Proposal to Make Cobblestone Streets Historic Features

Our friends over at Post Defiance last week drew our attention to a proposal to designate some of Tacoma’s remaining brick and stone paved streets as protected historic features. The proposal was approved by Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, and went to a public hearing yesterday.

The streets in question, the steeply sloping cobblestone blocks of North 9th, 10th, and 11th streets between North K and North G, were paved between 1905 and 1910 as a part of Tacoma’s early street paving program. The streets represent some (though not all) of the remaining original brick and stone paved streets in Tacoma. Some portions are preserved, while others have been patched with asphalt. All can make for a bit of a bumpy ride, as anyone who has tried to ride a bike down them knows.

The paving in question was designed for horse-drawn transportation. Even back at the turn of the previous century Tacoma’s streets were in poor shape; the residential streets were mostly mud, and many were impassable in the winter. Pavement worked on level streets, but it got slippery in wet weather. Brick also got slippery, and quality brick was expensive. Granite and sandstone pavers with curved tops worked best. North 9th Street is paved with 3.5” by 8” brick laid edge side up, perpendicular to the flow of traffic. North 10th and 11th streets are paved with 5” by 5” by 10” sandstone pavers, again perpendicular to the street, with brick gutters. The sandstone most likely came from the Wilkeson quarry. They had to be individually positioned by skilled workers to maintain slope and grade.

The Tacoma Municipal Code recognizes six criteria of eligibility for historic feature status. The application submitted by the North Slope Historic District identifies the streets as meeting four of those:

     
  • Is associated with events that have ade a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.
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  • Embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or represents the work of a master, or possesses igh artistic values, or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.
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  • Is part of, adjacent to, or related to an existing or porposed historic district, square, park or other distinctive area, which should be redeveloped or preserved according to a plan based on a historic, cultural, or architectural motif.
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  • Owing to its unique location or singular physical characteristics, represents an established and familiar visual feature of the neighborhood or city.

The application also dispels some favorite myths about the stone streets: they were not made of ballast from ships calling at Tacoma’s port, nor were they laid by exploited Chinese laborers (actually by skilled tradesmen recruited from as far away as New Orleans and Quebec, who made $6 a day: three times the going labor rate).

In submitting the historic register nomination for the streets, the North Slope Historic District representative notes that questions around standards for repair will need to be answered: if the sections patched with asphalt need repair, would it need to be restored to pavers? If new areas need repair, what are the standards for that work?

The knowledge and skills for creating these streets was not readily available in Tacoma in 1907. I doubt the situation is any better, and likely much worse, today.

 

The streets are historic. They show the craftsmanship and problem-solving of the early 20th century. They also generally fall into the category of “failed streets.” Are you ready to fight for your streets? What is your city’s history worth to you?

Read a more, including a more detailed history from Post Defiance.


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Comments

Dan H.

Before they get declared historic, someone needs to find a contractor that can actually do that kind of work and figure out what it would cost to resurface these streets which are already severely degraded.  If it is only twice as expensive as regular concrete, then maybe they should be historic.  If it is 100 times as expensive we may decide it’s not worth it.  It is not like they are a major attraction to Tacoma.  They are not in a place where a lot of people will go to experience them unless they live right there.

April 12, 2013 at 3:21 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Spencer

I’m all for historic preservation, but roads?  If the money comes from the same budget as fixing all of Tacoma’s roads, I say no.  If people in these neighborhoods raise the money to do it fine, but we have so many roads that need to be fixed, it doesn’t make sense from a transportation standpoint.  If we need to remember Tacoma’s origins, re-purpose the brick for a park sidewalk, or some other public space where it can be on display and appreciated.  Anyone who has driven on those roads curses every second of the experience.  Not everything that is old is worth preserving.  I would love to drive past a beautifully restored Luzon building, on a brand new road.

April 13, 2013 at 7:34 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Tom Llewellyn

All for historic preservation, but how about you do a little work preserving a few unhistoric streets first before my car disappears into a pothole. Seriously.

April 15, 2013 at 9:43 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Jacquie

I have driven on these streets. If the homeowners there want to preserve them, let them come up with the money.  Tacoma is not doing an adequate job keeping up the rest of our streets. We do not need to spend money on something like this.

April 15, 2013 at 5:14 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Dan H.

These are not narrow European cobblestone alleyways surrounding a medieval or Roman plaza in the center of town.  They are sandstone pavers in awful condition that front private residences. Assuming those streets ever come in line for repairs (unlikely, with the city’s finances, but who knows) the city should pay for the cost to replace them with conventional construction methods being used on similar roads around the city.  The surrounding property owners should have the option of covering the rest of the historic restoration with a local improvement district (<span class=“caps”>LID</span>) if they choose.  That would be fair.

April 15, 2013 at 8:02 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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