'Top of the Ocean' Monument - Atlas Obscura

'Top of the Ocean' Monument

This waterfront restaurant was the life of the party until a crime syndicate burned it to the ground. 

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Have you ever been to a club so fun it felt like the party would never stop? A marker along Ruston Way in Tacoma, Washington marks the site of the Top of the Ocean, a restaurant that entertained Tacoma residents for more than 30 years until one day, it mysteriously went up in flames.

In December 1946, a new boat docked in Ruston Way—but this one was never meant to set sail. The Top of the Ocean was a restaurant shaped like a luxury liner and “docked” in the harbor with space for 700 guests and 20 private yachts. “The Top” quickly became the hottest ticket in Tacoma. Louie Grenier’s Orchestra would play, the drinks would flow, and at the upper deck’s private club, Tacoma’s biggest deals would get done. By 1948, the Tacoma Athletic Club bought the building, and used it as a showcase for high society antics, both legal and otherwise. The club was raided in 1951 by the vice squad, but its notoriety would only grow over time.

On the morning of April 3, 1977, Tacoma residents awoke to a shocking sightthe Top was on fire. Firefighters fought the blaze all day, but the building had been totally destroyed. Arson was suspected and within a few days, a man named Dave Levage was brought in and charged with the crime. Levage would plead not guilty, claiming a skull fracture left him with a shaky memory. Unfortunately for him, there were just a few tiny clues connecting him to the crime scene. For instance, a cabbie reported driving him to the Top and helping him move boxes of heavy liquid. Also, a local hardware store saw him come in a few days before to buy 8 gallons of paint thinner, and his fingerprints were found on those bottles at the crime scene. Despite his head-induced claims of innocence, Levage was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison. But as it turned out, this crime only scratched the surface of Tacoma’s underworld.

Levage was, in fact, a professional arsonist, working for a cabal known as “the Enterprise.” The Enterprise was a protection racket behind a series of arson and firebombings across Tacoma, usually for a cut of the insurance money, or to bump off competition in the nightclub space. The FBI, working the case, ended up charging 15 members of the Enterprise in 1978 with racketeering, arson, attempted murder, and more. Those charged included the ringleader, mobster John J. Carbone, and George Janovich, the sheriff of Pierce County, who helped shield the Enterprise from investigation. Every member charged was found guilty except Levage, who was saved because he was imprisoned during the Top of the Ocean case.

With the rising crime rate and general decline of downtown, the site sat derelict for some time. In the early 2000s, MetroParks Tacoma built a pier over the pilings, and in 2007, the Tacoma Historical Society commissioned local sculptor Paul R. Michaels to build a monument to the restaurant. Today, at the former location of the Top of the Ocean, a plaque tells the story of the fabled restaurant. A 30-inch scale model bronze replica of the restaurant can be found atop the plinth. The restaurant is designed to look as it did in its glory days, with the parking lot filled with vintage cars, remembering the days when music and good times roared across the water.

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