There is no elevator at the Panama Hotel.

A grand staircase rises inside the double doors of the 112-year-old hotel in Seattle’s historical Japantown, or Nihonmachi. Guests hold onto their luggage in one hand, the brass railing in the other, and make the climb to their rooms on one of three guest floors. 

Susan Hori used to take these same stairs, coming to and from a place she knew as home. Takashi Hori, Susan’s father, owned and operated the Panama Hotel from 1938 to 1985.

More

Hori, 66, says her fondest memories of growing up in a hotel are the people who passed through, often long-term tenants and Japanese Americans. They celebrated Christmas together, opening presents with guests, and she and her brother, Robert, would receive candy from them on Halloween. 

“They watched us grow up and we watched them grow older,” she said of the people who rented rooms from her father. “We really got to see a little bit of the picture of the immigration history in Seattle.”

The photos, plaques, maps and memorabilia that line the walls of the Panama Hotel’s common places, including the downstairs tea house that’s been in business more than two decades, tell a similar story — one of a building that has held incredible significance to the Japanese American experience in Seattle over more than a century as an operational hotel, as a midcentury bathhouse and, in the wake of 1942’s Executive Order 9066, as a storehouse for luggage, furniture and personal items left behind during wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. 

Advertising

And as a new preservation effort is underway — this living museum in Seattle’s Chinatown International District is in the early stages of becoming an official one — those closest to the building hope it will remain a standing fixture of history for the public to see and experience themselves. 

Seattle (and national) landmark

On Jan. 19, ​the city of Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board unanimously designated the Panama Hotel and Hashidate Yu Bathhouse a city landmark. Pending a signed agreement between owner Jan Johnson and the board, the Seattle City Council will pass a designating ordinance, in which the Panama Hotel and its basement bathhouse would join more than 400 individual buildings, vessels and other sites as Seattle landmarks, which are subject to protection.

Built in 1910, the Panama Hotel is the masterpiece of groundbreaking architect Sabro Ozasa, the Puget Sound region’s first Japanese architect. Hori says when her parents were looking to sell the hotel in the 1980s, preserving the building itself was of paramount importance.

“The trend was to tear it down and turn it into a parking lot,” Hori said. “And I think that was of concern to them.”

So when artist and Seattle local Johnson approached the Hori family in the 1980s about buying the hotel, deemed a national treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2015, Hori says Johnson’s interest in continuing to operate the hotel as a hotel appealed to her parents.   

And Takashi Hori put Johnson to work before he made the sale. Susan Hori says her father was the Panama Hotel’s plumber, electrician and doer of odd jobs. He knew “every nook and cranny” of the building and wanted to ensure whoever took over was up to speed on the operation.

Advertising

“I’d come in here and I’d work the boiler room with [Takashi Hori],” Johnson said. “Then I’d do the laundry with Mrs. Hori.”

In learning the ins and outs of the space, Johnson realized almost immediately that she’d acquired more than a building with 102 guest rooms whose linen needed changing after each checkout. She’d become the caretaker of one of the last surviving physical embodiments of the community that used to call Nihonmachi home.

Gateway to the past

“Every time I visit the Panama Hotel, no matter how many times I’ve been, I get goose bumps,” said Eugenia Woo, director of preservation services at Historic Seattle. “When you walk in the bathhouse, you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.”

Woo has been on several tours (led by Johnson, by appointment) of the Hashidate Yu Bathhouse, located in the basement of the hotel. The bathhouse, or sento, was once a gathering place for Japanese immigrants living in Seattle. Hundreds of sentos once dotted the American West; Hashidate Yu is the last one

“It wasn’t just a place to go and bathe; it had a very important social function,” said Karen Yoshitomi, executive director for the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington, located in the Central District. “That’s where the community got together and discussed business plans or what to do about this and that.”

Though the bathhouse hasn’t been operational since the mid-1960s, both large basins — separated by gender — and the adjoining lockers remain intact in such a way that Woo describes the space as a living museum. 

Advertising

Museums house items of historical and cultural value — of which the Panama Hotel, designated a national historic landmark in 2006, has no shortage. Also in the basement are the life belongings of residents of Seattle’s Nihonmachi neighborhood, locked away for safekeeping after President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, issued Feb. 19, 1942. The order ultimately forced more than 120,000 Japanese Americans to evacuate their homes and spend the years of World War II in incarceration camps.

