The other day, I finally did something that I had wanted to do for a long time. And, actually, I think it’s one of the first things one should do if one’s hometown has one: visit the local historical museum. It was a sunny Thursday afternoon when I parked at the new Motor Avenue Plaza across from the impressive façade of the former Lakewood Theater.
Most of you will know that in recent months the old venue of the Lakewood History Museum on Mt. Tacoma Drive had been emptied of all its treasures so they could be moved into the new location – same building complex but so much more impressive! Even from the outside you can see the 20th century chandeliers brighten the lobby and the exhibition rooms. And once I opened the doors and stepped inside, I gaped. For it’s so much bigger than I had expected.
Now, the Lakewood Historical Society, which is running this non-profit organization, was founded only in 1998. Some concerned citizens of Lakewood had realized that in the wake of progress a lot of historical sites were either already demolished or in danger of being torn down. What history was left needed to be preserved. By the end of the first year, there were 60 members supporting the effort. One of the first projects were historical markers all over Lakewood. The museum was opened only in 2006 and had just one single display window that I often passed by, curious for what the current exhibitions were about. Unfortunately, I always passed by on either the wrong day or at the wrong time. But the window displays were always tantalizing and told some fascinating stories.
Since September, the museum has relocated to one of Lakewood’s formerly most formidable restaurant premises. The bars are still intact, taps and huge back mirrors included. Instead of bottles, the shelves in the back hold yearbooks from 1940 till today – and my kind guide, Bill, told me that these were happily searched for familiar faces by quite a few visitors. The front room is dedicated to Lakewood’s timeline with newspaper articles and photos of the Colonial Center, the “first shopping center west of the Mississippi”. Built in 1937, it was still surrounded by an almost rural community. No banks across the road, no hotel, clinic, or auto part centers. Each bay window with adjoining door presented one business – among others a hairdresser, a dentist, and a clothing store. The closed mall of Lakewood Towne Center would be built much later, and today we know that, for convenience’s and parking lots’ sake, not much of it (if any) remains.
You pass from a formal bar with beautiful upholstery through a partition of etched glass into the main room with another part of the exhibition. Here, you find documentation of Lakewood’s pioneer time with archeological finds from a school house and part of an old grist mill stone, a replica of a pioneer cabin lovingly furnished with period pieces. There are old letters in a vitrine. The corner dedicated to the Tacoma Races features race car drivers – and even a photo of a 1916 women’s race! Pretty much unheard of where I hail from, to be sure! The Lakewood Log, a formerly very popular newspaper, is remembered in a corner decorated as an editor’s office. And even camera technology of yore finds a niche in this versatile presentation.
Of course, I was very curious about the Lakewood Theater next door, and indeed, Bill took me straight into a classic theater lobby with two flights of stairs to what I presume might have been a balcony. The open doors afforded me a view of a curtained stage and screen, rows and rows of theater seating, and some once very fancy wallpaper.
Stepping outside the building was like returning from another world. A past that still is so rich with beauty and invention. And I am, oh, so glad that I visited and caught a glimpse of what Lakewood must have been before I was even born.
If you don’t know what to do with yourself on one of these upcoming long winter days, why not visit the Lakewood History Museum (www.lakewoodhistorical.org/)? Sign their visitor book and leave a donation if you can – they have a lot of work on their plate, and every bit helps a non-profit organization operated exclusively by volunteers. Opening hours are Wednesday through Saturday from noon through 4 p.m., except on bank holidays. Who knows – you might catch the history bug and volunteer yourself?!