Point Defiance Park History pavilion point defiance park
  • Point Defiance Park History
  • Point Defiance Lodge History
  • Point Defiance Pagoda History

U.S. President Grover Cleveland signs a bill granting Tacoma the right to use the 640 acres of Point Defiance, an undeveloped federal military reservation, as a city park. Without any amenities, only seasonal campers on the beach use Point Defiance as a park at this time.

Developers complete a streetcar line to Point Defiance Park. Tacoma’s Board of Park Commissioners hire crews to clear sections of the park near the Pearl Street entrance for gardens and picnic areas. Photo courtesy of Herbert Hunt’s Tacoma – Its History and Its Builders.

Work crews erect a rustic log bridge to link the garden and picnic areas at the entrance of the park with the old growth forested acreage near the Point. The bridge was dismantled in the early 1930s and replaced with an earthen roadbed.

The Board of Park Commissioners authorizes construction of the Lodge for park superintendent Ebenezer R. Roberts and his family. Built with peeled polished logs and a veranda encircling the house, the Lodge remained an official staff residence until 1980.

Work crews erect a rustic log bridge to link the garden and picnic areas at the entrance of the park with the old growth forested acreage near the Point. The bridge was dismantled in the early 1930s and replaced with an earthen roadbed.

A permanent zoo begins with construction of the first bear pit. Herds of elk, deer and bison were also featured in the park, a collection that developed into the present Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Photo courtesy of Jean Insel Robeson.

The Board of Park Commissioners authorizes construction of the first section of the Point Defiance Greenhouse, which served as a propagation and exhibition greenhouse until its removal in the 1920s.

Concessionaire Edwin D. Ferris builds an octagonal Pavilion on the Point Defiance Park waterfront, providing boat rentals, refreshment stands and a restaurant famed for its clam chowder and expansive views of Puget Sound. The Pavilion also served as the landing for passenger ferries bringing visitors for a day in the park. The octagonal structure was torn down in the 1930s.

The federal government formally grants title of Point Defiance Park to the city of Tacoma on March 3. The prime mover of this legislation is Congressman Francis W. Cushman, who is honored in 1925 for his efforts with a statue near the park.

The Nereides Baths open on Memorial Day. Tacoma’s first indoor swimming pool, or natatorium as it was then called, had Puget Sound salt water heated to 80 degrees and rental bathing suits, all for 10 cents. The Nereides Baths closed and the building was torn down in the early 1930s.

The Pagoda opens at the streetcar station, replacing an earlier rustic shelter. A luxurious amenity at Point Defiance Park, it featured a heated waiting room, a first aid station, and marble restrooms staffed by attendants who handed out towels during the summer season.

Development of the Point Defiance Park waterfront expands with a major addition adjacent to the octagonal Pavilion. This arched concrete structure, also referred to as the Pavilion, eventually boasted three stories and included a restaurant, aquarium and housing for park employees. Photo courtesy of Eric Swanson.

Federal work relief programs during the Great Depression – such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) – accomplish major projects in Point Defiance Park, including the restoration of Fort Nisqually and a new Boathouse to replace the 1903 octagonal Pavilion. The CCC maintains a winter camp in Point Defiance Park for two years, housing up to 200 workers. Photo courtesy of Metro Parks Tacoma Archives.

Funland Amusement Park opens on Memorial Day. Privately operated, this attraction provided an escape during the years of the Great Depression and World War II. The Point Defiance Riding Academy also opened in 1933, giving horseback riders the opportunity to enjoy the parks’ bridle paths. Both attractions closed in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of Eric Swanson.

Point Defiance Park, its forests, gardens and many attractions serve the World War II homefront as a convenient and affordable local getaway during a time of gas rationing. Army Air Force crash boat rescue crews were stationed at the waterfront Pavilion during the war years in the event of a downed aircraft in Puget Sound.

Point Defiance Zoo adds the Children’s Farm Zoo, exhibiting cows, chickens, rabbits, ducks and goats, encouraging iteractin with city children. Care of the farm animals was a cooperative venture between zoo staff and chapters of the Future Farmers of America.

Never Never Land, a children’s storybook attraction, and Camp 6, a logging museum, arrive in Point Defiance Park, operated as private ventures.

Metro Parks Tacoma voters pass a bond issue for wide-ranging zoological improvements, and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium focuses its animal collection on a Pacific Rim Theme.

A major fire destroys the Boathouse Pavilion complex dating from the 1920s. The Boathouse is rebuilt and opens in 1988 with expanded facilities for boat storage and rentals. An octagonal-shaped restaurant – now Anthony’s – recalls the original 1903 Pavilion.

Point Defiance Park continues to develop as Tacoma’s crown jewel of public spaces, fostering partnerships with horticultural, zoological, maritime, conservation and cultural organizations to ensure the vitality of this magnificent peninsula.

The Board of Park Commissioners approved $2,200 to build a residence in Point Defiance Park in 1898 for Superintendent Ebenezer Rhys Roberts, referred to as the Keeper’s Lodge. Designed by noted Tacoma architect C.A. Darmer, the residence permitted Roberts and his family to live in the park, where he could more easily tend the gardens, feed the zoo animals, and provide general park security.

E.R. Roberts and his wife, Mary Ann, had four young children who grew up in the lodge with the wilds of Point Defiance as their backyard. Roberts was such a devoted gardener that he gave three of his four children botanical names.

Writing a detailed account published in the Tacoma News Tribune in 1967, Trillium Roberts Insel gave a wealth of detail about the Lodge in the early days:

“The beautiful maple paneling of the “front parlor” and the library was a distinctive background for the fine furnishings and rare pieces of bric-a-brac so beloved as home decoration in those days… The décor of the dining room was a combination of handsome wallpaper and panels of royal-blue burlap. A grooved, polished plate rail held a collection of hand-painted souvenir plates from every state in the Union.”

Since the Ebenezer Roberts family in the early 1900s, the Point Defiance Lodge served as the residence of several Point Defiance Park Superintendents and Metropolitan Park District Executive Directors and their families until 1980.

From 1980 until 2012 the Lodge was used as a rental facility for private events and activities. In 2012 the Point Defiance Lodge become the Visitors Center.

Today’s visitors center is a place where park guests can tour interpretive exhibits, get information on special events and recreational opportunities in the park, purchase books, gifts and refreshments, or participate in scheduled activities.

Inspired by Japanese architecture when it was built in 1914, the Pagoda is the focal point of Point Defiance Park’s Japanese Garden. It was originally a waiting room for streetcars. Now this magnificent structure functions as a rental facility for weddings and other private parties as well as a venue for garden shows, lectures and concerts. Gardens surrounding the Pagoda feature pools, a waterfall, a picturesque footbridge, cherry trees, azaleas, and rhododendrons.

The Pagoda was built in an eclectic oriental temple style undoubtedly influenced by the recommended Japanese architecture of the Hare & Hare Plan of 1911. The official grand opening date was June 14, 1914. Initially referred to as “the Car Station”, the Pagoda served as a waiting room for the streetcars, with restrooms and first aid facilities on the lower level. Architect Luther Twichell designed the new streetcar station in the Japanese “Pagoda” style, which was considered complimentary to the adjoining gardens.

Newspaper articles, prior to the Pagoda’s completion, indicated the modern and luxurious amenities it would have. The women’s restroom would have easy chairs, couches, and in the summer season, an attendant to hand out towels and keep the facility clean. Men visiting the Pagoda would find a separate smoking room and marble lavatories. The waiting room itself was to be roomy with tile floors and walls, comfortable chairs and a fireplace to keep warm in the cooler weather.

Early photographs of the Pagoda suggest it was built as planned. Later used as a bus station, and then as a locale for garden clubs and floral displays, the Pagoda was meticulously restored in 1988 to look as it did originally, although the original waiting room furniture is long gone and the restroom facilities have been modernized. It was on May 9, 1960 that the Park Board voted to rename the Point Defiance Bus Station – …”henceforth to be officially known as the “Pagoda”.”

The Pagoda was damaged by an early morning fire on April 15, 2011. When the fire was finally extinguished and the building assessed, the Pagoda had sustained extensive damage to the roof tiles, exterior gables, wood beam interior and most of the furniture and fixtures. The community made clear that they valued the Pagoda as a community asset and wanted to see the building restored as quickly as possible. Metro Parks immediately sprang into action, hiring contractors to begin cleaning up the wreckage and planning the process to renovate the building.

After months of hard work by contractors, the Pagoda renovation is nearly complete. Great care was taken to salvage as much of the historic materials as possible. About two-thirds of the roof tiles, one of the Pagoda’s most distinctive features, were removed, cleaned and placed back on the remodeled roof. Molds were made from the old tiles to make the replacement tiles look as authentic as possible.

The upper level of the Pagoda will remain an open, inviting space to accommodate the same types of events that the public has enjoyed for more than 50 years. Upgrades include improved ADA accessiblity, better heating, a renovated restroom and kitchen improvements that include commercial-grade equipment and a new caterer-friendly design.

The lower level, which previously allowed very liimited public access, has new open meeting space, smaller multipurpose break-out rooms, a support kitchen, storage rooms and a renovated restroom along with ADA upgrades.

With the renovations, the Pagoda will return to its iconic status in the community and the added amenities and accessibility will make it a much more suitable and flexible venue for weddings, memorials, community meetings and school groups. A community grand re-opening celebration was held January 2013.

Japanese Garden
There may have been Japanese-inspired gardens in the area of the Pagoda even before it was built in 1914. Certainly after its construction, Point Defiance gardeners made more of an effort to design plantings in harmony with its Japanese style architecture. In 1963, a two-year project under the sponsorship of the Capitol District of Garden Clubs began to give the gardens a more characteristic Japanese ambiance. In the 1980s, the local Japanese community helped add a number of additional features that continued to refine the authenticity of the garden. A Shinto shrine and Torii Gate were re-located to the east side of the Pagoda in 1982. These features were originally a gift to the City of Tacoma from its “sister city”, Kitakyushu, Japan in 1961.

Through a special partnership with Tacoma’s Sister City, Kitakyushu, this garden will receive an updated design plan reflective of Japanese landscaping traditions and steeped in cultural heritage. The planning and fundraising for this project began in 2012. It will be at least two years before construction begins.

The Japanese Gardens are a work in progress that continue to reflect the rich cultural heritage of Tacoma.