Architect brought 19th-century Europe to 20th-century Tacoma

Of the many people who worked in Tacoma’s silent movie industry, perhaps no one left more of a lasting physical legacy than Gaston Lance.

By the time Lance was hired by movie producer H.C. Weaver to be his art director in the mid-1920s, Lance was approaching age 50.

For his work in film and later in architecture, Lance drew from his wide ranging upbringing in Europe, the limitless possibilities of early 20th century America and the cultures of Asia.

According to his autobiography, Lance was born in 1877 in Bucharest, Romania to French parents.

By the time he was 13, Lance was an orphan. He got a job at a Paris department store where he slept on the counter at night after taking evening classes in drawing and modeling.

From there, he bounced from job to job and country to country across Europe with his wife.

“We had some hard times but never starved,” he wrote.

After working in coal mines, machine shops, printing and in the nascent automobile industry, he and his wife headed to the United States.

After arriving in New York in 1908, the couple made their way to Seattle in July to work on the upcoming Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. The fair was to be held in 1909 on the future campus of the University of Washington and was intended to publicize the development of the Pacific Northwest.

Lance “installed my wife in the country with a few chickens” and looked for work in Seattle. Soon he was designing the Chinese Pavilion at the Exposition. He also learned carpentry and building on that job.

Later he worked at Morrell Artistic Foundry, where he smoothed rough casting marks on a statue of Chief Seattle, presumably the 1912 creation by James Wehn on display at Seattle Center today.

For the next 12 years, he worked on land he owned in Lakebay, eventually building a ranch that housed 2,000 chickens.

“Too much work,” he wrote of those days. “We decided that, after all, we were city people, and I bought a shop on St. Helen’s Avenue, Tacoma, in 1921.”

He soon was hired to design residences and other buildings. He even designed the steamer Arcadia, part of the Puget Sound mosquito fleet.

When Weaver built his movie studios in 1925, he hired Lance to design and build sets for the productions.

“They called me ‘Art Director’,” Lance wrote. “Mr. (Woody) Van Dike (sic), the Director, known for his South Seas pictures, offered to take me to Hollywood, but I couldn’t go; my wife was very sick.”

Lance said he worked on logging, mountain views, marine scenes and sets of Alaskan life for Weaver’s movies. He also worked on a film shot in Portland.

“It was then that I met Mr. Russell, the best architect of Tacoma in the early 1900s.”

Ambrose J. Russell was indeed one of, if not the best, architects of his day. He designed private residences, office buildings, the Governor’s Mansion in Olympia, the Rust mansion and the Temple Theatre.

Lance said that early in his ad hoc architect career he designed a residence for a doctor. “My plans were accepted, but I was not a licensed architect. ... question of ethics.”

Lance was able to work out some sort of deal with Russell and passed a State Board examination in 1930. The two men worked together until Russell died in 1938.

“We never had any papers signed and never had any friction. It is out of this complicated mixture that Mr. Russell made the Architect G.C. Lance.”

During Lance’s career he designed the Vista Manor apartments at 319 Tacoma Ave. N., and many other businesses, apartments and residences, including the 1937-38 Art Deco style home on Sixth Street in Tacoma. (see accompanying feature.)

Lance retired in 1961 but wrote that he still dreamed of working on projects.

“This is, for me, an interesting way of finishing a life that I do not regret to have lived,” he wrote.

Lance died in 1964 at age 87 at his home on North 30th Street in Tacoma.