Temple of Music, Center of Yesteryear

— by Kim Davenport

In February of 1967, an article appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune and Sunday Ledger under the headline:

Temple of Music, Center of Yesteryear, Intact on Broadway
Features Included Stained Glass, Wine-Colored Carpets

Before I delve into more of the history of the grandly-named Temple of Music, a few paragraphs from that article will set the stage for today’s Tacoma music mystery:

* * *

“With all the talk these days about a proposed civic and cultural center in Tacoma, the city’s cultural center of yesteryear has all but been forgotten. The physical facility that was once the center of nearly all of Tacoma’s musical activities still exists in almost original form.”

“More than 300 folding, arm-chair seats are still attached to the auditorium’s sloping main floor and sloping, semi-circular balcony. The original, electrically converted gas lamps still grace a wall that gently curves around the rear of the auditorium. A magnificent rotunda of beautiful but decayed stained glass still adorns the ceiling. A small stage still stands lonely vigil before the empty seats. Even wine-colored rugs still cover the aisles.”

“Although the auditorium is located in the heart of downtown Tacoma, few Tacomans know of its existence. The auditorium is hidden from downtown shoppers and motorists. It is located on the second floor above a dress and music shop on Broadway. It is reached through a doorway at 945-1/2 that leads to a lonely stairway sandwiched between the music shop and a department store.”

The building as it appeared in 1964, courtesy of Tacoma Public Library.

“This forgotten auditorium was once known as Tacoma’s Temple of Music. Nearly all of the city’s important vocal and instrumental music teachers had private studios in rooms that are still in their original state adjacent to the auditorium. One of them was the eminent Olof Bull who taught violin for many years in Tacoma. All of these teachers presented their students in recitals held in the auditorium. There were also a number of small concerts held there.”

* * *

As the article goes on to explain, the building opened in 1905, and reached the peak of its activity in the 1920s. By the late 1920s, perhaps coinciding with the onset of the Great Depression, the building began to fall into disrepair. It is no wonder, then, that by the 1960s, there would be little public awareness of the sheer amount of musical activity which had occurred there a generation before.

My curiosity about the Temple of Music has grown over the past few years, as the building’s name keeps coming up in my research into stories from Tacoma’s musical history. And my curiosity reached a boiling point when I discovered a family connection to the building. And my 3rd-great uncle, Hiram Herbert Tuttle, an operatic baritone, kept a studio there from 1915-1930.


And so I have finally taken the time to delve into the Temple of Music’s story. I am thankful to have found the newspaper article quoted above, as we are without any satisfying photographic record of the building. The only existing exterior photos date from the decades after the building had already declined from its original glory, and aside from the grainy photo which accompanied the 1967 article, I have yet to find a single photograph of the interior.


What we do have, though, is ample evidence of the fact that a wide range of illustrious Tacoma instrumentalists and vocalists chose to use the location as their home base for teaching. From about 1910-1925, the section in the City Directory listing music teachers reveals dozens of teachers listing their address simply as ‘Temple of Music” – no address necessary, clearly!

And it’s no wonder: with its central location, in easy walking distance to streetcar lines, a multitude of music shops, and downtown’s biggest theaters, the address was an ideal location for an active music teacher to maintain a studio. Add in a well-designed auditorium on-site which could host student recitals, and it is easy to understand why many of Tacoma’s most prominent musicians chose to locate there.


The rear of the building, facing Commerce Street. 1963 image courtesy Tacoma Public Library.

But on to my next area of curiosity – who was behind the development of the structure in the first place? According to the Tacoma-Pierce County Buildings Index at the Tacoma Public Library, a certain D.S. Johnston was the “builder and designer”, working with a very familiar name in Tacoma architecture, Frederick Heath.

During 1905, progress on the unique building was mentioned several times in the newspaper, from the selection of a contractor for the project in May, to early July, when the “largest steel girder in any building in Tacoma or Seattle” was hoisted into place. The formal opening took place on October 16, 1905.

79eb8511-1202-4c7c-af52-0222d05e9141D.S. Johnston turned out to be David Steele Johnston, who was born in Ohio in 1835. He had already made a name for himself in the piano business in Cincinnati before moving to Tacoma in 1888 to establish what would become a network of piano stores throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Within just a few years, Johnston had established stores in Tacoma, Seattle and Bellingham – but Tacoma remained his hometown, as he worked again with Frederick Heath to build a new home on North “I” Street in 1909.


Johnston’s first Tacoma store was located at 935 C Street, but as soon as the Temple of Music project was complete, he maintained a storefront there as well, selling familiar name brand pianos such as Chickering and Kimball, as well as those with his own label.

Looking through the paper trail left by Johnston and his businesses between his arrival in the region and his death in 1913, his enthusiastic and prolific use of advertising perhaps leaves us with some sense of the ambition that would have led him to take on a project like the ‘Temple of Music’.

ca. 1908, courtesy Washington State Historical Society

One thing that is certainly clear is that Johnston’s businesses were financially successful. After the completion of the Temple of Music in Tacoma, in 1905, he jumped immediately into the project of an even larger building in downtown Seattle, at the corner of Third and University. The building, pictured below, opened in the summer of 1907.

Image by A.H. Waite, both a photographer and a piano tuner who worked with Johnston in Tacoma and Seattle. Image courtesy University of Washington Special Collections.



Johnston took out a full-page ad in the Seattle Sunday Times in August of 1907 to advertise an inventory-clearing sale as he prepared to move his Seattle operations from a previous location into his grand new self-named D.S. Johnston Co. Building.



In my earliest memories of downtown Tacoma, which date back to the early 1980s, I may have walked past the Temple of Music building when it looked something like the image below. If only I had known to ask my grandmother, a pianist whose teacher, Paul Pierre McNeely, had a studio at the Temple of Music during some of the the years she was his student, to share her memories with me. But who could have known that such an unassuming façade could hide such interesting musical history?

1977 image courtesy Tacoma Public Library.

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