When in Rome, you should do as the Romans do. But when you’re in Tacoma, you can also do as the Romans do, as you walk up a historic staircase in order to ascend the Old City Hall district.
Tacoma’s Spanish Steps are modeled after the more famous set in Rome. Rome’s Spanish Steps, or Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti, were completed in 1725, with construction overseen by the Pope and influenced by the Bourbon dynasty of France, connecting the French Embassy to a church of the Holy See. Similarly, Tacoma’s Spanish Steps were completed in 1916 with oversight by the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Tacoma Lodge No. 174, eventually connecting a light rail stop to a computer repair store.
In fact, the history of the Spanish Steps and neighboring Elks Building are intertwined. The Elks, well-connected and popular, sought a new Beaux Arts building, and solicited Édouard Frère Champney to create a design that also called for a grand public staircase. The Elks would then dispute the word ‘public’ for more than two decades, eventually closing the staircase to the public in the 1930s, at which point the City’s Public Works Commissioner (and Elks member) pointed out that they did not in fact own it. It has been public property ever since.
The Elks organization had begun dispersing to the suburbs by the 1950s, and like many industrial cities, Tacoma was in decline. The Elks vacated the space in 1965, and the lodge and stairs both fell into severe disrepair, with the Roman-inspired balustrade toppled over in sections, and the lodge crumbling from disuse. After years of adverse use, efforts were made to place the Spanish Steps on the Historic Places register, and the stairs were eventually restored in 2011.
The lodge itself was an occasional event space and more frequent graffiti target for decades, until it was bought by the McMenamins organization, a Pacific Northwest company that specializes in the restoration and conversion of historic buildings into concert halls, breweries, and historic hotels. McMenamins Elks Temple opened in 2019 with all three elements. Notably, the new space includes a second floor bar that connects to the Spanish Steps, done in the style of a tapas café. Sure, it may not be a Roman Holiday, but when you are enjoying your Spanish Steps Ensalada, will you really be able to tell the difference?
Know Before You Go
The steps are free to visit and pose all over.