The original Seward Park torii, shortly after its installation, circa 1935. Photo by courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives
Volunteer fundraising efforts are being raised to erect a torii gate in the Seattle park.
By Tiffany Ujiiye, Assistant Editor
Friends of Seward Park and community members are looking to install a 26-foot-tall Japanese torii, a traditional gate commonly found in front of shrines, in Seattle’s Seward Park. A meeting held at the Bertha Landis Room in Seattle’s City Hall on June 11 looked to evaluate the project. Government representatives from the Neighborhood District Councils and City-Wide Review Teams evaluated the projects presented by the Torii Project.
Tia Higano, Joe Manson, Joan Seko, John Thorpe, Kenji Ushimaru and Ted Weinberg all spoke about the project in hopes of winning the Large Project Fund from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods’ Large Project Fund. The Seward Torii is one of five projects in competition for the Large Project Fund.
The Seward Park Torii organizers will hear from the Department of Neighborhoods in August if they will be recipients of the fund. If the project meets its funding requirements, Seward Park should see the torii completed by spring 2016.
Table display for the project at the meeting included architectural plans for the new torii, designed by Murase Associates. Columns for the torii will be made from rough-hewn granite with cedar beams across it. For the surrounding area, the torii will provide a new venue for a theater, allowing space for community events such as concerts, weddings, yoga demonstrations and other wellness activities.
Thus far, the project has received two Small & Simple grants from the Neighborhood Matching Fund. Plans to apply for King County’s 4 Culture program are also in the works later this summer. The estate of Mimi Kraus also donated $25,0000, and Nintendo gave $5,000, in addition to other individual donations.
Cost for the project is an estimated $270,000-$360,000, depending on design specifications. The current minimum needed is $200,000.
“We hope that the Department of Neighborhoods’ Large Project Fund will be a major contributor,” community volunteer Higano said about the Seward Torii Project. “The projects presented this evening were all for worthy causes, so if for some reason the Torii Project is not funded, our volunteer committee is committed to continue fundraising,” she said.
Higano learned about the Seward Torii Project back in 2013 after reading an article published in the Seattle Times. Although Higano grew up in Massachusetts, she feels culturally passionate about her father’s family, who once lived on Seattle’s Beacon Hill.
“In the process of working on this project, I have had the opportunity to connect with so many members of the community who are working toward a common goal,” said Higano. “It has been great to meet new friends and learn more about the city where my father grew up. This is the first opportunity I have had to be involved in a project with the direct links to my own heritage and family.”
Higano, like many others working on the project, continues to raise awareness regarding the importance of making such connections with one’s Japanese ancestry.
In 1934, the original torii was on display at Seattle University. A gift sponsored by the Seattle Japanese Chamber of Commerce, the torii was viewed as a way to involve the Japanese community by promoting Seattle as the “Gateway to the Orient,” according to the Seward Park Torii website.
Despite the traditional torii’s religious association, the Seward Torii is secular, celebrating the park’s natural beauty and a symbol of intercultural friendship.
After the celebration, the torii was disassembled and donated to the city, where it was placed in Seward Park’s north side. The famous floating torii offshore from Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, Japan, inspired the Seward Park design, which was sketched by Kichio Allen Arai.
Over the years, the iconic torii became a community gathering place for events like the annual Rainier District Pow-Wow until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Anti-Japanese sentiment spread across the nation, but the torii remained untouched. In 1948, Park Maintenance Superintendent Roland Koepf recommended to have the torii rebuilt after noting its “advanced stage of decay,” according to the Seward Torii Project. No park reports or evidence in the Seattle Tribune provide insight if the restorations efforts were ever made or executed.
By 1984, the torii was dismantled because it was deemed a hazard due to decay. Some of the lumber pieces were rescued by a parks employee, who kept it in his backyard until the Friends of Seaward Park asked for it to be donated to the Wing Luke Museum in 2012.
A renewed interest to erect the park icon is gaining momentum. The Friends of Seward Park are beginning community fundraising efforts like sharing a video describing the torii’s history and cultural significance. Groups will be also representing the project on Bicycle Sundays in Seward Park and Aki Matsuri Japanese Festival.
For information on public meetings, please contact the project at firstname.lastname@example.org or to learn more about the torii’s history, visit www.sewardparktorii.org for more details.