If Old Walls Could Talk: Jim Collins Retires from PCS After 41 Years

If Old Walls Could Talk: Jim Collins Retires from PCS After 41 Years

by Valerie Hendel

Jim Collins, a senior principal of PCS Structural Solutions, retires on September 4, 2019. Jim joined then-Chalker Engineers in downtown Tacoma on January 1, 1978—the only employee, he notes, to start on a holiday. It was a fortuitous meeting of energies—a young, new engineer and a city ready to reimagine itself. The city leaders had a new vision for Tacoma and were determined to see the reanimation of its beautiful downtown buildings, and Jim was an energetic engineer ready for the opportunity.

Over the course of his career, Jim served countless school districts and wrote over a thousand school evaluations. He designed for health centers, civic agencies and established himself as a leading engineer in seismic retrofit. Jim was the structural engineer for renovation of the Children’s Museum—originally the Sprague Building —in downtown Tacoma as well as the iconic Union Station. But for all the high-profile work Jim has done in downtown, it’s the project that had the heart of a community that he calls his favorite—Chief Leschi School in the Puyallup Valley. The school was created with the vision to provide a rich cultural and educational experience for its children. “It’s an important part of the community. There was a pow wow and at least three other celebrations we were a part of,” recalls Jim. The project spoke to Jim personally as his mother grew up on native land in Oklahoma.

Tacoma—Boom, Bust, Boom

Perhaps no one person has been inside more of Tacoma’s downtown historic buildings than Jim Collins, according to Dan Putnam, Jim’s long-time colleague and friend. Behind the brick-and-mortar facades of downtown Tacoma’s buildings are stories of the boom-and-bust tenacity of waves of immigrants who built the City of Destiny. One of the undisputed stars was the Union Depot Station, which played a critical role in the development of the Pacific Northwest Region. The site of the original wood depot moved to its present location on Pacific Avenue between 17th and 19th Streets. The Union Station, as we view it today, opened to an enthusiastic crowd of thousands in May of 1911. “The building was viewed as a keystone of Tacoma’s youthful boom period and a cherished symbol of its metropolitan status,” according to a record in the 1979 Rehabilitation Study by the Department of the Interior.

The Union Station had enormous historical and architectural significance to Tacoma’s late 1800s development. Commerce followed the tracks, and Tacoma prospered. Population swelled, investment poured in, and Pacific Avenue was the city’s commercial core. In 1890–91, a new bank was opened every month, and up went buildings of masonry and brick. In 1890, jobbers wholesale trades became integral to the local economy, and by ’92, many substantial buildings had been built.

Like the Sprague Building, finished in 1889, “nearly all the jobbers’ buildings would be made of brick, with load-bearing walls, interior mill (heavy timber) construction, and wood floors. Post-and-beam construction divided the interiors into sixteen-to twenty-foot bays,” according to the same record.

Then came the great bust in the banking panic of 1893. Tacoma wouldn’t recover until the early 1900s when the downtown buildings were adapted and made higher, adding stories to accommodate rapidly expanding businesses. Later, trucks came on the scene and provided cheaper transportation, pushing commerce out from the core. After WWII, passenger railway traffic fizzled. Downtown buildings endured the ravages of disuse, fire and earthquake. By the 50s, Tacoma’s beautiful Pacific Avenue was in a state of miserable disrepair.

The 70s—Admit it, Tacoma, You’re Beautiful

Jump forward to the 1970s. City planners saw a new shift happening in the county’s employment. A study was initiated in 1979 by the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) Division of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service of the US Department of the Interior. The rehabilitation action team, made up of historians, architects, and planners, was hired by Tacoma City Council to inventory and assess options for the owners of the historic buildings with a particular eye to the Union Station district. So began the rehabilitation of Tacoma’s historic downtown. Slowly, the rows of dilapidated warehouses began to wake up.

In 1977, Ray Chalker took a prospective new engineer on a walking tour of downtown Tacoma. Jim Collins remembers that first tour. “He pointed to all the buildings Chalker Engineers was working on. I was so impressed. Wouldn’t you be?” Jim asked, with no hint that his enthusiasm has flagged 41 years later. “I joined the firm, and when the Tacoma Dome was going under design, it seemed like I was doing everything else.” Jim keeps up the downtown tour tradition to this day.

