Black and white photo with a man and two women at the Lakewood Players Theater, posed to show them hanging up a poster about an upcoming show. A historic image from Lakewood, WA

Lakewood History and Historic Preservation

Lakewood has a rich history. Read about that history and why it is important to preserve it here.

To learn about how historical landmarks are chosen and protected, visit the Landmarks and Heritage Advisory Board page.

To learn more about modern-day Lakewood, visit our About Lakewood page.

History of Lakewood
Historic Preservation
Landmark Registrar
Related Documents

History of Lakewood

Lakewood was called The Prairie in the beginning – an expanse of land about 20 miles square, dotted with small lakes and occasional stands of Garry oak trees. Steilacoom and Nisqually Indians used the Prairie as a ready source of food and held gatherings before the advent of the white hunters, trappers, and settlers.

This abundant Prairie, midway between the Columbia River and the city of Vancouver, BC, was chosen by the British in 1833 as the site of Fort Nisqually, one of the fur trading posts operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The bickering over the boundary between England and the United States was finally set at the 49th parallel in 1846. With the fur trade in decline and increasing harassment by American settlers, Fort Nisqually finally closed in 1869 and the United States paid the HBC $460,000 for its land.

Settlers began to set up farming on the Prairie. One of these farms, at the present site of Western State Hospital, was leased by the US Army in 1849 to serve as a military post following an Indian attack on Fort Nisqually. The new fort, called Fort Steilacoom, was used to quell Indian uprisings. Settlers from as far away as the Puyallup Valley used the Fort as a protection from danger. Indian uprisings continued over the land they considered theirs but was being rented by the U.S. government to the Hudson’s Bay Company at $50 a month. The Nisqually Tribe’s Chief Leschi became a tragic martyr when he was falsely accused of murder as a result of one such uprising. He was hanged on February 18, 1858 in a grove of oak trees near where the Oakbrook Shopping Center now stands.

About that time the first grist mill (1850), sawmill (1852), and flour mill (1855) were set up by Andrew Byrd in the area now known as the Chambers Creek Estuary at the north end of Lake Steilacoom. Immigrants began to arrive in covered wagons over Naches Pass in 1853 after Washington became a Territory.

In 1855, the Byrd School, the first schoolhouse built north of the Columbia River, originally built on the site of Park Lodge School, was moved just west of the Flett Dairy property. One of the first houses built of frame rather than logs was the Boatman/Ainsworth residence which still stands as the oldest house in Lakewood on 112th Street across from Clover Park High School.

Fort Steilacoom brought many Army lieutenants and captains who would make names for themselves during the Civil War – General George B. McClellan, Confederate General George E. Pickett, Union General Philip H. Sheridan, and Union General U.S. Grant who later became President.

McClellan was selected in March 1853 to supervise the survey for the location of the western terminus of the much-anticipated Northern Pacific Railway. However, the intervention of the Civil War delayed the actual construction of the road until the 1870s. Many small communities on Puget Sound vied for the distinction of being the western terminus. The selection of Tacoma was announced on July 14th, 1873 bringing about a thrilling drama centered on the prairie near Gravelly Lake.

As the railroad progressed within a few miles of Tacoma in September 1873, a financial panic caused the railroad’s financiers to fail. With the railroad’s solvency in question and payrolls in arrears, the construction crew made up largely of tough ex-miners from the Cariboo gold fields of British Columbia, refused to work; they set up barricades at Clover Creek, a station then called Skookumville. In a scenario that matched suspense movies of the Clark Gable-Spencer Tracy era, an engineer named Edward Slade “Skookum” Smith convinced the crews that the tracks must reach the western terminus during the time limitation set by the U.S. government. The future of the Puget Sound rested with them! The last spike was driven at 3 p.m. on December 16, 1873. The first train arrived at the pre-arranged point for celebration just 24 hours before the expiration of the charter.

During the late 1800s, the Prairie began to vanish. Homes and roads were built, with power lines at their side. The prolific Douglas Fir, no longer burned by the Indians, grew out of control. The land wrested by the British from the Indians, then the United States from the British, became the 42nd State of the Union in 1889. Indians and settlers were learning to live together, sometimes holding joint celebrations in the summertime on the natural picnic grounds of The Prairie. Contests of horseback riding often accompanied a good old-fashioned salmon bake.

Many stately homes were built on estates along the shorelines of area lakes, the most impressive being Thornewood, built on American Lake between 1909 and 1911. The Thorne Mansion, now renovated into a spectacular bed and breakfast, was once considered one of the most beautiful estates and gardens in the nation and often attracted illustrious people of the early 1900s. Another spectacular home and garden of that era is the lovely Lakewold Gardens and Wagner Home on Gravelly Lake Drive. During the Roaring ’20s, summer residents began to expand their lake cottages into year-round homes.

