South Park History
South Park was originally a section of the Spanaway Lake and Flume Line right-of-way which was purchased by the City of Tacoma Light and Water Company in 1893. The city quickly abandoned the flume line for water supply purposes.
On February 3, 1905 the portion of the right-of-way now known as South Park was set aside by the city as a public park. The board of park commissioners wanted all stumps and rubbish cleared out from the new park by the end of the year so that South Tacoma could have a park equal to those located in the heart of the city.
Workers set about clearing trails and pathways, planting trees and shrubs and laying out areas for flower beds and benches.
A tennis court was built in 1910 and sprinklers were added to maintain the lawn and over 2100 plants placed in the flower beds. The 1915 annual report of the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma noted that “the beds of flowers and bulbs in this park bloomed as gaily as usual the past year. South Park becomes each year more popular for local picnics”. They also recommended that a ‘comfort station’ or restroom be built as soon as practicable in 1916.
Following the trend toward organized recreational programming, South Park quickly became the focus of daily summertime activities and special events. The Tacoma Sunday Ledger reported in September 1928 that of the South Park playground enjoyed a very pleasant season during the past summer. Close to 200 children daily enjoyed the activity and the restful green grass in this pretty park.
“The little folks found great pleasure during the hot afternoons doll cutting, circle games, coloring, and story hours always found a ready group. The older children spent their time with baseball, volleyball, and tennis. Croquet and horseshoes were in constant use. A nine-hole putting green found the hearts of most all the children. The evening programs were always interesting games staged between the boys and their fathers – known as “Dads and Lads”. Many older girls maintained their girlish figures playing volley ball and other games after their day’s work.”
Soon a wading pool, community kitchen, picnic tables, slides, swings and teeter totters were added. Swimming instruction was offered daily in the summer for all beginners, with evening classes for women. The “nickel swim” was a popular weekly event.
A 1939 report stated that South Park “occasions more favorable and complimentary remarks than any other park in the city…”
In 1941 the United States Army was looking for sites in Tacoma for the construction of United Service Organizations (USO) facilities. The park district leased a portion of South Park to the army for this purpose. By November the South Tacoma USO Recreation Center was well underway. The 58x112 foot building was constructed by the MacDonald Building Company at a cost of $30,000.
The facility consisted of a snack bar, kitchen, clubroom, library, hobby workshop, photographic darkroom, and a 3,000 square foot auditorium. Wilma E. Lewis was the USO’s director. It was her responsibility to plan activities and events and to oversee the Junior Hostess Club. According to the by-laws of the Junior Hostess Club, unmarried girls from 18 to 35 were eligible to apply to serve the “spiritual, educational and recreational needs of the men and women of the Armed Forces.” There were also strict codes of conduct. Junior Hostesses were not allowed to wear slacks unless leaving or returning from hayrides, cruises, or other outside events. No bobby socks were allowed except for special events. Stockings or leg make-up was preferable in the building.
The USO closed in 1944 at the end of World War II and the army leased the building to the park district for $1 per year to use as a community center. Two years later the army sold the building to the park district for $10,000.
Margery Davisson was appointed as the first director of the center. Being a former member of the USO staff, Miss Davisson was familiar with the south Tacoma neighborhood and was instrumental in organizing the neighborhood recreation advisory council.
The South Tacoma Community Center was the only large indoor recreation center in the park district. The center was considered to be an ideal center of recreation for all ages. On any Friday you could find 200 or more teenagers jitter-bugging, in conga lines or snake dancing across the dance floor.
In addition to dances, the center offered a full schedule of handicrafts including shell art, bottle painting, leather tooling, metal etching, ceramics, block printing, textile painting, photo tinting, and basketry. In 1947, shortly after the park district purchased the building, the South Park Craft Guild organized to offer an even wider variety of classes. Many of the handicrafts were displayed at events throughout the year. The center also offered drama and dancing classes for youngsters, athletic programs for grade school boys, and teenage and adult social outings. To help support these activities, rooms could be rented on Mondays and Thursdays. The cost was $7.50 for the afternoon or $12.50 for the evening.
Over the years, South Park Community Center was remodeled, enlarged, and continued to serve as the center of dance activity for Metro Parks Tacoma, as a rental facility, and a place to learn a new skill until 2012. That year Metro Parks Tacoma opened the STAR Center: a new, larger and modern community center adjacent to Gray Middle School and the Boys and Girls Club with increased amenities and program offerings.
At that time the community center building was leased to the Asian Pacific Cultural Center (APCC) whose mission is to bridge communities and generations through art, culture, education and business. The APCC represents 47 countries and cultures, offering programs and services honoring their distinct artistry, business protocols, history and social practices.
In 2015 South Park saw additional changes and improvements with the replacement of the old wading pool with a new spray ground and improvements to the restroom building. South Park continues to serve the South Tacoma community with walking trails, recreational opportunities and restful green space under beautiful mature trees.