Hello from the History Department.
We gathered a lot of fantastic stories from and about the people who joined and worked at Tacoma’s Elks Lodge – this tale is one of them.
What is known for certain about the life of Walter Sutter is that he was a popular and very involved member of many fraternal organizations in Tacoma, notably the Elks. At Tacoma’s Elks Lodge #174, he assisted with the theatrical extravaganzas, designed parade floats, gave lectures about his collection of fluorescent rocks and raised money for many charities by opening up his unique home to tours.
As for Sutter’s early years, well, reality often gets blurred, perhaps intentionally. What truly happened may never be known, and maybe that was the goal. Walter Sutter definitely had some tangled ties to the Far East – apparently even with China’s supreme leader – which from today’s vantage point seem pretty murky, if not entirely unbelievable. But enough of a breadcrumb trail remains – like the fact that a collection of ancient Chinese treasures was displayed in Sutter’s Tacoma home-turned-gallery for years – to believe that something unusual was going on.
Sutter was born in 1882 in the then rough-and-tumble pioneer town of Tacoma. His parents, Ada and Henry Sutter, hailed from the East Coast, but came west to Oregon, eventually settling in Tacoma. His father was a master mechanic for the region’s first railroad, Northern Pacific Railway. And his mother, as Walt recalled from those early days, went shopping with a shotgun in one arm and baby Walter in the other. The pioneering spirit also flowed in his veins – he claimed that at age 13 he boarded a windjammer and deserted his home in Tacoma, “destined to become an elephant driver in Siam, a salvage diver, general and confidant of great men in China, and a rover of other Eastern lands.”
As wildly exaggerated as that may sound, Walter’s actual life, based on reliable records, still reads like an adventure novel. A graduate of Vashon College, Sutter became an accomplished marine engineer from a very young age. For instance, while working on the tugboat Fearless, he was one of the first in the Pacific Northwest to test wireless communications. A few years later, he was promoted to a marine boiler inspector for the State of Washington, working on a contract basis, so that he could travel to China (making as many as 14 trips there and back), which he said he did until the late 1930s.
Despite his many travels, Sutter made time to volunteer with local fraternal organizations around town, including the Tacoma Elks, beginning as early as 1917. Behind the scenes is where Walter thrived; he was known for creating the most spectacular lighting designs for the Elks Extravaganzas and award-winning parade floats. Later in life he discovered a passion for geology, especially fluorescent rocks, which he brought to entertain and educate recuperating soldiers at nearby Fort Lewis’s Madigan Army Hospital. Also, each year around Christmas, Walter and his wife Mable opened their unique home to tours benefitting the Elks Stocking Stuffers Clothes Drive.
The Sutter home was truly a showpiece and a seemingly constant topic of conversation. In 1936, Walter had met with an architect about building the house. He brought no blueprints, just the ideas in his head and a timeline of only 44 days! The urgency came from the fact that a collection of priceless Chinese art needed a new home. It was being rushed out of the Forbidden City to prevent invading Japanese forces from confiscating it. Sutter’s unique house/exhibition hall was completed in time and featured design elements such as curved exterior “corners” and on the inside, a series of connecting ramps – no stairs – that were said to ward off evil Chinese spirits contained within the art pieces and allow good spirits to remain. With the remarkable structure completed in time, the Chinese collection was installed.
Fantastical as this may seem, the narrative behind it is even more amazing. A 1937 article from the local newspaper stated that Sutter opened up his new home for a group of prominent Tacomans, including Phillip Garland, a friend and fellow Elk. Sutter told those assembled that the Chinese collection was delivered at the behest of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, military leader and Chairman of the Republic of China from 1928 to 1975. Sutter stated that he knew the Generalissimo personally (from his many trips to China). In another twist, the Generalissimo’s wife, Soon Mei-ling, had attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where Phillip Garland’s wife had also been a student at the same time. A coincidence, perhaps?
Sutter’s exceptional life ended suddenly in a Los Angeles hospital, when an abdominal ailment proved fatal. He was 65. In a fittingly mysterious grand finale, the Chinese art collection inexplicably disappeared from Sutter’s Tacoma home. The house itself was later sold and then, sadly, it was torn down. Do you have any clues to the whereabouts of the Sutter art collection? If so, we’d love to hear it….