He Came, He Saw, He Saved

What would Tacoma look like if Alan Liddle
had never existed?

The last of the legendary Christmas cards Tacoma architect Alan Liddle sent his friends featured Porky Pig stuttering, “That’s all, folks!” But that’s not all, folks. Though he died in May, Liddle’s legacy is all around you, in 150 homes and buildings for the rich and powerful and for common folks with good taste, plus the entire downtown skyline — whose rescue he led when it was due to be nuked by bad ideas backed by bigger money than the city had ever seen. Says Tacoma Art Museum director Stephanie Stebich, “We all live in Alan’s world.”

Photos courtesy of Tacoma Art Museum and Janet Liddle.

Even if they don’t live in a Liddle house, Tacomans live with his vision: somehow, the soft-spoken gusts of his activist wisdom reversed the wrecking ball headed for Tacoma’s historic downtown in the ’60s. It’s thanks to his quiet, stubborn persuasiveness that we have, in the twenty-first century, a Tacoma worth looking at.
What would have happened had Liddle never lived? “I shiver to think of it,” says Michael Sullivan, Tacoma’s former historic preservation officer, currently a savior of old buildings at Artifacts Consulting and a most entertaining architectural historian.

Liddle was hard-wired to rebuild the built environment around him. At five, he loved to transform the vacant lot behind his best friend Jack Tuell’s house into a grid of city streets. “He had a real sense of aesthetics, sort of an architectural sense,” says Tuell, a Methodist minister. “When we were ‘playing roads,’ Al decided we each should build a house. His was really nice, six or eight inches high. I plunked a boulder down and said, ‘That’s my house.’ He was furious with me! An architectural clod!” Liddle later forgave him and designed Tuell’s Lakewood Methodist Church.

In his teenage years Liddle took his increasingly sophisticated model homes to grownup architects for critiques; at thirteen he scored his first major coup — a model at Tacoma’s Better Home Exposition. At eighteen he won third place in the national Dream House Contest. Liddle went to Stadium High (which he later helped save) and the University of Washington, with fellow future Northwest School luminaries like Wendell Lovett. He made his name as the young project architect for Frank Lloyd Wright’s flawed Chauncey Griggs house in Lakewood.

Teenage Liddle with his award-winning model home.

“He worked with Wright — arguably the most bizarre genius in the history of the country,” says Sullivan. “Had it not been for Alan modifying the drawings, it would’ve just been unlivable.” Liddle fixed improperly engineered eaves and prevented Wright from imprisoning the family in a kind of cave behind a big, art-gallery-like wall — whose art would have been fried by big sunny windows without Liddle’s widened eaves. “Wright’s plans were absolute rubbish,” says Wright expert Grant Hildebrand. “He was busy with the Guggenheim. The Griggs House is really Alan Liddle — he made it architectural.”

On Mt. Rainier Liddle designed and hand-built a cabin for himself on a five-hundred-foot bluff. The structure made The New York Times Magazine and the cover of Sunset. His Lakewood home (now for sale) won a Sunset award. Awards from the American Institute of Architects would follow. A worshipper of architect Alvar Aalto, who designed the 1939 New York World’s Fair Finnish Pavilion, an innovative symphony of wood and light, Liddle surfed the shining Modernist wave. At the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, his startlingly nonlinear Plywood Home of Living Light (“Pound for pound, it’s stronger than steel!”) aimed straight for the future.

If his designs had the power to startle, Liddle himself was cool and au courant. “He drove a ’63 T-bird with a big-ass V8 in it,” says his nephew David Liddle. “He listened to Stan Getz. When I was ten years old, he gave me a slingshot wrist rocket for Christmas.” Not perhaps a parent’s dream present, but definitely a kid’s. “He introduced us to a world unknown.”

He introduced Tacoma to a world unknown, too. In 1967, he won a national prize for an influential slide show entitled Whither Tacoma? “They called this effort the War on Ugliness,” Liddle later recalled.

In the slide show, presented at the same meeting where Lady Bird Johnson unveiled her highway-beautification program, he railed biblically against man’s uglification of nature. “He makes it garish…he makes it smelly. He’s cluttering it…He’s becoming a slave to the machine.” Liddle smote Tacoma for its sins. “The city sits high on a cliff, removed and aloof from its harbor.” He preached, “Bridges should leap! Bridges should sing! Bridges should not leave us with a wasteland of concrete stumps.”
At the time, most forward-looking Tacoma city elders thought concrete was a yellow brick road to a blissful future (only this road was grey). It seemed only sensible to replace downtown decay with new construction at Uncle Sam’s expense. As it happened, explains Sullivan, in the late ’60s, Tacoma’s mayor Harold Tollefson was also president of the National Association of Mayors, and city manager David Rowlands was head of the National Association of City Managers. Sullivan says, “They were well positioned to bring in huge amounts of federal money to do traditional urban renewal.” Urban renewal in this context meant demolishing decaying downtown historic districts to replace them with high-rise Brutalist skyscrapers, massive Soviet-style parking garages, snakelike coils and octopus tentacles of concrete, shadowed by garish billboards. Liddle wasn’t about to let it happen.

Liddle loved sleek modernist glass and steel, but only in the context of old stone and brick relics. His vision was practically unheard of at the time: historic preservation as a marriage of past and present. “The old and the new — each benefits from the contrast,” he said in Whither Tacoma? “Our all-glass skyscrapers cry out for relief given by architectural treasures of the past. The reflection of one glass and aluminum building in another is a jarring architectural nightmare.”

Liddle sketches the future as a University of Washington student.

Liddle believed the city’s architecture should be an ongoing conversation between the past and the present. Sullivan explains, “The vanity of a single generation erasing the work of a prior generation in order to dominate with its own view just wasn’t him.” What you see downtown is what he envisioned — enlightened adaptations of the old into the new: the National Bank building transmogrified into the Tacoma Art Museum (with the Liddle Stairway from the parking lot, which he fought to include); Union Depot revived; old warehouses transformed into the University of Washington Tacoma (where Liddle’s donated papers now reside).

Perhaps one of his most invaluable works of activism was the landmark ordinance he helped to implement, which enabled developers to restore giant fixer-uppers without going broke. His preservationist creed is common wisdom today, but the 1965 earthquake had made crumbling old buildings look unsafe. “Vandals got in and stripped all the brass out of Union Station’s interior,” recalls Sullivan. “The roof was leaking.” Pigeons pooped like Flying Fortresses carpet-bombing Europe during World War II.

“I’m sure he was viewed as a crackpot from many quarters,” says Sullivan. “I mean, Alan never joined a big firm.” Yet his clients were a who’s who of big names, from Weyerhaeuser to Charles Wright Academy.

To achieve his goals he had to team up with some strange political bedfellows, especially during the 1968 reign of Tollefson’s extremist successor, Slim Rasmussen. “You had chaos,” says Sullivan, “a mayor who was kind of a wacko. He’d go off on tirades at city council meetings about how Communists were taking over the city.” Some of his followers were wackier still. “They were racist in brutal, way-out-there right-wing ways. They made Rush Limbaugh look like a moderate.” One extremist, talk-radio star Jon Gold (a.k.a. Fred Crisman), was subpoenaed by the pistol-packing JFK conspiracist district attorney Jim Garrison. “He still believed the Kennedy assassination was done by the Communists, and the conspiracy involved people here in Tacoma,” says Sullivan.

The just-finished Mt. Rainier cabin immortalized in Sunset Magazine.

Back east, these kinds of battles for historical preservation tended to be fought by liberals. In the nation’s most famous 1960s preservationist battle, New York’s Jane Jacobs prevented highways from obliterating Lower Manhattan with a coalition of power brokers (Eleanor Roosevelt, Lewis Mumford) and grassroots activists. In contrast, Liddle’s Tacoma warriors included grassy-knoll wing nuts and a mayor who refused to occupy his office, hauling his desk to the hallway because the mayor’s office was a few square inches smaller than the city manager’s. With friends like these, who needs enemies with millions of dollars?

But Liddle and company had to rally even their most ragged troops. “Those were the people who opposed urban renewal and clear-cutting. They were more sympathetic to the idea of holding onto older buildings and leaving the city the way it was” — because taking federal money meant accepting federal control, including human-rights commissioners battling racial discrimination (obviously, they were Commies). “Here’s Alan right in the middle, walking a very delicate line and keeping his integrity, keeping the conversation focused on urban design.”

To navigate this minefield, it took somebody with Liddle’s instinctive diplomacy. “He wasn’t screaming from the mountaintops,” says Sullivan. “He had a way, a certain charm. He was not a scold. He was entertaining in his critique, but he didn’t point fingers.”

“He was not particularly confrontational,” confirms Tuell. Hildebrand notes that the same restraint that made Liddle keep quiet about his true contribution to the Frank Lloyd Wright house helped him keep his cool in the Tacoma urban-renewal wars.

His secret weapon was his vast social circle — powerful people attracted to his droll character, exemplified by those eccentric Liddle Christmas cards. “He had a really funny sense of humor, sometimes sort of strange, and subtle,” says Tuell. Stebich says that when there were cost overruns in the remaking of the Tacoma Art Museum, “Alan said, ‘Just put the plans on the photocopier and reduce ’em by 10 percent.”

On the other hand, nobody can spearhead a movement without getting a sharp word in sometimes. Says Sullivan, “When Antoine Predock came up with the first sketches [for the Tacoma Art Museum], everybody else was, ‘Ooh! Antoine Predock, winner of the Pritzker Prize! One of the most acclaimed architects in the country!’ Alan reserved his opinion. He was never downright negative, but he was not among the blind followers. And I think the building wound up being a lot better for that. It’s one of the best museums of its size I’ve ever seen, in the interior, the way the galleries are set up. A triumph, a spectacular building. It’s not like what we got from [Seattle Art Museum architect] Robert Venturi, who felt like he could do no wrong. Alan made Predock work.”It seems what made Liddle successful was his openness to colliding ideas. The Mt. Rainier cabin changed over the thirty years he worked on it — each room represents a different creative experiment. “In his house,” says Sullivan, “a wonderful Eames chair will be next to an Eastlake table, a Morris Graves right next to a representational landscape. He loved to play with that contrast.”

When the American Institute of Architects made him a Fellow, the jury wrote, “Alan Liddle’s designs are both timely and timeless.” That’s because he always wanted to have his say, but he never wanted to have the last word.