Seattle’s Panama Hotel is a living museum of the Japanese American experience

There is no elevator at Hotel Panama.

A grand staircase rises inside the double doors of the 112-year-old hotel in Seattle’s historic Japantown, or Nihonmachi. Guests hold their luggage in one hand, the brass railing in the other, and ascend to their rooms on one of the three floors reserved for guests.

Susan Hori used to take those same stairs, to and from a place she considered home. Takashi Hori, Susan’s father, owned and operated Hotel Panama from 1938 to 1985.

Hori, 66, says her fondest memories of growing up in a hotel are the people who passed through it, often long-time tenants and Japanese Americans. They celebrated Christmas together, opening presents with guests, and she and her brother, Robert, received candy from them on Halloween.

“They watched us grow and we watched them grow old,” she said of people who rented rooms from her father. “We really got to see a bit of the picture of Seattle’s immigration story.”

The photos, plaques, cards and memorabilia that line the walls of Hotel Panama’s common areas, including the downstairs tea house which has been in operation for over two decades, tell a similar story – that of a building that held incredible significance for the Japanese. American experience in Seattle for more than a century as an operational hotel, as a mid-century bathhouse and, following Executive Order 9066 of 1942, as a warehouse for luggage, furniture and personal items left behind during the incarceration of Japanese Americans during wartime.

And while a new preservation effort is underway — this living museum in Seattle’s Chinatown international district is set to become an official museum — those closest to the building hope it will remain a permanent part of the story that the public will be able to see and experience for themselves. .

Seattle (and national) landmark

On January 19, the City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board unanimously named the Panama Hotel and Hashidate Yu Bath as a city landmark. Pending a signed agreement between owner Jan Johnson and the board, the Seattle City Council will pass a designation ordinance, in which the Panama Hotel and its basement bathhouse would join more than 400 buildings, ships, and other individual sites as Seattle landmarks, which are subject to protection.

Built in 1910, Hotel Panama is the masterpiece of groundbreaking architect Sabro Ozasa, the first Japanese architect in the Puget Sound area. Hori says that when his parents were looking to sell the hotel in the 1980s, preserving the building itself was of paramount importance.

“The trend was to tear it down and turn it into a parking lot,” Hori said. “And I think that concerned them.”

So when artist and Seattle resident Johnson approached the Hori family in the 1980s to purchase the hotel, which was deemed a national treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2015, Hori said Johnson’s interest to continue to operate the hotel as a hotel had appealed to his parents. .

And Takashi Hori put Johnson to work before closing the sale. Susan Hori says her father was the plumber, electrician and odd jobs at the Panama Hotel. He knew “every nook and cranny” of the building and wanted to make sure whoever took over knew about the operation.

“I used to come here and work in the boiler room with [Takashi Hori]“, Johnson said. “Then I would do the laundry with Ms. Hori.

Upon learning the ins and outs of the space, Johnson realized almost immediately that she had acquired more than a building with 102 rooms whose linen had to be changed after each departure. She had become the guardian of one of the last surviving physical incarnations of the community that used to inhabit Nihonmachi.

Gateway to the past

“Every time I visit Hotel Panama, no matter how many times I’ve been there, I get goosebumps,” said Eugenia Woo, director of preservation services at Historic Seattle. “When you enter the bathhouse, you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.”

Woo has been on several tours (led by Johnson, by appointment) of the Hashidate Yu Bathhouse, located in the basement of the hotel. The bathhouse, or sento, was once a gathering place for Japanese immigrants living in Seattle. Hundreds of sentos once dotted the American West; Hashidate Yu is the last.

“It wasn’t just a place to go swimming; it had a very important social function,” said Karen Yoshitomi, executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington, located in the Central District. “That’s where the community got together and discussed business plans or what to do about this and that.”

Although the bathhouse hasn’t been operational since the mid-1960s, the two large pools – separated by gender – and adjoining lockers remain intact in such a way that Woo describes the space as a living museum.

The museums house objects of historical and cultural value – of which the Hotel Panama, designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006, is no shortage. Also in the basement are the personal belongings of residents of Seattle’s Nihonmachi neighborhood, locked away for safekeeping after President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, issued on February 19, 1942. The order eventually forced more than 120,000 Americans out of of Japanese descent to evacuate their homes and spend the years of World War II in incarceration camps.

