Tacoma: city of destiny fulfilled

Tacoma is a paradise of cutting-edge culture that sizzles with its own brand of heat. This is a town that at the height of the railroad boom in the late 1880s was dubbed the "City of Destiny."

After the railroad extended farther north to Seattle, the boom ended, but Tacomans kept their new slogan, and since then they have tried to live up to it.

It's only been in recent years, however, that the city has begun to gain recognition as a "museum mecca" and a place with an undeniable sense that something exciting is happening.

Incorporated in 1884 with a population of approximately 5,000, this pioneer town is today the second-largest city in Washington, with 197,000 people. Located on Commencement Bay in lower Puget Sound, Tacoma - always in the shadow of its big sister, Seattle - has flown under the tourism radar screen for many years.

Word is finally getting out, however, that this city is a destination in its own right, complete with fabulous food, lively theater, eclectic art, turn-of-the-century architecture and, of course, breathtaking water views.

Yet, until recently, the 36 miles that separate Seattle and Tacoma may as well have been 100 to most people.

I remember hearing about the Washington State History Museum when it opened some years ago, and I stuck it in the back of my mind as a place to check out when I had the time. But I never got around to it.

And then the Museum of Glass was built, piquing my curiosity further; it, too, claimed a spot in the recesses of my mind. When the Tacoma Art Museum debuted in its own new facility a year and a half ago, that was added to my list as well.

On a drizzling midweek morning, I headed to the heart of downtown Tacoma where these three museums form an impressive triangle and anchor the city's cultural corridor. Linking them is the spectacular Chihuly Bridge of Glass and historic Union Station, all within easy walking distance of one another.

I began with the Washington State History Museum, a cultural monument and the state's "storyteller." This 106,000-square-foot building is chock full of interactive exhibits, walk-through dioramas, multimedia presentations and oral histories of those who put Washington on the map.

I specifically enjoyed the museum's permanent exhibit, Hall of Washington State History, which captures the stories and spirit of the state's native people, history-makers and everyday citizens. The emphasis of this exhibit is really on the realities of life, as experienced by those who worked to make this place their home.

Among the museum's treasures are an extensive collection of pioneer, Indian and Alaskan artifacts, the state's largest permanent model railroad exhibit, a full-scale replica of a Salish Plank House and - my favorite - a 900 square-foot topographical map of Washington that shows the state from its prehistoric terrain through the ice ages, volcanoes and massive floods to present development.

Although I could have spent an entire day at this world-class attraction, I moved on to the Museum of Glass. Visitors can enter this building from a parking area below the museum or from the museum's expansive rooftop terrace, which is linked to the city's historic downtown and the Washington State History Museum by the Chihuly Bridge of Glass. The latter route is definitely a treat for the senses.

The bridge is a unique piece of public art, developed in partnership by the city of Tacoma, world-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly and the museum. The 500-foot-long steel-and-glass pedestrian walkway features one of the largest outdoor installations of Chihuly's glass, valued at approximately $12 million.

As I entered the covered area, a dazzling display of colors surrounded me. From the 1,500-piece "Seaform Pavilion" overhead and the jewel-toned creations along the 80-foot-long "Venetian Wall" to the 30-foot-high, glacial-blue twin "Crystal Towers," this bridge is a masterpiece.

As I stood mesmerized, I never once took note of the fact that beneath me lay a busy freeway. Ahead I could see the museum's 90-foot silver cone, a working hot shop for glass artisans; to my left, in the reflecting pool on a terrace below, were Chihuly's "Niijima Night Floats." These large, colorful glass spheres are named for both the island of their origin and the smaller Japanese fishing floats upon which the objects of art are modeled.

Once inside, I headed into the Hot Shop Amphitheater to watch a team of artists blow and cast glass. The Hot Shop is a unique opportunity for visitors to get a bird's-eye view of the process used in creating masterpieces from molten glass.

The environment of the shop is dynamic and interactive, with a narrator detailing each of the artisans' steps and the audience getting, at any time, to ask questions.

The rest of the museum is reserved for its gallery exhibitions, a gift store, theater and art studio, where visitors of all ages can work with an artist to create their own artifacts. I was surprised to find that the museum showcases a wide range of media, rather than focusing solely on glass. When I was there, "Tools as Art: The Hechinger Collection" featured works from mostly American artists that represent or incorporate tools and hardware.

On the way to the Tacoma Art Museum, I stopped in at Union Station, the landmark, domed depot that now serves as a Federal Courthouse. Built in 1911, this structure was once proclaimed the most magnificent building north of San Francisco. With its massive Romanesque Revival architecture and copper dome, the station is an architectural treasure.

Inside, the rotunda, which is open and free to the public, currently exhibits four dramatic, larger-than-life glass sculptures by Chihuly and a series of his schematic drawings. The chandelier hanging in the center, entitled "The End of the Day," is a compilation of 600 different pieces weighing 2,000 pounds in all - one of the artist's signature works.

Right next to Union Station is the Tacoma Art Museum, the new kid on the block. Once housed in a small, former bank building, the museum now spreads out in a spacious new facility with 12,000 square feet of gallery wrapped around an open-air interior stone garden.

To move through the galleries, you describe a gradual ascent, always in touch with the art, until you reach the top level. There you find the museum's education wing - and on a clear day, so I'm told, picture-perfect views of Mount Rainier.

Tacoma Art Museum's permanent collection features Northwest artists and 19th- and 20th-century American, European and Asian art, as well as some early Chihuly glass. An array of creatively themed exhibitions and historical retrospectives fills the remaining gallery spaces.

At the time I toured the museum, one of the best collections of America's landscape painting from the Hudson River School was on display, as well as Seattle artist Scott Fife's sculptures. Fife's work explores American mass culture and is full of whimsy, irony and wry wit. I promptly fell in love with one of his most recent pieces, a 12-foot-tall puppy made of cardboard and drywall screws.

Tacoma has many other attractions to explore, including several smaller, more specialized museums, a Victorian botanical conservatory and numerous parks. There's great shopping on Antique Row, good eateries along picturesque Ruston Way and professional, high-quality theatrical entertainment in the Broadway District.

The downtown corridor is compact and easy to navigate, either on foot or by Tacoma's free light-rail system. Gone are the derelict warehouses and abandoned buildings of this city's past, and gone also is its gritty industrial image.

This is the new Tacoma, and it's got all the warmth I need on a winter's day.[[In-content Ad]]