By Blake Surina
Fircrest and University Place have a unique distinction; they were both planned and plotted by the family of George Washington Thompson. What is equally surprising is the influence and contribution of Fredrick Law Olmsted to the future of these two cities.
Who was Fredrick Law Olmsted? Only the most brilliant and reknowned landscape architects in the country in the second half of the nineteenth century. Among his accomplishments were New York’s Central Park, Morningside Park in Manhattan, and Brooklyn Parkway, (in fact it was Olmsted who coined the term Parkway). Other accomplishments include the design of the suburban community of Riverside Illinois, which Olmsted himself stated, “has gracefully curved lines, generous spaces and the absence of sharp corners, the idea being to suggest and imply leisure, contemplativeness and happy tranquility.”
This was the man the Northwest Pacific Railroad would hire to design downtown Tacoma, and plan for the coming of the transcontinental railroad. In the process of awaiting Olmsted’s design, the railroad temporarily abandoned his revolutionary concepts for the traditional gridded system proposed by ex-civil war General James Tilton, with tight right angles, four way intersections and wide parallel streets. They were looking for innovation, a way to put Tacoma in the forefront as a showcase city with a “resolve to have an individuality and assert it …” as reported by the editor of the Pacific Tribune.
With the help of an experienced sanitary and hydraulic engineer, G.K. Radford, the two embarked on a grueling six-week project to plan and plot the raging metropolis of Tacoma. Using nothing but contour maps and charts, Olmsted and Radford finished the design having never set foot in Tacoma. Just before Christmas, 1873, the residents of Tacoma had their first look at the futuristic concepts proposed by Olmsted. For many there was a feeling of awe and wonderment, while others greeted the plan with skepticism and cynicism.
In more prosperous times the plan may have been received differently, but with the uncertainty of the times, including the closing of Tacoma’s largest bank, and a depression on the horizon, it never gained the strong support and confidence it needed to make the plan a reality. The term “if you build it they will come”, did not ring true in regards to the birth of the “City of Destiny.” The expected population boom did not materialize, and the slow growth that followed squelched vital commerce and optimism of land speculators so important for the young city’s future.
Thirty years later with the advent of the second transcontinental railroad terminus coming to Tacoma, optimism was revived. One such land speculator was in infamous Major Edward J. Bowes and his partner W.A. Irwin of California, who saw tremendous opportunities for growth in Tacoma. After buying the property, then called Regents Park, the next step was for Bowes and Irwin to hire the man that would lay and plat out the land. M.R. Thompson, aka Roy Thompson was to be their man.
George Washington Thompson greatly influenced young Roy’s passion as an engineer and developer. Roy’s father is credited with platting and promoting University Place, and also played an active role in developing commercial interests in Tacoma. As a result Roy was well acquainted with the area around Fircrest, and while studying Landscape Engineering at Stanford University had many preconceived ideas on the development of ultra-modern, pre-planned, residential community. It was no coincident that Stanford University campus was planned by Fredrick Law Olmsted himself, and Roy was one of eleven upperclassman enrolled in the first year of the Stanford University with classmate and later president Herbert Hoover.
The similarities of the Olmsted plan of 1873 for the city of Tacoma and the plan of Roy Thompson for Regents Park was striking. It appears the connection with Roy’s father George Washington Thompson and the Olmsted plan was strong. George came to Tacoma from Iowa in 1882, on a trip sponsored by the Northern Pacific Railroad, (the same railroad that commissioned F. A. Olmsted to make the Tacoma plan). The railroad wanted to foster new business interests in the area and persuaded George to relocate his business to Tacoma. He quickly became an active member in Tacoma’s growing business community, eventually being elected as the second president of the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce. As president he most assuredly had access to the Olmsted plan created slightly over a decade hence.
As a young man Roy took frequent trips with his father to the west end of Tacoma and watched his father develop raw land as president of the University Land Company. Many of the ideas credited with Roy were fostered by his father, and either directly or indirectly from Fredrick Law Olmsted. The concept of open space and abundant park lands were Olmsted’s, and nearly a half century later Fircrest, became the only city in Pierce county that had the courage to adopt the radical and innovative designs of the Thompson family and Fredrick Law Olmsted. Fircrest had paid the highest tax rates for parks that any community in the state at $10.60 per year in the 1960’s. With nearly 40 acres of dedicated parklands and open space, Fircrest may well lead the state in percentage of lands dedicated for this purpose.
When young Roy was hired to plat Fircrest it was reported that his ideas were 50 years ahead of his time. According to James Osness in his book “Of Lions and Dreams, of Men and Realities”, Regents Park was thus declared to be one of the earliest developments in the United States to eschew straight streets and rectangular blocks, in favor of curved streets and correspondingly aesthetically designed blocks as well as some dead end streets.” If Roy Thompson’s vision was 50 years of his time, then Fredrick Law Olmsted’s was 80 years. It was Fircrest, in essence, that became what Tacoma was supposed to be.
Did You Know: Major Bowes of The Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour Fame donated the first nine holes to the Fircrest Golf Course. He later married the actress Margaret Illington, (from Bloomington Illinois) and purchased a hotel next to the Pantages that bore her name. Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour later became the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, and founded such talents as Pat Boone, Frank Sinatra, and Gladys Knight (who was only 7 years old when she appeared). During his show he coined the term “Round and Round and Round She Goes Where She Stops Nobody Knows!” Such later television shows like The Wheel of Fortune, and The Gong Show got their conceptual ideas from the Major Bowes. Both Ted Mack and Major Bowes died on the eve of their 72nd birthdays.
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