Look Back at the 105 Year History of The Panama Hotel

August 1910 – The Panama Hotel opens in Seattle’s Japantown

In August 1910, the Panama Hotel opens at 605 1/2 South Main Street, in the heart of Seattle’s Nihonmachi (Japantown). The builder and designer is Sabro Ozasa, a Japanese American architect. The Panama is a five-story workingman’s hotel, with businesses located on the first floor. The businesses included a laundry, a dentist, a tailor, a pool hall and book store. The upper floors contain single occupant residences. In the basement, there is (and remains to this day) a “sento,” a Japanese-style public bathhouse. The Panama Hotel’s sento, named the Hashidate Yu, one of only two such bathhouses in the United States today and the only one intact in original condition.

The Sento

The Hashidate Yu drew on a 1,200-year-old tradition of Japanese bathing. Japanese sentos were a central feature of Buddhist temples, used in purification rites. The temples also provided baths for the general public, since many homes at the time did not have private facilities. Eventually, the religious implications faded, but the sentos continued to be used as gathering places. Japanese immigrants sought out sentos upon arrival in their new communities. The Hashidate Yu had separate baths — one for men and one for women and children.

Over the years the Panama Hotel served as a home for generations of Japanese immigrants, Alaskan fishermen, and international travelers. The combination of businesses, hotels, and bathhouses provided necessary services for the community. Facilities like the sentos allowed the Japanese immigrants to share their cultural traditions. Before World War II, there were at least four sentos in Seattle: the Hashidate Yu, the Shimoji, the Hinode, and the Naruto. Most of Seattle’s Nihonmachi, like many across the western United States, disappeared during World War II when the United States government forced 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps. In Seattle many families packed their belongings into trunks and suitcases and stored them for safekeeping in the hotel’s basement.

Abandoned Property

Sadly, many of the families never returned to collect their belongings. Takashi Hori (who was interned from 1942 to 1945), owned and ran the Panama Hotel from 1938 to 1985. He found more than 50 trunks of property and made several attempts to reunite the items with their owners. After the war the Hashidate Yu bathhouse in the hotel basement was re-opened and was run by Fukuo and Shigeko Sano until the mid-1950s. Sentos gradually fell out favor, as many Japanese Americans felt compelled to abandon their traditions during and after the war. Also, modern houses usually included bathing facilities.

In 1985, Jan Johnson bought the Panama Hotel from the Hori family and began renovations. She also attempted to locate the owners of the property left in the hotel. She then took the belongings that were left unclaimed and created a small museum in the basement of the hotel. The artifacts include old Japanese American photographs, a dusty footlocker, a cloth coat with a fur collar, a pair of men’s socks, and other pieces of everyday life. Many of the items have been included in temporary exhibitions at Ellis Island and the Japanese American National Museum.

National Landmark

In 2001, Johnson opened The Panama Hotel Tea House, an Asian tea house on the Main Street side of the building. Large format black-and-white photos hang on exposed brick walls. The photos depict people and scenes from a bygone era, launderers, shopkeepers, a butcher, a stationer, a bookstore, a florist, a dentist, and a parade float. A long sleek counter is lined with tea. Gleaming hardwood floors surround a “window” to the floor below, revealing a part of the museum. Visitors can take a tour of the Hashidate Yu sento, which looks much as it did when it was open for business, complete with the mosaic floors, wooden lockers, and marble and concrete tubs.

The tea house provides a means for people to experience a piece of Japanese culture and explore a bit of history. It also provides a means for Japanese Americans to reconnect with their past. Since the teahouse opened, many elderly Nisei have come to the hotel. They have filled in the dates, and names of the people in several of the photographs. For many of them, Ms. Johnson reports, it is an emotional experience, bringing back memories of the thriving community that once lived and worked in this neighborhood.

The Panama Hotel was declared a National Historic Landmark building in 2006. (Source: HistoryLink.org Essay 9544)

National Treasure

On April 9th, 2015 The Panama Hotel was official designated a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation at a special event held at the Nisei Veterans Hall in Seattle. One of only 60 designated Treasures in the United States with this distinction, The Panama Hotel is one of only two National Treasures in Washington State and the only one in Seattle. In addition to remarks by Congressman Jim McDermott and Stephanie Meeks, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Deputy Mayor of Seattle Hyeok Kim, on behalf of Mayor Ed Murray, officially declared April 9th as The Panama Hotel Day.

From the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

“The Panama Hotel possesses an exceptional degree of integrity, conveying a powerful sense of time and place; the property was designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL) in March 2006 (1 of 3 NHL buildings in Seattle). It continues to evoke the pre-World War II life of Japanese Americans, to testify to the betrayal of the forcible relocation effort of 1942 and to bear witness to post-war reconciliations.

The continued use of the hotel and the gathering space that is the Tea Room has enabled a form of pilgrimage that is unique and authentic. The basement sento that served Japanese immigrants and their children is virtually unchanged from the last day it was used in the early 1960’s. The haunting collection of belongings in the basement, items stored by Seattle’s Japanese-American residents, is a remarkable assemblage of pre-World War II artifacts. The combined effect of these physical spaces, in their original context, is a tangible and distinctive link to our country’s Japanese-American heritage.”

Visit the National Trust for Historic Preservation website SavingPlaces.org

The Panama Hotel Film Project
(206) 696-0414
605 Main Street, Seattle, Washington 98104
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