Around this time, word quickly spread through Seattle’s Japanese-American community that Mr. Hori was letting people leave their belongings at the hotel. His building quickly became a temporary storage facility, housing trunks filled with kimonos, everyday items like teapots and more, and personal keepsakes, like an unfinished handwritten letter dated April 8, 1942, one of 7 500 objects cataloged by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“Dear Dad, we have gone quite far in our preparation for evacuation,” the letter read. “Everything was packed up, but kept open, and…”

Many incarcerated Japanese Americans never returned to Seattle after the war, leaving their possessions unclaimed but not forgotten. Today, visitors can peek into their lives through a plexiglass opening set into the floor of the Panama Hotel’s tea house. Johnson also loaned some of the trunks to museums across the country.

For decades, many issei and nisei (first- and second-generation Japanese Americans, respectively) have felt great shame and grief over forced incarceration, Yoshitomi says. The traumatic experience was not openly discussed, or if it was, only fond memories were shared. References to people “in the camp” have been decontextualized; conversations were covered in silver linings and euphemisms.

“For me, the reference to camp was just an experience that my parents and grandparents had,” she said. “And for my parents, it was [them] want to know or who would care what happened? »

Yoshitomi says it wasn’t until she took an ethnic studies course in college that she really realized the traumatic events her parents went through while incarcerated, her mother in Pinedale and Tule Lake in California and her father in Christina Lake, British Columbia.

“There are so many things related to the experience of the internment camp and the pain of some people who have nothing to come back to,” Hori said. “Just the thought of all businesses closing and Japantown slowly disappearing in this area, I think there’s a certain sadness and pain associated with that.”

Hori says others have noted how ‘unusual’ it is for Johnson, who is not of Japanese descent, to be guardian of a structure that houses much of the nisei and issei experience. . Being one step away from that pain could be a good thing, she says.

“For Jan, not having lived [evacuation and incarceration]I think it allows him to really focus on the story and the preservation of those memories without having the family history, the pain, the trauma associated with what happened in World War II,” Hori said. .

These days, there’s a more open dialogue about the discrimination Japanese Americans faced then — and still face — in Seattle and across the country. And at the Panama Hotel, visitors even include descendants of families who didn’t return to Seattle after World War II. They are encouraged to search for historical photos and maps in the tea room, carving notes like “my mother” or “my father” into them.

The future of the hotel

Set against the backdrop of the decades by an ever-changing Seattle, the Hotel Panama has remained in service all those years, its guestbook filled with the gratitude of visitors spanning decades. You’ll find similar reviews on Airbnb, where Johnson began listing rooms in 2021.

“Thank you for being such a wonderful host and for opening my eyes to the beauty and history of this hotel and this neighborhood,” reads part of an inscription. Even those who stop for tea or coffee will find themselves engaged in a history lesson while waiting for their order.

“I mean, I don’t own it. If anything, it belongs to me,” Johnson said, referring to objects and artifacts of cultural and historical significance throughout the hotel. “But I have to be here to take care of it, and hopefully it will pass.”

Its exit strategy, when the time comes, is to transform the hotel into a veritable museum. This is a plan in its infancy. In January 2020, Johnson registered the “Japanese American Museum of Seattle” as a nonprofit corporation.

Johnson has shared his museum plans with Hori and Yoshitomi, who say they support the Panama Hotel remaining a cultural cornerstone, so that this piece of Seattle’s painful and triumphant history can be preserved. .

“I think the hotel [as a museum] has the opportunity to unveil or somehow interpret the old district of Japantown and the vibrancy it had, leading up to 1942,” Yoshitomi said. “He provides the stage for all these other stories to be told.”

Once City Council approves the Hotel Panama Historic Designation Ordinance, any future proposed changes to the interior and exterior of the structure will require City approval, which hopefully , will secure much of the historic value of the hotel.

“Jan has been a great steward,” Woo of Historic Seattle said. “We don’t know who the next owner will be and how he will look after the property. So we just want to make sure that there is as much protection as possible in place. »

For now, however, and for the foreseeable future, Hotel Panama remains one of Seattle’s most special and unique places to spend the night.

Offering more than just turndown service and tea, it’s a space where Japanese Americans can reconnect with their past, with an open invitation for all to honor and appreciate.

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