In a city where entire blocks have been razed for new, boxy apartment buildings and sleek storefronts, the Louisa Hotel is an anomaly. A corner of Seattle where the past and the future can be seen just glancing through the front window.
The building, located at South King Street and Seventh Avenue in the Chinatown International District, has survived not only the city’s building boom, but tragedy. In 1983, 13 people were killed there in what became known as the Wah Mee Massacre; and in 2013, a Christmas Eve fire damaged seven businesses on the street level.
Now, 110 years after it opened and 50 years since anyone stayed there, the Louisa Hotel is starting a new life as an 85-room apartment building where those earning between $35,000 and $85,000 annually will create a new community. The building will officially reopen Monday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at noon. Already, all but a few of the units have been rented.
“Every time I come here and walk through these floors, I almost want to cry,” said Tanya Woo, whose family owns the building. Five years ago, the Woos partnered with retired Intellectual Ventures founder Greg Gorder and his wife, Val, whose Gaard Development is focused on creating workforce housing.
“It’s surreal that it’s done,” Woo said. “I am kind of sad. Now I have to share it with 85 other people.”
Those new residents — teachers, firefighters, hospital workers — will live enmeshed with the building’s long history, starting with the immigrants who lived in the same spaces — some three to a room — before they headed to Alaska to work in the canneries. They will sit at the same tables as those who bought goods from the Mon Hei Bakery, Seattle’s first Chinese bakery; and open the same doors as those who gambled in the building’s casino and who listened to jazz in the Louisa’s basement club in the 1940s.
And they will park their cars adjacent to a series of Prohibition-era murals that were discovered last year after workers removed a chute that was used to toss bags of flour to the bakery.
The murals — oil paint on plaster with metal lath backing — depict men in top hats and tuxedos, women draped in fur-trimmed coats. The murals have been covered with plywood so that the paint didn’t flake off during construction.
“History is reflected in every part of this building,” said Woo, whose father, Paul, bought the building in 1963 and opened the Mon Hei on the street level. A Korean barbecue restaurant plans to move into the former Sea Garden restaurant, and an ice cream shop will also take over a street-level space.
As they renovated the building, Woo and the workers found little treasures everywhere — the hotel’s original cash register, the casino’s floor heater. They found letters and telegrams in the floorboards, graffiti from World War II, and signs from the 8 Immortals Restaurant and the Don Ting Cafe from 1934. There’s a Canadian Pacific Railway calendar from 1928 and sections of the hotel’s original wallpaper and vinyl flooring.
The salvaged items filled three storage units. But Woo and the team have brought them back to the Louisa’s lobby, halls and community room, where the letters, calendar, wallpaper and flooring have been framed, and where tables and chairs from the Mon Hei Bakery have been refreshed and reused. Woo remembered sitting at them after school, or scraping the gum from the underside while her parents worked. (Some of the tables were given to KEXP’s Gathering Space.)
The lobby is decorated with signs from an old noodle shop, a basketball uniform bearing the name, WAKU (“I have no idea what it means,” Woo said) and an old sign from the Sea Garden restaurant. In the corner will be a giant wooden Buddha that Woo’s father pulled out of a dumpster and kept in his office.
Many of the apartments have original features: Old doors have been modernized into sliding barn doors, window frames have been sanded and repainted. One unit features three bay windows; it was once three separate rooms, each with three people living there — and on a floor with one communal kitchen and one communal bathroom with one tub.
“It tells a story, it sparks the imagination and inspires,” Woo said. “You see the sacrifice people made. I’ve been learning about our past and appreciating those who came before us. What they have done.
“Some tragedies happened in this building,” she said. “It will be nice to have some joy.”