Preserving a National Historic Landmark in Seattle’s Japantown: The Panama Hotel

Historic Seattle, in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is working with Panama Hotel owner and steward, Jan Johnson, to develop a long-term plan that preserves this rare National Historic Landmark (NHL) for the future and improves community access and interpretation. In addition to being a National Historic Landmark, the Panama Hotel is a contributing resource to the International Special Review District and Seattle-Chinatown National Register Historic District.

Located on the southeast corner of Sixth Ave S. and S. Main St. in Seattle’s Japantown (Nihonmachi) within the International District, the Panama Hotel is nationally significant for its association with the historical theme, “Japanese immigration to the United States,” and also 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, the first Japanese architect to practice in Seattle. Along with hotel rooms, the Panama Hotel also contained the traditional Japanese bathhouse or sento (located in the basement). The bathhouse in the Panama Hotel is the most outstanding representative example of an urban bathhouse in the country (only two remain) and possesses an extraordinarily high degree of integrity.

When owner Jan Johnson purchased the property in 1986 from Takashi Hori, owner of the building from 1938 to 1986, she also became the caretaker of Japanese American artifacts that had been left 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. They packed their personal belongings in large trunks and stashed them in the basement of the hotel. Many of these items remain in place as part of the building’s history and legacy to the city and the nation.

We are engaged in preserving the Panama Hotel through short-term and long-term activities. We began preparing a Historic Structures Report (HSR) and as-built drawings for the building in summer 2013, retaining the services of Artifacts Consulting, Inc. of Tacoma for the HSR and architect Brian Baker, a Historic Seattle volunteer, for the drawings. The HSR was completed in April 2014 and provides the foundation for our efforts to preserve the building, its spaces and collections. As the primary work plan and guide on treatment, the HSR prioritizes work to address immediate conservation needs, as well as mid and long-term needs to allow the owner to effectively plan for capital projects. Historic Seattle secured grant funds for the HSR project from 4Culture’s Preservation Special Projects Fund and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Eldridge Campbell Stockton Memorial Fund for Washington. We are grateful to these two organizations for their support.

Panama Hotel owner Jan Johnson describing the bathhouse in the basement. Shown with Michael Sullivan, Principal, Artifacts Consulting, Inc. (right) and Horace Foxall, Jr. (left), historic architect and past member of the Board of Advisors for Washington State, National Trust for Historic Preservation. / Photo: Eugenia Woo

Following are excerpts of the summary of findings from the Historic Structures Report (download the Panama Hotel HSR, 17 MB):

“A National Historic Landmark (NHL), the Panama Hotel stands at the epicenter of Seattle’s Nihonmachi (a term used to refer to historical Japanese communities), as a nationally significant representative of the Japanese immigration experience…The hotel building, designed by Sabro Ozasa, Seattle’s first Asian-American architect, historically housed key aspects of daily life to Japanese-owned businesses in the retail spaces, basement, and second floor; and community in the basement’s traditional Japanese-style bathhouse or sento.”

“The overall recommended treatment for the Panama Hotel is rehabilitation with preservation of select highly significant areas.”

“The building, its spaces, and features, remain remarkably intact, offering visitors an opportunity to step back through time and connect with the hotel’s historic associations. The layers of changes within the period of significance remain visible to visitors while enhancing features and spaces stemming from the hotel’s original design and construction.”

“Overall the building remains in good condition. Key issues are settlement along the south side that appears to have stopped, water exposure on the building interior, window conditions, and steam and plumbing lines running through sensitive collection areas.”

“No additions are anticipated under the rehabilitation treatment approach recommended for the building, based upon its historical significance and siting. Future modifications to the building present an opportunity to reverse previous alterations and enhance the building’s visual character.”

The HSR offers planning and treatment recommendations in the short-, mid-, and long-terms. This will enable development of a long-range plan for the preservation of the building, so that immediate needs are taken care of in a timely manner and long-term projects are planned, funded and implemented.

Historic Seattle will continue working with owner Jan Johnson, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and local partners to plan for the future of the Panama Hotel and preserve the historic property for future generations, telling a compelling story of Japanese American heritage in Seattle and King County.