The idea of a museum in Tacoma first came from state legislator Dan Grimm. He wrote a letter to John McClelland Jr. (1915-2010), chairman of the Washington State Historical Society's board of trustees suggesting construction of a state history museum and Grimm had in mind Tacoma's downtown. Grimm collaborated with other Tacoma-area legislators such as Brian Ebersole, Lorraine Wojahn (1920-2012), Ruth Fisher, Art Wang, Marilyn Rasmussen, Ken Madsen, and Peter von Reichbauer to approve $34 million in general obligation bonds. The City of Tacoma donated two-and-a-half acres of land on Pacific Avenue through the good offices of City Councilman Tom Stegner.
Museum Director David Nicandri built a statewide constituency for the project and raised $6 million from government agencies, trusts, and local businesses. Big donors included Boeing, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the M. J. Murdoch Charitable Trust, Key Bank, the Ben B. Cheney Foundation, Weyerhaeuser, the Forest Foundation, and the McEarchern Charitable Trust.
Architects Charles Moore and Andersson designed a 106,000 square foot museum that housed a five-eighths scale electricity transmission tower, a 270-seat amphitheater, a museum shop, and a cafe.