The National Trust for Historic Preservation designates the Seattle landmark as a ‘National Treasure.’
By Tiffany Ujiiye, Assistant Editor
In August 1910, Japanese American architect Sabro Ozasa built and designed the Panama Hotel, a five-story brick building with 100 guest rooms above and small businesses on the ground floor. Today, it still stands on the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue South and S. Main Street in Seattle’s Nihonmachi and was recently declared Seattle’s first “National Treasure.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the hotel as a National Treasure on April 9 before a crowd of more than 160 people at the Nisei Veterans Committee building in Seattle, Wash. At the special event, speakers included NVC President Bruce Inaba, National Trust President Stephanie Meeks, Congressman Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim, Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle and hotel owner Jan Johnson.
“The Panama Hotel possesses an exceptional degree of integrity, conveying a powerful sense of time and place,” said the National Trust for Historic Preservation in a statement. “It continues to evoke the pre-World War II life of Japanese Americans, to testify to the betrayal of the forcible relocation effort of 1942 and to bear witness to post-war reconciliations.”
The NTHP, an organization dedicated to preserving important historical sites in American history with more than 60 years of expertise and resources to protect a growing portfolio of more than 55 National Treasures, will focus on maintaining the building. The program promotes and advocates the history of threatened buildings, neighborhoods, communities and landscapes that stand at risk across the country.
Today, the hotel is still in operation, offering guests an opportunity to stay in one of its 100 rooms and a chance to experience a bygone era in white lace sheets and wooden boudoirs.
Johnson and the NHTP are now drafting conservation efforts and plans for the building and the exhibit collections within it. As Johnson retires her title as owner, both parties are in the process of finding a new steward for the property while honoring the legacy of the hotel.
“I believe that historic places provide a tangible connection between the past and present. They offer an important, living lesson in what our ancestors experienced and how they fundamentally lived,” said Sheri Freemuth, senior field officer with the NTHP and project manager for the Panama Hotel National Treasure. “The Panama Hotel is an amazing example of this because it has changed so little from its original use and intent, even while some of the surrounding blocks have seen dramatic change. For the Japanese American community, there is an even deeper resonance in the space that is truly inspiring.”
Within its walls contains a time capsule of both pre- and post-World War II Seattle. Over the years, the hotel has seen generations of Japanese immigrants along with Alaskan fisherman and international travelers. For Japanese immigrants before the war, this was the place to stay in between and during jobs.
Below its guest rooms and businesses is the basement, which houses one of America’s oldest Japanese-style public bathhouses or “sentos.” In Japan, sentos were used as purification rites in Buddhism but lost religious implications in the United States. Rather than operate like a religious institution, the sentos in places like Seattle’s Nihonmachi were social gathering spots.
The Panama Hotel’s sento, which is named “Hashidate Yu,” was one of only two such bathhouses in the United Sates at the time of its opening and is currently the only sento intact in its original condition.
During the years leading up to WWII, the Panama Hotel served a trifecta of services for the growing Japanese community. The building was a combination of homes, businesses and a bathhouse. It was a cultural hub.
Facilities like Hashidate Yu also allowed Japanese immigrants to share their cultural traditions. Then in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, forcibly removing 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from their homes into incarceration camps. Like Seattle’s Nihonmachi, many Japanese and Japanese American communities disappeared along with the sentos. It was during that time when Seattle’s Nihonmachi residents packed their belongings and stored them for safekeeping in the hotel’s basement.
Hashidate Yu went from sento to safe house for Japanese and Japanese Americans during their incarceration throughout World War II. Takashi Hori, owned and operated the Panama Hotel from 1938-85. Hori’s father, Sanijiro Hori, originally purchased the property for $20,000, intending that his son would operate and manage the hotel.
As E.O. 9066 came into effect, people began asking Hori if they could store their belongings in the hotel’s basement. Gradually, as word spread, the sento became filled to the ceiling with trunks and suitcases of personal belongings. Other locations like Nichiren Church and the Seattle Buddhist Church also offered storage space for families during this time.
“It was all based on trust, as everyone was just doing their best under the circumstances,” wrote Jenny Nakao Hones. Hones wrote an eight-part feature of Hori on her blog “Asian Lifestyle Design” in 2012.
When the families returned from the incarceration camps, Hori told Hones that “some families never came back to pick up their items. This puzzled me. But, he said it was probably because they just wanted to move on with life and leave the past and those memories behind.”
Hones interviewed Hori before his passing in May 2013.
Hori, like his fellow community members, was incarcerated. He and his family were sent to Minidoka, leaving the hotel in the hands of entrusted individuals. Upon Hori’s return to Seattle’s Nihonmachi, Hori considered himself lucky in his discussion with Hones. The hotel kept its integrity, and the basement with its treasures was left untouched.
The Panama Hotel’s basement is a painful reminder of what happened to a community thrown into chaos. While many of the suitcases and trunks were reclaimed, some were never reunited with their owners.
Today, many of the original items are on display in the coffee shop on the first floor of the Panama Hotel. Visitors can view photographs, clothes and pieces of everyday life while touring the exhibit, which allows them to step back into the American past. As the years passed, Hori as well as Johnson have made efforts to contact families and individuals in the hopes of returning the possessions.
After the war, Hashidate Yu was reopened and operated by Fukuo and Shigeko Sano until the mid-1950s. Over time, the sentos grew less popular, and modern homes better accommodated Japanese American families looking to move away from Japanese traditions.
In 1985, Johnson bought the Panama Hotel from the Hori family and renovated the property. Johnson took the belongings found in the basement and created a small museum in the sento.
The Panama Hotel Tea House was installed in 2001, providing a means for visitors to experience a slice of Japanese culture in Seattle and learn about the hotel’s history. Since its opening, many Niseis have visited the hotel, adding personal narratives and memories.
Author Jamie Ford used the hotel in her best-selling fiction novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” a love story set in the community surrounding the Panama Hotel during WWII.
“The Panama Hotel Legacy,” a short film about the hotel, was featured at the declaration event in April. Historians like professor Michael Sullivan from the University of Washington Tacoma spoke about the hotel’s significance as well as other community members and activists.
Johnson and the NTHP continue their search for a new steward.
For individuals interested in learning about future stewardship of the hotel, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. “Assisting the process of transferring the property from one steward to the next is a key moment in the preservation of the Panama Hotel,”said Freemuth.
To reserve a room or schedule a tour at the Panama Hotel, visit www.panamahotel.net or call (206) 223-9242 or email email@example.com. To read Hones’ full-feature, visit www.asianlifestyledesign.com.