Stuff You Want to Know about UW Tacoma’s W

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UW Tacoma's steel W weighs 7,000 pounds, is strong enough to survive a hurricane or stop a bus, and owes its existence to a community of supporters.

The official ceremony celebrating the creation of UW Tacoma’s giant steel W--and thanking the donors who made it possible—is happening September 25, 2015. On that evening, at 6 p.m., a plaque, listing the names of the W’s donors and affixed to the back, is being unveiled. (Read the text and view the names on the plaque here.)

We thought you’d be interested in reading about the genesis of the W project and some facts about the object itself.

Father of the W

If any one person can be called the father of UW Tacoma’s W, it would have to be Cody Char. Cody is an alumnus of UW Tacoma, class of 2013. He started working as the campus photographer and videographer shortly after graduation.

The idea of a W on the Tacoma campus had been batted about for years, and had been turned down for various reasons. Meanwhile, Ws sprang up on the Seattle and the Bothell campuses.

Cody didn’t think any of the reasons not to have a Tacoma W were insurmountable. He dropped hints, cajoled, was persistent and positive. Perhaps his biggest coup was the rendering he developed showing just what a W could look like at the top of the campus’s Grand Staircase. Along the way, he turned the biggest naysayers into the project’s biggest allies.

Reflecting UW Tacoma’s Identity

The W was built as part of a larger campus wayfinding and visual identity project. It’s location at the top of the Grand Staircase, where 19th Street ends at an intersection with Jefferson Ave, is anticipated to become the center of campus as the university expands up the hill. The W was intentionally designed to face up the hill, symbolizing UW Tacoma’s connection with Hilltop, the city of Tacoma, and the larger South Sound region. Not coincidentally, the W is also positioned to help stop any vehicles that might come uncontrollably down 19th Street, aided by a series of bollards that are arranged in a semi-circle at the base of the W.

Unlike the Ws on UW’s other campuses, ours is made of steel, as a direct homage to the industrial heritage of Tacoma. Think of steel wheels on steel rails—Northern Pacific Railway’s transcontinental terminus at Tacoma, passing right through what would later become the UW Tacoma campus, and retrofitted as today's Prairie Line Trail. Or think of a steel ribbon stretched across a body of water—the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge (the infamous "Galloping Gertie," still sitting at the bottom of the Narrows where it collapsed in 1940).

The Biggest W

The W itself was fabricated by Olympic Iron Works, a steel fabrication company located in Olympia, Wash., since 1983. (Yes, the irony is not lost on us—W made of steel celebrating Tacoma industrial heritage is actually made in Olympia!) Olympic also did work on UW Tacoma’s Tioga Library Building.

According to Gary Tokos, co-owner of Olympia, the W:

  • Weighs 7,000 lbs.
  • Took 450 person-hours to fabricate, grind and sand.
  • Has 20 interior stiffeners to maintain its shape.
  • Had to be rotated during fabrication 20 times to avoid warpage due to the heat of welding.
  • Has around 400 linear feet of welding.
  • Was sandblasted and painted with three different coats of primer and paint.
  • Can probably withstand a hurricane!
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Written by: 
John Burkhardt / September 25, 2015
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu