Point Defiance Park and gazed out on the notch of Pacific Ocean called Puget Sound.
Point Defiance has a charming zoo and beautiful beaches, but I found more contentment in Wright Park, a little slice of greenery across from the Karpeles Museum. I walked there for awhile and thought about how even a small park helps to round the edges of a city and make it more livable.
If you go
The Tacoma Regional Convention and Visitor Bureau, 1119 Pacific Ave., 5th floor, Tacoma, WA 98402; (800) 272-2662. Its Web site, www.traveltacoma.com, links to museums and other attractions for the latest on exhibits, opening hours and admission fees. The site also offers lodging, dining and entertainment listings.