A Structural Philosophy

Jim has been cavorting with these old buildings for 41 years. Four decades of service have established his expertise in the seismic retrofit of existing buildings nationally and especially on the West Coast. “He understands the architectural part of the code that not many people know all the way through,” says PCS senior principal and colleague, Don Scott.

Colleagues also muse at the mind that can maneuver the structural complexities of existing buildings. Longtime friend, Cap Pearson of the Building and Land Use Division from 1969 – 2011, describes Jim as intuitive. “We’d argue about doing it this way or that, but he knew what he was doing. I respected him as one of the best engineers in Tacoma.”

Jim calls what he does in existing buildings the Dark Side—his way perhaps of embracing the uncertainty that many engineers find uncomfortable. “I always went to him for information on existing buildings,” says Scott. “You can ask him a question, and you want a black and white answer. We engineers like black and white answers, but Jim won’t give you one. Jim gives options. He asks, ‘What do we want to accomplish?’ and ‘How far can we get?’”

Jim’s son and fourth-generation engineer, Jason Collins, continues the thought. “You can come in with a pre-crafted solution, but he has an exploratory mindset. He’s always asking, ‘What is this building asking for? How can we allow this building to stand on its own and maintain its dignity?’”

When asked about this philosophy, Jim laughs. “We were doing the Tioga Library, and I said, why can’t you help that old guy out?” Jim wanted to use collector ties between the new and old buildings to help support “the old guy.” Jim seems to know all the old guys on the University of Tacoma Campus, and it’s hard to keep up as he points out their old brick headers and wood plank floors, the vestiges of memories captured in the composition of the materials.

It’s no surprise that Jim’s trajectory from youth to structural engineer wouldn’t—or couldn’t—follow the conventional path. He wasn’t that kid everyone knew was destined for engineering school. “My grandfather and father were civil engineers. I’m sure it surprised my parents that I became an engineer. I was a late bloomer.”

A Mentor

Jim is always looking for recruits to the engineering Dark Side. What does he look for? “Well, to understand old buildings, you have to understand new,” says Collins. “Someone who doesn’t mind ignoring conventional thinking or rules from time to time.”

“He loves to sit with young engineers to share what he knows,” Scott observes.

When asked what advice he has for new engineers, Jim doesn’t hesitate. “You have to ask the right questions. Ray Chalker taught me that my job is to make sure engineers are asking the right questions.”

PCS Structural Solutions

Jim went on to make his mark in the firm he worked for and contributed his name to Chalker Putnam Collins & Scott, Inc. in 1987. Dan Putnam, Jim Collins, and Don Scott would navigate the firm into the next generation and to what is now PCS Structural Solutions.

Dan Putnam is quick to talk about how artful Jim’s solutions to existing buildings are, but his memories give a different tour of Jim’s impact: “We did life together—baseball games, shucking oysters on the beach, diaper changing contests … I think Jim instigated putting an aluminum boat in my office when I turned 40 … I’ll have to ask him about that. Work, family, church—that’s what he does. He’s a good dad and loves his time with his kids.” Jim and his wife, Wendy, have six. “We went through life’s problems together,” says Dan. “I got lots of tidbits along the way. He’s an organized, thought-process person and always sees the fun part of things.”

Jason Collins describes how Jim influenced PCS culture. “He’s a big advocate of work-life balance. He always said that when you’re the most stressed, that’s when you have to get to the gym. There are six kids in my family, and I remember him at most of my games and events.”

Post-PCS

So, what’s on the post-retirement bucket list for Jim? An enthusiastic hiker, you’ll likely find Jim in the mountains. “I’d like to spend more time in the mountains and backroads of Pierce County hiking and climbing … alongside a stream fly fishing or mountain biking through the woods. Wendy wants to visit Sweden. I’d also like to teach my grandchildren to fish.”

A Legacy

The old Union Station put Tacoma on the map back in the day, but it wasn’t finished. Union Station would take its place again as arguably the most defining structure on the downtown Tacoma cityscape, and its rehabilitation in 1995 was the pinnacle project that established a young structural engineer’s career. Jim woke up more than a few of the downtown Tacoma “old guys” over the course of his career.

These days, the beautiful old brick-and-masonry facades hold their own beside the new buildings making their mark on the Tacoma cityscape and its rawfined vibe. The future of Tacoma’s historic structures is nurtured by a new generation of caretakers. James Collins made a career of honoring the grace and dignity of each and every one of the buildings he touched and the engineering firm to which he has devoted his life’s work by asking What do we want to accomplish? and How far can we get?