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Tacoma's Vernacular Architecture

Written by Corin Fayé

Originally published in the Eureka Times, 2009 Spring issue

Updated for blog publication in 2020 by: Holly Stewart, Program Manager

This is the second in a three-part series about Tacoma's Victorian architectural styles, especially in the Old Town neighborhood. The first post is available here. The third post is available here.

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The Seaman's Rest Mission on N Carr Street is an example of vernacular architecture in Tacoma's Old Town neighborhood. Built in 1883, it was designed based on the needs of the community using local materials. Local craftspeople were involved in the construction, likely without the supervision of professional architects. Photo ca. 1897, Source: Seaman's Rest Collection.

Vernacular Architecture in Tacoma

It can be very difficult to categorize Victorian houses. One style evolved into the next, often with considerable overlap and blending of styles. The Victorian era drew on innumerable fads of the past, from Gothic to neoclassical, from French Renaissance and Second Empire to Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Italian and French baroque details. Tacoma was founded on the cusp of the great expansion of the middle class, as well as new advances made in machine-made woodwork and balloon-frame houses. The cost of building houses was considerably lower than in any previous time, particularly in cities like Tacoma that had an abundance of lumber. Sawmills could create dozens upon dozens of various filigrees and appliques with which the upwardly-mobile middle class could decorate its houses.

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The Olaf Carlson House on N 26th St is another example of vernacular Victorian architecture in Old Town Tacoma.

It was built about 1900 with materials from the original owner's shingle mill, Carlson Brothers Mill.

Of course, Tacoma's houses were never as profuse, and perhaps not as busy-looking, as San Francisco's famous Painted Ladies. Tacoma certainly had its affluent neighborhoods, and streets like Yakima and Tacoma Avenues are a parade of quintessential high styles. These houses of the wealthy were often designed and built independently, with great care and attention to detail. In the meantime, on less grand streets, Victorian houses for the middle and working class were built in what is called the "vernacular." In housing terms this means uniform houses built according to practical patterns. They were literally "for the people," and while no less Victorian than their more distinguished progenitors, they had a plainer, simpler appearance. In subsequent years, after the decline of Victorianism, many vernacular houses had their detailing removed. Tacoma has a great many vernacular Victorians sprinkled throughout the North End.

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The Beals Duplex on N McCarver St is an example of the West Coast Stick style of architecture.

Curtis A. Beals was the architect, builder, and first resident of this 14-room home.

Photo ca. 1977, courtesy of Tacoma Public Library.

Stick Style

The Stick, or Eastlake, style of Victorian architecture tends to include extravagant detailing expressed in geometric patterns emphasized by the use of rectilinear decorations on stacked bay windows. The heyday of the Stick style was in the 1880s. It served as a transition between the Italianate and the Queen Anne styles.

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The Beals Duplex was designed and constructed in 1887-1888. The building was placed on the Tacoma Register of Historic Places in 2017.

Learn more about Tacoma's Queen Anne style of architecture in our next post.

Learn more about the historic homes in Tacoma's Old Town neighborhood in this video tour,

a partnership of Job Carr Cabin Museum and Historic Tacoma, with support from Tacoma Creates.


Delehanty, Randolph. In the Victorian Style. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991.

Sommer, Robin Langley. The Victorian House. Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books, 1999.

Swope, Caroline T. Classic Houses of Seattle: High Style to Vernacular, 1870-1950. Portland, OR: Timber Press, Inc., 2005.

About the Author

In 2008, the museum welcomed Corin Fayé as a new volunteer. He came to the museum through his volunteer work with AmeriCorp where he spent his days working with kids who struggled to read. With his love of research, reading and writing -- combined with his BA in English from Whitworth University -- he was a perfect fit to spend some of his evening hours working as our "library lion." We were fortunate to have him as a regular research contributor.