At that time, word quickly spread through Seattle’s Japanese American community that Mr. Hori was letting people leave their belongings at the hotel. His building soon became a temporary storage facility, housing trunks filled with kimonos, everyday objects like teapots and more, and personal mementos, like an unfinished handwritten letter dated April 8, 1942, one of 7,500 items cataloged by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“Dear Dad, we’ve gotten pretty far with our preparation for evacuation,” the letter reads. “Everything has been packed, but kept open, and …”

Many incarcerated Japanese Americans never returned to Seattle after the war, leaving their belongings unclaimed but not forgotten. Today, visitors can peek into their lives through a plexiglass opening installed in the floor of the Panama Hotel’s teahouse. Johnson has also loaned some of the trunks to museums around the country.

For decades, there was great shame and grief felt by many issei and nisei (first- and second-generation Japanese Americans, respectively) regarding forced incarceration, says Yoshitomi. The traumatic experience wasn’t openly talked about, or if it was, only fond memories were shared. References to people “from camp” were stripped of context; conversations were cloaked in silver linings and euphemisms. 

“For me, reference to camp was just an experience that my parents and grandparents had,” she said. “And for my folks, it was [them] feeling like, who would want to know or who would care about what happened?”

Sponsored

Yoshitomi says it wasn’t until she took an ethnic studies class in college that she truly realized the traumatic events her parents went through during incarceration, her mother at Pinedale and Tule Lake in California and her father at Christina Lake in British Columbia

“There’s so much tied into the internment camp experience and the painfulness of some people not having anything to come back to,” Hori said. “Just the idea of all the businesses closing and the slow demise of Japantown in that area, I think there is a certain amount of sadness and pain associated with that.”

Hori says others have noted how “unusual” it is for Johnson, who is not of Japanese descent, to be the keeper of a structure that houses so much of the nisei and issei experience. Being one step removed from that pain could be a good thing, she says.

“For Jan, not having experienced [evacuation and incarceration], I think it allows her to really focus on the history and the preservation of those memories without having the family history, the pain, the trauma that’s associated with what happened during World War II,” Hori said.

These days, there is more open dialogue about the discrimination Japanese Americans faced then — and still face — in Seattle and throughout the country. And at the Panama Hotel, visitors even include descendants of families who didn’t return to Seattle after World War II. They’re encouraged to search through historical photos and maps in the teahouse, etching notes onto them like “my mom” or “my dad.” 

The hotel’s future

Backdropped over the decades by a constantly changing Seattle, the Panama Hotel has remained in service all these years, its guest book filled with gratitude from visitors spanning decades. You’ll find similar reviews on Airbnb, where Johnson started listing rooms in 2021. 

Advertising

“Thank you for being such a wonderful host and for opening my eyes to the beauty and history of this hotel and neighborhood,” reads a portion of one inscription. Even those stopping in for tea or coffee will find themselves engaged in a history lesson while waiting for their order. 

“I mean, I don’t own it. If anything, it owns me,” Johnson said, referencing the items and objects of cultural and historical significance throughout the hotel. “But I have to be here to take care of it, and I hope it passes on.”

Her exit strategy, when that time comes, is to turn the hotel into an actual museum. It’s a plan in its early stages. In January 2020, Johnson registered the “Japanese American Museum of Seattle” as a nonprofit corporation.

Johnson has shared her museum plans with both Hori and Yoshitomi, who say they’re in favor of the Panama Hotel remaining a cultural cornerstone, so that this piece of Seattle history, at once painful and triumphant, can be preserved.

“I think the hotel [as a museum] has the opportunity to somehow unveil or interpret the former Japantown area and the vibrancy that it used to have, leading all the way up to 1942,” Yoshitomi said. “It provides the stage for all these other stories to be told.”

Once the City Council approves the landmark designation ordinance for the Panama Hotel, any future proposed changes to the inside and outside of the structure will need the ​​city’s approval, hopefully securing much of the hotel’s historical value.

Advertising

“Jan’s been such a great steward,” said Woo, of Historic Seattle. “We don’t know who the next owner will be and how they’ll care for the property. So we just want to make sure there’s as much protection for it in place as possible.”

For now, though, and for the foreseeable future, the Panama Hotel remains one of Seattle’s most special, unique places to spend the night.

Offering more than just turndown service and tea, it’s a space where Japanese Americans can reconnect with their past, with an open invitation for everyone else to honor and appreciate it.

Related video