Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Seattle's Panama Hotel, Known For Its Japanese-American History, Is Up For Sale

Ashley Gross
Jan Johnson is hoping to find a new owner for the Panama Hotel who will continue her work preserving the hotel's history.

Property owners are cashing in right now as Seattle’s real estate market booms.

But that’s not the main goal of Jan Johnson, owner of Seattle’s historic Panama Hotel, as she searches for someone to buy the place. She wants to ensure the hotel is preserved as a reminder of the city’s once bustling Japantown, part of what's known as the Chinatown International District, and the sad history of Japanese-American families sent to camps during World War II.

Johnson is an artist and fashion designer and someone who didn’t really care about history until she lived in Rome decades ago and discovered it was all around her.

“I thought history had nothing to do with me, except for the history of art, right?” Johnson said. “But then most of my friends in Rome were architects and they started talking about everything, and I started getting interested and I came back and thought, where’s ours?”

When she returned to Seattle, she lived in near the Panama Hotel and became fascinated by it. So when its owner, Takashi Hori, decided to sell, Johnson made an offer and bought it in 1985.

It’s been a labor of love ever since.

Belongings Left Behind

On a recent afternoon, she led a group of potential buyers down to the basement and admonished them not to wander around or touch anything. No flash photography, either.

Belongings from Japanese-American families have been gathering dust here since 1942. That’s when the families rushed to store their possessions in the Panama Hotel after President Roosevelt issued an order to have Japanese Americans rounded up and sent to camps.

Credit Ashley Gross
Ashley Gross
Items left for safekeeping in the Panama Hotel during World War II.

Some of the things families left here for safekeeping include a pair of ice skates, Japanese-language magazines, an old doll buggy, bottles of vinegar and port wine, and even some Aqua Velva after shave.

Johnson said there are also record albums, just like in Jamie Ford’s bestselling novel, The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, in which the Panama Hotel plays a starring role.

Johnson considers this stuff sacred – a grim reminder of a time when our country put American citizens behind barbed wire without due process. It’s always been important to her to have the belongings remain here as a kind of living museum.

`Where You Get The Learning'

“It’s the Panama Hotel. It has to stay here,” she said. “It happened here. This is the story. This is where you get the learning.”

The hotel also contains a rare traditional Japanese bathhouse that’s no longer in use, but Johnson occasionally gives tours of it. She rents out simple hotel rooms upstairs and has a tea room on the ground floor that displays Japanese-American newspapers and photos and artwork people made in the camps.

She’s poured her all into this place, but she says now it’s time to step aside. So she’s soliciting bids from possible buyers with the help of a nonprofit group called the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The deadline is this Friday.

Leslie Morishita is senior housing developer with Interim Community Development Association, which builds affordable housing in the International District. Her group is interested in buying the Panama Hotel.

Morishita’s parents and grandparents were incarcerated during the war.

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
Morishita and Johnson

“This history is very personal for me, and very meaningful,” she said. “It reaches beyond the Japanese-American community because at its heart it’s a real social justice story.”

But acquiring an historic building like this can be expensive. Johnson didn’t list a price in her request for proposals, but she did list all the parts of the building she would like the next owner to leave intact. So a buyer couldn’t just gut the place and turn it into luxury condos.

Challenges Of Preservation

Morishita said she supports that goal, but it’s hard to make it pencil out.

“I think the whole thing is challenging because there’s a major portion of the building we would want to preserve because of its historic value,” Morishita said. “Finding a way to make that financially feasible to maintain – that’s a big challenge.”

Somehow Johnson has made it work.

Sheri Freemuth with the National Trust for Historic Preservation called Johnson “a preservation hero.”

Freemuth said that often owners just want to cash in, so she’s grateful that Johnson’s priority is finding a buyer who will protect the hotel’s legacy.

“Yes, this is tricky, but it’s really in a way kind of ideal that we’re able to take the moment before anything dire happens to find the new preservation-minded owner for this remarkable building,” Freemuth said.

In the tearoom, Johnson greeted a table of women. She gets a smile on her face when she sees people enjoying the space she’s worked so hard to rebuild and maintain.

“You all look so good,” Johnson told the women. “You love it here?”

"We do," they said. "Absolutely."

“I love you more,” Johnson said with a laugh. “Thank you, thank you.”

Finding The Next Buyer

Now, as Johnson gets ready to part with the hotel, she remembers the 10 months of chatting and drinking tea with Mr. Hori before he agreed to sell to her.

“I started asking him, `Why me?’ And he would sort of pause and he’d say, ‘I knew you were going to run the building, Jan,’” Johnson said. “He wanted somebody to run it like he had run it. He didn’t want it torn down or destroyed or whatever, and he felt comfortable that I would do that.”

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU

So is Johnson planning to spend ten months having tea with potential buyers to figure out whom to sell to?

“I’m just waiting, just waiting,” she said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Johnson hopes the Panama Hotel will continue to be a place people can stay in and use, and at the same time immerse themselves in the past and learn.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.