Panama Hotel Receives National Historic Landmark Recognition

Jacqueline Ashwell (right), Superintendent of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle, presents the National Historic Landmark plaque to Jan Johnson, owner of the Panama Hotel.

Historic Seattle held its quarterly members’ meeting and “Learning from Historic Sites” event at the Panama Hotel (605 1/2 South Main St) in Seattle’s Japantown (Nihonmachi) on Monday, October 15, 2012. About 60 members and new friends attended this special event that offered tours of the bath house and upper floor hotel spaces. What made the evening even more special was the recognition of the Panama Hotel as a National Historic Landmark (NHL)–the highest honor bestowed on a historic place. The property was designated an NHL in 2006. The NHL nomination was prepared by Professor Gail Dubrow who has worked hard to document places of significance in Asian American heritage in the West. The Panama Hotel is featured prominently in her book with Donna Graves, Sento at Sixth and Main. Of course, more recently, the Panama Hotel has gained fame in the book, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Jacqueline Ashwell, Superintendent of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle, presented a beautiful bronze plaque to Panama Hotel owner Jan Johnson in the building’s tea and coffee house. Below is Ms. Ashwell’s speech, eloquently prepared by Gretchen Luxenberg (National Park Service, Cultural Resources). The plaque ceremony was followed by Ms. Johnson’s stories about the building history and the people associated with making the Panama Hotel such a unique and important part of Seattle heritage. Historic Seattle thanks Jan for being such an incredible steward of the building and for her continuing efforts to teach us all about the significance of the Panama Hotel in Japanese American history.

Remarks by Jacqueline Ashwell:

I am honored to present this National Historic Landmark plaque to Jan Johnson, the owner and steward of the Panama Hotel here in Seattle’s International District.

National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States. Today, fewer than 2,500 historic places bear this national distinction.

The Panama Hotel was designated an NHL by the Secretary on March 20, 2006.

The Panama Hotel is nationally significant for its association with the historical theme “Japanese immigration to the United States.” Similar to other immigrant groups, the new arrivals from Japan reestablished and adapted Japanese practices in the new world. The Panama Hotel houses the Hashidate Yu, a Japanese-style bathhouse, in the hotel’s basement. Bathing was a valued tradition in Japan; it was among the most significant traditional cultural practices brought to the United States by Japanese immigrants. At one time, there were hundreds of Japanese-style bathhouses in the western United States. Now there are only two; the other is in Walnut Grove, California but does not retain the level of integrity that is found at Hashidate Yu.

The Panama Hotel also is significant as a building type that is exceptionally valuable for the study of the earliest generation of Japanese immigrants in the United States. Built in 1910, the Panama Hotel was designed by Sabro Ozasa, one of the earliest Japanese architects to practice in the country and the first Japanese architect to practice in Seattle. Along with hotel rooms, the Panama Hotel also contained the traditional Japanese bathhouse or sento within. Bathing met physical and social needs and bathhouses were a place for gathering, sharing of resources, networking, and affirmation of cultural traditions in a new land. The building is an outstanding example and a valuable resource for the study of the important story of the Japanese in the United States. The Hashidate Yu bathhouse in the Panama Hotel is the most outstanding representative example of an urban bathhouse and possesses an extraordinarily high degree of integrity, particularly the interior features associated with the actual bathhouse. The scarcity of surviving examples of sentos in the United States coupled with the physical integrity and cultural significance of the Hashidate Yu, qualifies it for designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Jan Johnson has patiently awaited this long overdue day of recognition. She should be recognized for her building preservation efforts as well as for preserving its history. When she purchased the property in 1985, not only did she assume ownership of the hotel, she inadvertently became the caretaker of Japanese American artifacts that had been forgotten in the basement of the Panama since World War II. In 1942, many Nikkei were forced to evacuate their homes for World War II internment camps and had packed their personal belongings in large trunks and stashed them in the basement of the hotel. She found many of these possessions, returned them to their owners when possible, and preserving the remaining items as part of the building’s history and legacy to the city and the nation.

Preservation of the Hashidate Yu promises to provide Americans of Japanese descent with a tangible reminder of an important aspect of their cultural heritage, and all Americans with a better understanding of the Japanese imprint on the western landscape.