The Tacoma Country and Golf Club was established in 1894 to further attract the rich and famous. The first golf club west of the Mississippi, it featured trolley transportation from Tacoma to the playground on The Prairie. The Oakes Pavilion on Lake Steilacoom opened in 1923 and offered boating, bathing, and picnic grounds. In 1938, Norton Clapp converted it to the Lakewood Ice Arena. On October 10, 1948, the Lakewood Figure Skating Club bought the arena. In June of 1955, eight performances of The Ice Capers had 175 participants in the show. The roof collapsed in October of 1982, and the building was soon demolished to build lakefront condominiums.

Tacoma Speedway (sometimes called Pacific Speedway or Tacoma-Pacific Speedway) was a 2-mile (3.2 km) (approximate) wooden board track for automobile racing that operated from 1914 to 1922. The track circled the open prairie and drew racing greats, such as Barney Oldfield, Louis Chevrolet, and Eddie Rickenbacker. After an arson fire destroyed the wooden grandstands that were along Steilacoom Boulevard in 1920, the facility was rebuilt but failed financially and racing ended two years later. The site later became an airport and then a naval supply depot during World War II, and today is occupied by the campus of Clover Park Technical College and neighboring commercial sites in Lakewood.

Airplanes found that the inner grasslands of the racetrack made a fine landing field in the post-World War I years. Eventually, the airstrip was improved and hangars were built as part of the Mueller-Harkins Airport. The City of Tacoma used the airstrip as its commercial field for a time, and national air shows were held at the site until World War II.

Military presence returned when maneuvers began to be held on the Prairie starting in 1904. It was determined to be an excellent site that met all of the requirements of a new post and in 1917 Camp Lewis was built on land donated to the government by Pierce County citizens. McChord Field, now known as McChord Air Force Base, was developed from the old County Air Field in 1938. Both facilities continue to play a prominent role in the area.

Lakewood was beginning to take on its own identity during the 1930s and 1940s. As the Great Depression lifted, business development took off. In 1937, Norton Clapp built the first part of the Lakewood Colonial Center, one of the first suburban shopping centers in the country. The rest of the building was completed in 1951 and the East Building across the street was built in 1955.

A fire district was formed in 1942 and a water district in 1943. Between 1939 and 1949, the population of the Lakes District jumped from 3,000 to 17,000.

A decade later, in 1958, the Villa Plaza Shopping Center was built on the site of Visitation Villa, a Catholic Girls’ School, and retreat. Villa Plaza was later renovated to become the Lakewood Mall and has now been further expanded and upgraded to the current Lakewood Towne Center. In 1960, the Thunderbird Center, now the Oakbrook Shopping Center, was built on the site of another small airstrip.

As the area grew, other amenities were added. The Lakewood General Hospital that opened on 100th Street in 1961 has been demolished and was replaced by the St. Clare Hospital in 1990 on Bridgeport Way. The Flora B. Tenzler Memorial Library (now part of the Pierce County Library System) was built in 1963. A community project, it is still supported by a private citizen’s group. Clover Park Vocational Technical Institute grew as a war production training adjunct to Clover Park High School during World War II. In 1967, it joined the Community College System and has been renamed Clover Park Technical College. Fort Steilacoom Community College, established in a grocery storefront off Bridgeport Way in 1967 (known at the time as Albertson’s U) moved into portable quarters at its present site on Farwest Drive in 1970. Its doors opened as Fort Steilacoom Community College in 1974, then changed to Pierce College in 1986.

In March 1995, Lakewood citizens voted to incorporate as a city, passing with a 60% vote. In September, seven City Council Members were elected to form the city’s first government. William Harrison was elected by the council as Lakewood’s first mayor; and Claudia Thomas, the Deputy Mayor. Other original Council members were – Ann Kirk Davis, Colleen Henry, Jose Palmas, Douglas Richardson, and Sherri Thomas. Lakewood officially became a city on February 28th, 1996, making it the seventh-largest city in the state and the second largest in Pierce County.

In 1998, the Lakewood Historical Society was formed to capture the many stories of this rich history and hold them for future telling. The Lakewood History Museum was opened in the historic Lakewood Colonial Center in October 2006 to preserve this history.

If you look closely and listen, you will see the city’s numerous lakes, enjoy the shaded streets, and feel the exuberance of activity as citizens continue to enhance Lakewood. And possibly, just possibly, on a warm summer evening, you might hear echoes of the joyous celebrations of Indians and early settlers camping out on The Prairie.

The city of Lakewood would like to extend a special “thank you” to Val Dumond, Becky Huber, and the Lakewood Historical Society for this information; for more information about the Lakewood Historical Society please visit

Historic Preservation

Past Historic Preservation Projects:

  • Historic Street Signs: The City is excited to offer a new opportunity for our visitors and citizens to participate in history at a glance. In 2020 the City of Lakewood installed 73 historic street signs across 8 streets. These streets were selected by the Landmarks and Heritage Advisory board based on their historical significance throughout our City and region. The project was funded via a historic preservation grant received in 2019 by Pierce County. You can view a map of the historic streets by clicking here.
  • Reconnaissance Level Survey of Oak Park Neighborhood. In 2018 the City of Lakewood was awarded a Certified Local Government Grant (CLG) from the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP) to complete a reconnaissance level survey of the Oak Park Neighborhood. The survey was completed in the first quarter of 2019. You can view the full report by clicking here.

