1201 Division Avenue, Tacoma, WA 98403
The content below is from a 2008 Tacoma Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.
Frisko Freeze has been in continuous use as a food stand since it was built in 1950 and is now a well-known and much loved Tacoma icon. Its parking lot has served generations of Tacoma’s teenagers and young adults as an important social site, and its original owner, Perry Smith, was a well-known Tacoma businessman, especially for his personal and financial contributions to the city’s youth. This simple commercial building and its neon sign represents an early, and one of the few remaining examples of Googie architecture from Tacoma’s early 1950s. The building, both architecturally and culturally, represents the post-WWII building boom and the emergence of the mid-century American teenage culture in Tacoma.
The property at 1201 North Division was owned by Mrs. Elizabeth G. Thomas, the widow of the major Tacoma real estate investor Jesse O. Thomas Jr. The Thomas’ were heavily involved with Division Avenue and the restaurant industry. In May 1950, the city issued Elmer Hague a building permit to construct “Cream Freeze” on the site, and in 1956 Perry Smith purchased the property. It’s unclear if Smith or Hague designed the building themselves or used some existing design.
Smith hit on the name “Frisko Freeze” while listening to sports commentator Leo Lassen of KOL-AM Radio call a Seattle Rainiers-San Francisco Seals baseball game. Lassen referred to the San Francisco team as “the boys from Frisco.” With a slight modification of the spelling, Smith had his business name. Perry Smith, a Tacoma resident since 1945, enjoyed having his business be a social center for young people. He even financed over 100 automobiles for his employees, and was a generous supporter of local sports.
From the beginning, Perry designated the front service windows as a drive-thru where customers could place their orders from within their cars. Perry later claimed it was the first drive-thru service in Tacoma. He and his wife, Bobbe, did not have any restaurant experience prior to opening Frisko Freeze. As a family-run, independent business, they had to develop their own recipes and kitchen operations unlike franchise operations. Frisko Freeze’s hamburgers and milkshakes achieved legendary status, having frequently been featured in “Best of” lists over the years. Governor Booth Gardener was such a fan that he kept a photograph of the business on the wall of his Olympia office, and his “addiction” to the food was a frequent comment in the press.
The Frisko Freeze building is largely unchanged since its construction in July 1950. This walk-up food stand is an early instance of the Googie architectural style that would soon become ubiquitous along American roadways. Googie played with the transportation motifs with jet and space allusions. The need to attract the attention of passing motorists required unabashed decoration: flashing neon lights, bright colors, and unusual shapes made from molded plastics and aluminum. Googie is characterized by upswept roofs, curvaceous and bold use of glass and steel, and an abundance of neon. Free-form shapes and space-age designs depicting motion are also frequently used. With perhaps some hyperbole, a 1986 News Tribune article described the building as “perhaps the purest remaining original googie hamburger stand in the world…” Owner Perry Smith and contractor Elmer Hague built the building. Holroyd Company of Tacoma supplied the concrete block and perhaps other building materials, and Cliff Sign Company of Tacoma created the neon sign.
The front portion of the building has an 18” base of Roman brick surmounted by wide panels of plate glass held in place by thin aluminum casing. These glass panels lean slightly outward at the top, complemented by the upswept roof overhead, and giving the appearance of the building leaning toward the street, a common characteristic of the Googie style. The rear portion of the building is concrete block, painted white. In 1962, a 12’ x 23’ concrete-block extension was added to the rear of the original building. This addition is about 2’ proud on either side of the original building. A door centered in the rear wall is the only building entrance.
The original roof had a narrow overhang on the sides with sharp, 90 degree corners. Probably in 1962, the roof was modified to add wider overhangs at the sides and rounded corners. Over the rear, the roof is flat with a wide overhang supported by small, exposed steel posts. Over the glass walls of the building’s front, the upswept roof is supported by a large beam resting on three, small steel posts set just behind the front wall. The roof sweeps forward about 5’ beyond the front wall creating a wide overhang for the drive-thru area. The roof is about 1’ deep and until a recent remodel was illuminated by yellow neon bulbs.
The glass walls are interrupted at the southeast and northeast corners by order windows, one on each side and two in the front, each with a small counter the width of the order windows below. The order windows slide open and close. Long fluorescent lights are attached to the underside of the roof overhang near the order windows. The two order windows in the front serve as drive-thru windows where motorists can drive up and order from within their cars. The other windows allow customers to park their cars, walk up, place their orders, and then pick up their order when called over a loudspeaker.
The neon sign, created by the Cliff Sign Company, is located on a red and white, candy-cane striped steel post close to the sidewalk in front of the building. The sign, an early example of Googie style, features the business name in sans serif, block capitals illuminated by white neon on a red, “soft” four-pointed shape. Below is a square with an illuminated, realistic hamburger. This is accented by a growing arrow illuminated with yellow neon that sweeps from the sign’s top to its bottom and ends pointing to the building.
The interior space is largely open and loosely organized into three areas. The front area closest to the order windows holds the grill, fryers, and shake/ice cream machine and is the primary work area. The second area toward the rear has a large cooler, prep table, sink, bread storage, as well as a small desk and restroom. The third area is the 1962 addition with portions of the 1950 rear wall still partially separating it from the front. It houses a walk-in refrigerator, freezer, hot water tank, and electric systems.
A remaining mystery is who actually designed the building and what sources they might have used. Perry Smith had no restaurant, design, or building experience, though he is often mentioned as the building’s designer. Elmer Hague, a carpenter, appears to have been the contractor, but there is no evidence with food stands or similar buildings. However, lack of design experience or professional training has not been a bar to influential Googie design. The design of Frisko Freeze may have simply been a vernacular borrowing from other existing buildings. By 1949, Dairy Queen already had several stores in Tacoma.
Another possibility (only included for completeness since there is no current evidence to support it) might be a connection with engineer and architect Clark H. Eldridge. He was a relative of Clarence “Bud” Eldridge, who had urged Smith to open Frisko Freeze and operated a similar business in Seattle. Clark Eldridge was a well-respected bridge engineer who later specialized in concrete commercial buildings. He had the training and awareness of architectural developments to design the Frisko Freeze building. It is an intriguing possibility, but currently no link has been found between him and the Frisko Freeze.
The Owner, Perry Smith (1918-1990)
Perry Woodruff Smith was born in Coronation, Alberta, Canada. He graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA and served in the U.S. Army during WWII. A Tacoma resident since 1945, Smith was a truck driver for Shell Oil Company. In 1947, he married Roberta (Bobbe) C. Clark who was a registered nurse. He and Bobbe owned and operated Frisko Freeze from 1950 to 1990. The business is continued today by their daughter Penny Jensen.
The Contractor, Elmer Hague (1915-2000)
Little is known about Elmer Hague. Born in Kelso, WA in 1915, he died there in 2000. He is listed in the Tacoma City directory starting in 1949 as a carpenter but he left Tacoma in 1951. It is known that he built several small houses while in Tacoma.
Sign Designer, Luther Cliff (?-1964)
Cliff Sign was founded in 1902 by Luther Cliff, who had arrived in Tacoma in 1888. He founded the Sign Association of Tacoma to promote professional standards, and it became the model for the national organization of which he was named the first president in 1915. Luther Cliff died in 1964, and his son Virgil continued the business into the 1980s. Cliff Sign produced much of the iconic neon signage in the Tacoma area through the middle decades of the 20th century.