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Music, rooted in the history of Tacoma's theater district, returns to C.N. Gardner building

KNKX occupies the historic C.N. Gardner building at 930 Broadway in Tacoma's theater district, a neighborhood with a storied past.
Parker Miles Blohm
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KNKX
KNKX occupies the historic C.N. Gardner building at 930 Broadway in Tacoma's theater district, a neighborhood with a storied past.

If you were in Tacoma in the early 1900s, you might have been able to score a ticket to hear opera singer Enrico Caruso. Or see a famous choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky, dancing on stage with the Ballet Russe. 

When the historic C.N. Gardner Building was built in 1906 — KNKX’s new home at 930 Broadway — downtown Tacoma was at the heart of a thriving music and theater scene.

Authors and speakers also passed through back then, among them Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling.

Historian Michael Sullivan says it’s hard to overstate just what a cultural hub Tacoma was at that time.

“By 1910, there were 10,000 theater seats on any given night,” Sullivan said. Specifically, 10,000 theater seats in a city of just 60,000 people.

Tacoma was riding high.

It started back in the 1870s, when Tacoma successfully vied to become the western terminus for the transcontinental Northern Pacific railroad, beating out other cities that really wanted it, including Seattle. With the railroad came people and money.

A grand opera house was built at Ninth and Broadway. Other theaters popped up around it. And, Sullivan says, it wasn’t all highbrow entertainment. There were acrobats, magicians, rough and tumble music halls.

“And then we had the more naughty stuff going on,” he said, “the burlesque houses.” 

And, on the edge of it all, a red light district. But even the brothels hired piano players. 

This flourishing theater district meant there was a lot of work for artists and musicians.

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A historic shot of the C.N. Gardner building, which was built in 1906. It's the new Tacoma home for KNKX Public Radio.

Amid the bustle, an entrepreneur named C.N. Gardner saw opportunity. There was a need for sheet music, and musical instruments and somebody to maintain them. He teamed up with a guy named A.A. Taylor, who knew the music side of things. Together, they hired a prominent architect who designed the three-story Gardner building on Broadway, home to KNKX’s new studios.

The building opened as a high-end music store in 1906, catering mostly to the professional musicians. You could find sheet music on the second floor. 

“The ground floor was primarily instruments,” Sullivan said. “There was a huge Otis elevator to be able to lift Steinway pianos.”

And that was a big deal. Most  three-story buildings in that era didn’t have elevators.

As technology changed and recorded music became a thing, Sullivan says, so did the music store. It became more of a retail outlet.

“By 1915, 1920, when everyone had electricity, you start to have home entertainment,” Sullivan said.

So, the Gardner building retail outfit started selling phonographs and records, as well as instruments. Listening rooms allowed customers to “try before you buy.”

Those changes meant less of a market for live music. The orchestras at silent movie houses disappeared. The theater district started to fade.

The interior Corinthian columns remain in the historic C.N. Gardner building, KNKX's new Tacoma home that was built in 1906.
Credit Kari Plog / KNKX
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KNKX
The interior Corinthian columns remain in the historic C.N. Gardner building, KNKX's new Tacoma home that was built in 1906.

Then, the Depression hit. The music store at the Gardner building close in 1935. War erupted.

Following World War II, as people moved to the suburbs, downtowns like Tacoma’s declined. A Payless drugstore, which moved into the old music store space, eventually closed and the building sat empty for 25 years.

Now, with the theater district experiencing something of a revival, music has returned to the historic Gardner building. KNKX started broadcasting from Broadway earlier this month.

“You know, the expression of 1906 was still here in this building,” Sullivan said. “And the ghosts of the theater district were still haunting the building, so it was just waiting.”

Apparently, waiting for us.

Paula reports on groundbreaking legal decisions in Washington State and on trends in crime and law enforcement. She’s been at KNKX since 1989 and has covered the Law and Justice beat for the past 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.