Benefits of Historic Preservation:

Benefits for the property owner

  • Special Tax Valuation: A local tax incentive program, reducing property tax for 10 years for qualified, locally registered properties.
  • Federal Investment Tax Credit: 20% federal income tax credit for qualified income producing properties.
  • Studies show historic properties within historic districts have higher property appreciation value than those not in historic districts.
  • Consideration in Land Use Actions under Washington State Environmental Policy Act review.
  • Use of special building code for existing structures.

Economic benefits of Heritage Tourism

The National Trust for Historic Preservation defines heritage tourism as “traveling to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present.”

  • Heritage travelers spend more, do more, and stay longer than other types of tourists.
  • Visiting historic and cultural sites is second only to shopping for people on vacation to heritage sites.
  • 1 in 3 international visitors to the US tours a historic or cultural attraction.

Economic benefits for the community

  • Rehabilitation of historic buildings creates more jobs and tax revenue than the construction of new buildings or roads.

A New Jersey study, Economic Impacts of Historic Preservation, developed conservative “recipes” for assessing the economic impact of historic preservation. For example, for every $1 million dollars spent on nonresidential historic rehabilitation 38.3 jobs, $1,302,000 in income, and $202,000 in taxes are generated. The same amount spent on new nonresidential construction generates 36.1 jobs, $1,223,000 in income, and $189,000 in taxes.

  • Rehabilitation results in more local jobs and businesses for local suppliers.

Due to the nature of rehabilitation work, it relies on local craftspeople and suppliers. New construction involves more off-site assembling that uses fewer workers and is often done out-of-town or even out-of-state. Of course, the income earned by these local workers and tradespeople has a multiplier effect on the economy since those same workers and business owners spend their money locally.

Environmental benefits

  • Re-using existing buildings eliminates unnecessary landfill waste. In 1996 35-38% of all landfill waste was from construction and demolition debris.
  • Demolishing a building 25’ wide by 120’ deep erases the recycling of 1,344,000 aluminum cans.
  • Reusing buildings and materials has two significant environmental benefits: it spares the resources that would otherwise be used to make new products, and it prevents the waste of resources that have already been fashioned into products and structures.
  • Investing in historic neighborhoods results in less sprawl.

New development requires the expansion of basic infrastructure and services such as roads, water, sewage, utilities, and fire and police protection. In contrast, by rehabilitating our historic neighborhoods and downtowns we experience growth without the corresponding increase in expensive services and infrastructure. Although services in historic areas may need upgrading, it is certainly less expensive, less damaging to the environment, and results in less sprawl than expanding services to new areas on the urban fringe.

Landmark Registrar

Lakewood Landmarks Registrar

In the city of Lakewood, there are several types of historic designations available to property owners: City, State, and National.  Lakewood has approximately 20 buildings listed on one register or another and many more have been determined eligible for Lakewood’s City historic register status.  There are two registers for the City of Lakewood: the Landmark Register and the Community Landmark Register.  The Landmark register status is the higher standard and receives some regulatory protection through a design review of any proposed exterior changes.  Properties listed on the Lakewood Landmark Register are eligible for tax incentives.

The Lakewood Landmark Register carries the advantage of potential local property tax relief, as well as access to information and guidance for keeping the essential character of historic buildings intact.  The Landmarks and Heritage Advisory Board (LHAB) currently has plaques available for properties placed on this register.

To qualify as a Lakewood Landmark, a property must be over 50 years old, have maintained its historic appearance, and have some historic significance.  Properties are added to the Lakewood Landmarks Register by an application that documents how they meet these criteria.  Following notification to interested parties, the City LHAB reviews each application at a public hearing.

Once a property has achieved Landmark historic designation, it becomes a Lakewood Landmark and the owner’s responsibility is to maintain the historic appearance of the property.  Any renovation or treatment to the property that will change its appearance must be reviewed for historic appropriateness by the City staff, or in the case of major changes, by the LHAB.  The City offers information and guidance on how to keep a designated property looking historic as owners move on to new or expanded uses as well as for durable repairs and maintenance of historic buildings.

Property tax relief is potentially available to property owners who substantially invest in the repair and rehabilitation of a designated Lakewood Landmark.  The Washington Special Valuation Tax program provides a reduction in property taxes for a period of ten years.  Additionally, historically appropriate rehabilitation of properties listed on the National Register can qualify the owner for a one-time Federal Income Tax Credit of 20% of the cost of renovations.

Lakewood Community Landmarks Registrar

Community Landmarks are honorary and not subject to design review, nor are they eligible for tax incentives.

Community Landmark Register applicants also submit their application documenting how the property meets designation criteria to the City, for review by the LHAB during a public hearing as detailed for the Lakewood Landmark process.  The difference is that there is no design review required for alterations for Community Landmarks, conversely, there are no plaques or local tax incentives available for Community Landmarks. If the property owner wishes to upgrade their status from Community Landmark to Lakewood Landmark and be eligible for the plaque and tax incentives it is possible and the City will assist in that process.

Related Documents