One of Tacoma’s historic landmarks is for sale, and it’s unlike any other building in the area. Located across the street from the Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 St. Helens Ave was built in 1889 and originally served as the Eldridge Hotel before becoming Tacoma’s first YMCA. The building is now three stories and 10,676 square feet of office space, with a 5,593-square-foot penthouse, complete with a rooftop garden perched on top. It is currently on the market through Nicholas Vilvandre with Realty Northwest.
Beyond its historic status, 747 St. Helens Ave is set apart by its many carefully customized qualities — from the penthouse’s heated tile floors and hypoallergenic ventilation system to its rooftop garden complete with a commercial kitchen and a view of the water. These additions, as well as the official registration of the building as a historic landmark in 2008, are thanks to the seller and last owner of the building, Lea Armstrong.
Armstrong bought the building in 1997 because it presented itself as an ideal space for both living and running her home care business, Armstrong Uniserve, Inc., which she built up from two employees to about 3,000 employees over the 12 years she owned it. Armstrong, who is originally from Taegu, South Korea, moved to Tacoma in 1969 when she was 27 years old to pursue a degree in accounting at Pacific Lutheran University; not long after, in 1976, she received her master’s in business from the University of Puget Sound.
Since moving here, Armstrong said that she has loved Tacoma and felt a certain loyalty toward it: Even when she was told that her home care business might be more lucrative in Seattle, she wanted to keep it in Tacoma, where she said that “the people had always been very kind to (her).”
“When I bought the building, I knew I wanted to keep its historic status because I wanted to leave one legacy for the city of Tacoma,” Armstrong said.
The process of doing so was more difficult and expensive than she originally anticipated. In order to register the building as a historic landmark, Armstrong had to be careful not to change anything about the outside of the building when renovating and reinforcing all of its elements. “It was more expensive to renovate the historic building than it would have been to build a new one,” she said.
From 2005 to 2007, Mountain Construction updated everything in the building: It has new electric and plumbing and has been completely reinforced with steel beams for earthquake safety. Careful thought was even put into the small spikes that line the windows on the outside so that birds won’t land there: They are dipped in a special metal so that if the birds poke themselves, they won’t get poisoned.
Armstrong herself has been a fixture of humble kindness and generosity during her time in Tacoma. She has worked on the Board of Directors of Tacoma/Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and on the Board of Directors of Tacoma Community House. She has also been involved with the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, United Way, the Korean Society of Tacoma, and the Korean Women’s Association. Her scholarship — the Lea Armstrong Scholarship Fund — has provided financial assistance to single parents seeking higher education in Pierce County since 2003.
All of this community engagement earned Armstrong the Key to the City in 2017, which was presented to her by Mayor Marilyn Strickland.
Her financial success, she said, has always led her to want to share with others, and she has funded the educations of many young people in Washington through her scholarship and even through personal donations.
“When you have a lot, you have to share,” she said simply. “If you keep less, you allow other people to have more.”
Armstrong’s generosity is reflected in the sale of the building she spent so much time and money renovating: The cost of the units combined — close to $5.9 million — is comparable to the amount she put into renovating the historic building. “I’m basically breaking even,” she said, laughing. “If I had known I would ever move out, I probably wouldn’t have spent so much money on it!”
The 76-year-old woman said that were she 20 years younger, she would want to stay in the property and rent out the business space below the penthouse — doing so, she said, would be a good investment.
Armstrong anticipates that the 129-year-old building will continue to appreciate in value due to its one-of-a-kind nature, and that it will last far into the future thanks to all of its recent updates. She left plenty of legacies for the city of Tacoma, but this historic building is the only one that can be bought.