A closer look at the Cushman Substation

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Andrew Izzo

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Students heading to the shopping district on Proctor may have noticed a slightly-out-of-place-looking building on 21st street, between Adams Street and Washington Street. The imposing columns and stone façade may give the impression that this building was once a bank or courthouse, but the steel frames and electrical equipment give it away. This building is the Cushman Substation, currently owned by Tacoma Power, and recent addition to Tacoma’s Register of Historic Places as of June 6.

According to Tacoma Culture, a website hosted by the City of Tacoma, there are over 130 buildings on Tacoma’s Register of Historic Places, and the Cushman substation is one of the additions this year.

On Monday, Nov. 13, the Tacoma Historical Society met in the Murray Board Room for their monthly meeting featuring guest speaker Jeff Ryan. Ryan led the crusade to have the substation added to the Tacoma’s Register of Historic Places.

The event was well-attended by members of the Historical Society, as well as several students from the University.

“I’m a retired architect and I love the building, and so I thought, ‘Let’s find out some more about it,’” Jim Kuhlman, Member of the Historical Society and North End resident, said.

Ryan is a local architect and has been involved in preservation work since 1984. Cushman Substation was nominated as a landmark so the building wouldn’t be put up for auction once Tacoma Power leaves the site, according to Ryan. “It is ahead of its time for Tacoma,” Ryan said. He referenced it being unique for the 1920s in both architectural design and functional design.

Ryan presented information to the Historical Society that he compiled from public and private archives, including some from the University’s very own Collins Library Archives.

According to Ryan’s research, the construction of Cushman Substation started in 1925, and it was built using board-formed concrete, so the majority of the building is actually one solid piece of concrete. The station is named after the Cushman Lake Dam 44 miles away, built concurrently with the station. As part of the journey to the substation from the dam, the electricity travels along the longest free-standing cable in the world as it crosses the Tacoma Narrows, a total of 6,200 feet.

The design of the substation was intentional, and it was built as a monument to public ownership of power in Tacoma. The distinct portico that looms over the front of the building is actually a structural support to the wall behind it, not merely an artistic architectural choice. “It wasn’t necessary, but it was important,” Ryan said, when talking about the aesthetics of the building. At one point, Ryan pointed out during the presentation, the front of the building had ivy on it, evident in a picture from the late 1930s.

The Substation is still owned and operated by Tacoma Power, mostly for storage purposes. The building houses one of the largest cranes in Tacoma, carrying 50 tons.

As a result of the new status as a historic building, the substation will undergo restoration, though Ryan said an exact timeline is unknown. He expressed a hope that the building would be turned into a community center, and the grounds surrounding it would eventually become a green space for the North End community to enjoy.

Ryan attempted to preserve one of the large towers that carried cables around the tower, though he was ultimately unsuccessful. The towers that line North 21st street will be removed starting next year, and replaced with newer ones, according to the Tacoma Public Utilities website.

More information about the Cushman Substation, as well as a collection of pictures including those from Collins Library, can be found on the Friends of Tacoma’s Cushman Substation Facebook page.


  1. I want to thank you for writing this article, also. We have wondered about this distinctive building ever since we moved to Tacoma from Portland. Glad to know that people want to preserve the building; and to do something with the property for the community.

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