UW Tacoma's Russell T. Joy Building: A Historical Review

Russ Bates

Russell T. Joy came to Tacoma in 1888 and worked as a clerk for the Tacoma Land Company.  Like many who pursued the American dream, he had a vision and worked hard to make a name for himself. In four years, became secretary and manager of the Excelsior Park Land Company.  He established himself as a builder and real estate developer. In 1892, he commissioned construction of three structures within the Warehouse District, including his namesake, the Russell T. Joy Building. Construction cost $30,000.

In its first decade, four businesses called the Joy Building home: the H.N. Richmond Paper Co., the Great Western Stove Co., the Wiegel Candy Co., and the Star Diamond Candy Co.
Ten years later, in 1903, a fire in the building’s second floor caused considerable damage for all four tenants; the two candy companies suffered nearly complete losses. A few months afterward, Joy hired prominent Tacoma architects Russell & Babcock to design improvements. In addition to reconstructing the burned-out second floor, a third story was added, along with ornamental details and four freight elevators.

After the fire, the first new tenant was Tacoma Manufacturer’s Permanent Exposition, which moved into several storefronts in 1905. The building has housed a wholesale grocery, a tea and coffee wholesaler and a glove maker. Early in the 20th century, when automobiles became all the rage, a number of automobile-related businesses were located in the Joy Building, including a Firestone Tire store and Studebaker and Oldsmobile distributorships.

100127, UWT, Russell T Joy Bldg with Alt Heidelberg sign.jpgAnother blaze broke out in 1928, when a pile of discarded fish nets and burlap caught fire in the rented space of Frank Sussman and Co., a dealer of hardware and salvaged goods. But this time the fire did not spread, and the damage was minimal.

In 1933, when outdoor advertising was popular, the art deco-style Alt Heidelberg sign was painted onto the north face of the building.  Complete with the brewery’s logo depicting the student prince, the sign is still visible on the north side of the building and is believed to be one of the last Alt Heidelberg signs in existence.(See photo)

In the latter half of the 20th century, the Joy Building fell into disuse, neglect and became an unattractive and empty space. In 1997, the University of Washington Tacoma moved into the neighborhood, transforming the first of many dilapidated buildings into a modern university.
On August 20th, 2009, Chancellor Pat Spakes, UW Regent Herb Simon and others raised a glass of sparkling cider in celebration of the Joy Building renovation at S. 17th and Pacific Avenue. The Joy Building is the final historic UW Tacoma building to receive a makeover.   Upon completion (January 17, 2011) 44,000 sq. ft of the Joy Building will provide classrooms, retail spaces and faculty offices for the growing UW Tacoma population. 
Just as Russell T. Joy grew from a footnote into a larger role in Tacoma’s history book, the University of Washington Tacoma is growing to meet the increasing needs for higher education in the South Puget Sound region. Today the retelling of the Russell T. Joy Building story begins, and the UW Tacoma writes another chapter of history.

Capital Projects Office
April 2010
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