While you can find Dale Chihuly’s amazing glasswork all over the world in famous museums, botanic gardens, and office buildings, but nowhere is it more accessible and abundant than in his hometown of Tacoma, Washington. Chihuly, born in 1941, grew up in Tacoma, studied interior design at the University of Washington, and narrowed his focus to glass art at the University of Wisconsin. While on a Fulbright Fellowship in Venice, Italy, he first observed the team approach in glass blowing to create large-scale pieces. Utilizing this concept, he cofounded the Pilchuck School of Glass outside Seattle, and began producing large, multicolored, glass art works. He established the glass department at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and taught there for many years. Today he is considered the world’s premier glass artist and has made the Northwest a world center for glass art.
In Tacoma, many of his pieces are concentrated in an area known as the Museum District, a few blocks along Pacific Avenue adjacent to downtown. The Museum of Glass, Tacoma Art Museum, Bridge of Glass, and Federal Courthouse all feature Chihuly’s work. The best introduction to his style would be a stroll across the Bridge of Glass, a 500-foot span connecting the Museum of Glass and the plaza area of the Washington State History Museum on Pacific Avenue. The pedestrian-only bridge showcases three Chihuly installations including two 40-foot, blue, translucent crystal towers. While they appear to be crafted from glass, they are made from a polyurethane material designed to withstand the elements. The main feature, however, is a tunnel called Seaform Pavilion. Inside, the ceiling displays over 2000 colorful, amorphous-shaped pieces of glass inspired by marine life in Puget Sound. On a sunny day, the sight is spectacular. Along the sides of the tunnel, are 109 glass sculptures, mostly Art-Deco style floral arrangements.
The bridge ends in a plaza adjacent to the Museum of Glass, easily identified by its silver, angled, conical shape. The museum houses a permanent collection of contemporary glass, and contains an amphitheater called the Hot Shot where visitors can observe a team of artists demonstrating glass making and glass blowing. There’s an on-site café, an excellent gift shop with unique glass items, and outside the doors, a mammoth, clear acrylic sculpture called Water Forest.
Back across the bridge, on Pacific Avenue, is the old Union Station, another successful historic preservation story. Built in 1911, it was praised as “…the most beautiful passenger station in the Pacific Northwest.” With the demise of train travel, the station closed and the dilapidated, aging facility was sold by Burlington Northern to the city of Tacoma for $1.00. After three years of renovation, the beautiful Beaux Arts building reopened as the U.S. Federal Courthouse. The interior is every bit as attractive as the outside and is decorated with examples of Chihuly’s glass work. A colorful chandelier is suspended from the rotunda’s domed ceiling, and bright orange flowers cover the arched, north-facing window. Altogether, the lobby area features five major installations.
Next door to the courthouse, is the Tacoma Art Museum. Nationally recognized for its collection of Northwest art, the museum has an entire gallery devoted to Chihuly pieces, many donated by the artist. Within walking distance of the Museum District, additional Chihuly installations can be seen at the University of Washington-Tacoma library which houses a striking red chandelier, and at the nearby Swiss Restaurant and Pub with an array of Venetian glass pieces above the bar.
Visiting these places requires a bit of pre-planning. The art museum is closed Monday, and the Union Station Federal Courthouse is only open on weekdays, leaving Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday the best times to visit. A picture identification is required to enter the courthouse. While the bridge and courthouse are free, there is an admission charge at both museums. A pass is available ($35 for seniors) that includes these two museums, the Washington State History Museum and the nearby LeMay-America’s Car Museum, and Children’s Museum.
You can learn more about Chihuly and his works and these museums as the following websites: