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Preservation Group Names Seattle’s Panama Hotel A National Treasure

Ashley Gross
KPLU
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Readers of Jamie Ford’s bestseller, Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet, know Seattle’s Panama Hotel as the place where KeikoOkabe and her family stashed treasured belongings – including the jazz album central to Keiko’s star-crossed romance with Henry Lee.

The book is fiction, but the part about Japanese-Americans leaving their possessions at the hotel is truth. The Panama Hotel is located on South Main St. at the corner of 6th Ave. South, in the heart of what was the city’s bustling Japantown.

After President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry – many of them American citizens – were forced to leave their homes and live behind barbed wire in internment camps. They were not allowed to bring much with them, so many asked the owners of the Panama Hotel, the Hori family, if they could leave their stuff there.

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Credit National Trust For Historic Preservation
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Some of the belongings in the basement collection of the Panama Hotel

Now, 70 years later, a lot of those mementoes are still there because the families never returned to reclaim them.

National Treasure

The hotel is of such historic significance, marking such a dark time in American history, that the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private, non-profit group, has now named it a national treasure.

“We’re working with the landowner to document and inventory all the personal belongings that were left in the basement so they’ll be catalogued for the first time ever and available online for research and study,” said Stephanie Meeks, executive director of the trust.

The owner of the hotel is Jan Johnson, who bought it in 1985 from the Hori family. She wanted to preserve the history.

“These people were all Americans and they were interned, with no due process,” Johnson said.

She’s restored the café with windows in the floor so people can see the mementoes without disturbing them. And the hotel is still operational. The walls are lined with black-and-white photographs and a framed copy of the last edition of the Japanese-American newspaper, the North American Times, dated March 12, 1942. Johnson says reading the paper’s editorial on the front page about its imminent demise makes her cry.

“Beginning tomorrow, the North American Times will be no more,” the first line of the editorial reads.

Time Capsule

The whole hotel feels like a time capsule, especially the adjacent bathhouse. The traditional communal Japanese bath ceased operation in the mid-1960s.

Johnson has left everything as-is, down to the lightbulbs and the enamel pans the bathers would fill with water to use while scrubbing themselves. There are still Japanese and English signs on the wall advertising businesses such as Hikida Furniture.

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Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
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KPLU
Jan Johnson shows the communal bathtub adjacent to the Panama Hotel

“This is American history at its finest,” Johnson said. “You can just walk in here and feel it, smell it, breathe it.”

She’s poured a lot time and energy into the hotel over the course of 30 years, but now Johnson is thinking of selling the hotel. Meeks says the Trust will work with her to find someone who will continue to honor its legacy.

“This is not a building that’s falling down or in crisis in any way. It’s been really remarkably stewarded and what we want to ensure is that it continues to be stewarded just as effectively,” Meeks said.

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.