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In Seattle’s Panama Hotel, Untold Stories of Japanese History Remain

A lost chapter of Japanese-American history, stored in the building's basement, may soon come to light

"You would never know the stories contained within the Panama Hotel by its exterior," says Sheri Freemuth, who works in the Seattle office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "But inside, there are layers upon layers."

A nondescript, five-story brick building in Seattle’s International District, the Panama Hotel offers little clue to what’s inside. It’s a time capsule to a time period when it was the heartbeat of a thriving Japanese neighborhood, which began growing profusely in the late 19th century (in part due to facing less immigration restrictions than Chinese-Americans).

Built in 1910, this E-shaped structure, set on a sloping site that wraps around a pair of courtyards, was designed by Japanese-American architect Sabro Ozasa. The Panama served as a model of multi-use development before the term was popularized. A traditional bathhouse, or sendo, called Hashidate Yu, was a gathering space located in the basement, shops and offices for dentists and other professionals lined the mezzanine, and the titular hotel, which had its lobby on the third floor, often served as a temporary home for workers.

Deemed a National Treasure by the Trust last year, the only one in the city, the structure is poised to reveal many more secrets during upcoming research into its past. Before many of the Japanese residents of Nihonmachi, of Japantown, were forced to leave Seattle due to the nation’s policy of internment after the Pearl Harbor attack, owner Takashi Hori, who himself would be sent to a camp, allowed others to store excess furniture, baggage, and possessions in the Panama Hotel basement. Currently, curators from the nearby Wing Luke Museum, which focuses on chronicling the region’s Asian-American history, are taking advantage of a $137,000 grant from the National Park Service to sort through these artifacts, with plans to catalog and display them as a tribute to former residents and history lesson. While they were prized possessions—those were taken with them to the camps—the remains provide a snapshot of a pre-war immigrant lifestyle.

"We're trying to figure out if it's better in the collection it's in, or returned to the heirs," says Freemuth. "Is that right? We don't know the answer to those questions, and are trying to determine the best thing for everyone concerned."

After the war, many Japanese residents sent to internment camps didn’t return, and the arrival of Interstate 5 in the ‘60s, which bisected the neighborhood, was the final blow to the once-thriving neighborhood that was never able to rebound. While the restoration of the Panama won’t restore the area, supporters hope it can serve as an important symbol. Current owner Jan Johnson, who bought the hotel from the Hori’s, is looking for a new owner who can operate the building in a way that’s commercially viable yet respects and shares the structure’s unique history. Johnson has kept much of the building as is, making the job of preservationists easier.

As Johnson told King5 NBC in an interview, she bought the hotel because it was "the quickest way to teach American history." With the added context and personal stories stored in the lost luggage in the lower level, the building may become a poignant reminder of the Asian-American experience.