Published on September 26th, 2013 | by Daniel Rahe


A Brace for Tacoma’s Giant Totem and My Weak Spine

I did something I regret yesterday. I am a commissioner on the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, and we met yesterday to vote on a design for the structural stabilization of the historic giant totem pole in Fireman’s Park. For more background, here’s the News Tribune’s version of the story.

We were presented with three design options, all variations on the same concept: a support pole of similar height will be braced to the totem pole by two steel arms and long bolts, as shown below.

(Courtesy of PCL)

(Courtesy of PCL)

Later, treatments will be applied to the surface of the totem pole to strengthen and preserve the wood. The virtues of all three variations were discussed in detail with city staff. The commission approved one of the designs after that lengthy discussion.

I abstained from the vote.

I didn’t vote ‘yay’ because there was a problem I just could not get past: despite studious review and discussion of steel dimensions, I wasn’t sure any of these three designs were the perfect solution for Tacoma’s totem pole. Like too many things at City Hall, all three options we were shown struck me as a bit rushed, late, unimpressive, bargain-basement, and make-do. I got the feeling we were there to help clean an item off a to-do list.

With a price tag of about $40,000, I expected to be impressed with a top-of-the-line, thoughtful, carefully tailored plan. Instead, what we got was simply adequate. It was okay. Pretty good even. But it was not impressive and we were left to wonder if there were considerations for vertical loading, corrosion, unseemly bore exposure, and wood-fiber expansion.These are things that matter when one considers how best to brace a very old totem pole. And the data simply wasn’t there for us to see.

Travelling performers pose near the totem pole (image courtesy of Tacoma Public Library)

Travelling performers pose near the totem pole (image courtesy of Tacoma Public Library)

Honestly, despite my reservations, these brace designs represent very nearly the best solution to the problem.

The damn thing isn’t going to last forever, and it’s hardly worth getting worked up about which intrusive method of stabilization is best. There is no miracle cure out there that magically preserves the artistic, structural, and cultural integrity of Tacoma’s giant totem pole in one beautiful stroke. I don’t care how many pickle-faced government-hating internet commenters disagree.

The thing is, I don’t think anyone had the incentive or resources to develop anything but a “pretty good” plan for the totem pole’s preservation. So we got a “pretty good plan.” We didn’t get a “great plan” and we certainly didn’t try to determine a “best plan.” And if that happened, it wasn’t communicated to us. This brace pole eliminates public safety concerns and diminishes the immediacy of the issue, and that’s about it.

The city engineer’s office was first tasked with making sure the pole didn’t fall down, so they installed the current ugly temporary braces. Then, when the Arts Commission and the Landmarks Commission voted to preserve it in place, rather than remove it, the engineers called their contracted structural consultants at PCL Construction, and said, “Give us a permanent bracing plan.”

I’m sure everyone in that chain of events was worried primarily about getting the job done and keeping costs down. But “getting the job done” means something different to an engineer than it does to a preservationist or an artist, since most municipal projects live or die on cost effectiveness, safety, and expedience. Art and history are rarely expedient or cost effective.

The totem pole may or may not be a significant artifact. I will not contemplate that. But it is a public good, an object of the arts. Since the public demonstrated interest in its preservation, it behooves us to treat it as such, not merely as a vertical object that must remain vertical.

The city’s staff acted swiftly to keep the pole from toppling and to emphasize its cultural value. The current bracing design is a continuation of that effort, and it is certainly a necessary, noble apparatus. Even so, with a clear directive from the Landmarks Preservation Commission or the City Manager, a broader consultant task force could have been mustered to supplement the engineering focus with greater artistic and archaeological input.

Sure, we talked to a totem pole expert. He said to take it down and let it decompose. But we voted to disregard that advice, and since then, I don’t think we ever really reached out to a single one of the many people who’ve worked on restoring and preserving totem poles and wooden artifacts. We just talked to a structural engineer and heard a bit of public input.

There are certainly more than three solutions to this problem.

Unnamed Tacoma notables pose near the totem pole in 1934 (image courtesy of Tacoma Public Library)

Unnamed Tacoma notables pose near the totem pole in 1934 (image courtesy of Tacoma Public Library)

I should have voted “nay.” I should have voted to allow the temporary braces to stay in place a little bit longer. In this case, the vote was close enough that mine would have made a difference.

I should have helped my commission and city staff come up with a strenuous outreach and research plan. I should have suggested that we do better, that we not accept the narrow range of options we were offered.

In one dumb, confused moment, I became “part of the problem” in Tacoma – frozen in limitations, lacking an articulate vision and spine.

I have no doubt the totem pole will stand for years in Fireman’s Park, but I will always wonder how much longer, or how much better it could have looked.

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About the Author

Founder of Post Defiance, Dan is a father, surveyor, writer, and runner.

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