Seattle’s Panama Hotel, where Japanese-American families left their belongings before being sent to WWII internment camps, has received a $137,000 preservation grant from the National Park Service.

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Seattle’s only designated “National Treasure” is not the Space Needle, Starbucks or Russell Wilson.

And its story is not just one of accomplishment and pride, but of injustice and remembrance.

It’s the six-story Panama Hotel in the Chinatown International District, a 105-year-old building many Seattle residents know little — if anything — about.

Internment history

Nearly 10,000 King County residents — many of them American citizens — were among the 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese background sent to internment camps during World War II.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered their confinement in Executive Order 9066 amid the fear and suspicion that followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

Ten camps were created in seven western states. Many evacuees from the Seattle area were sent first to muddy fields in Puyallup, a site euphemistically named “Camp Harmony,” and then transferred to a camp at Minidoka, Idaho.

In 1988, Congress apologized for the action, authorizing a compensation payment of $20,000 to each surviving intern, then estimated at 60,000 people.

That may change. The nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation, aided by a recent $137,000 National Park Service grant, hopes to preserve and share the story of one of the darker aspects of local and U.S. history.

“It’s important for people to know what went on here,” said hotel owner Jan Johnson. Johnson, an artist and Seattle native, has owned the building since the mid-1980s, and is hoping to pass it along to a new owner, once its future is clear.

The hotel was designed by Sabro Ozasa, thought to be the first Japanese-American architect to practice in Seattle.

Although it is an imposing edifice along South Main Street, its greatest mystery lies locked below ground, in darkened basement rooms that visitors seldom see — cool dusty spaces illuminated by bare light bulbs hung on long cords.

It is here, in the jumble of furniture, tools, suitcases, trunks and boxes, that the hotel offers silent testimony of the events of early 1942.

In the fear and uncertainty following the Pearl Harbor attack of Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, by Executive Order 9066, authorized the forced relocation of some 120,000 people of Japanese background on the West Coast.

It didn’t matter that many of the evacuees were American citizens. They were told when and where to report for transport to camps, and were strictly limited on what they could take.

Uncertain when and whether they would be allowed to return, many sold their homes and other property for a fraction of their value.

The late Takashi Hori, then-owner of the hotel — who would himself be sent to an internment camp — made space available in the hotel’s basement for many possessions that dozen of families of Nihonmachi (Japantown) could not take with them. An acquaintance of Hori’s watched over the property until Hori returned after the war ended in 1945.

And although some residents came back to claim their things, many did not. Some had died. Some moved away, and some may have simply wanted to leave aspects of the past behind.

These abandoned possessions are exceptional partly because they are so ordinary: baskets, bowls, a pair of ice skates, one-size-fits all stockings, a box of phonograph records, bed springs, books, a “Drink Coca-Cola” sign and a dismantled pool table. One brown suitcase bears stickers from Hong Kong, Manila and Yokohama.

In the 1990s, Johnson loaned some of the items for temporary exhibits at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Many of those pieces are still in the protective plastic wrap they wore during their travels.

In 2006, the Panama Hotel was designated a National Historic Landmark, but that status alone, shared by more than 2,500 sites across the county, doesn’t assure protection or preservation.

Two events this year have helped: The designation as a “treasure” came in April from the National Trust. That put the hotel among 60-some sites nationwide, and signaled that the hotel is not just historic, but endangered, its future uncertain.

The “treasure” listing paved the way for the grant this month from a Park Service program to highlight Japanese-American World War II confinement sites.

Sheri Freemuth, field officer for the National Trust, said the next key step at the Panama Hotel, which could take place this fall, will be a complete inventory of the items stored at the hotel.

A second process, to be done perhaps next spring, would help determine the significance of what is found. The nearby Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience is expected to participate in that.

Freemuth said the work could lead to exploration of ways to share the hotel’s story, whether that’s online, at the hotel or elsewhere. The National Trust also could work with potential buyers of the hotel to help protect the site’s integrity.

Visitors to the hotel’s street-level tea room can look through a window placed in the floor for a glimpse of the basement’s contents.

The hotel and its role during the internment were the backdrop for the 2009 best-selling historical novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” by Jamie Ford.

A documentary in the works by Seattle-based Big Story Group could further spread awareness of the hotel’s story. A short preview can be seen at

Toshiko Hasegawa of Seattle, whose paternal grandparents were sent to a camp in Idaho during the war, said learning about the confinement of Japanese and Japanese-American citizens should make Americans turn away from racial prejudice and stereotyping.

But she worries that Muslims in the U.S. are now experiencing the same type of suspicion and disdain that victimized her grandparents.

“This story has everything to do with civil rights. Jan is very much a civil-rights activist,” said Hasegawa, a friend of Johnson’s and a past president of the Seattle chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League.

Johnson, who operates the hotel as a bed-and-breakfast and handles many of the chores herself, said honoring the building’s history is crucial, even though it may limit the number of potential buyers.

Asked why she is ready to part with the building, Johnson, who prefers not to discuss her age, said, “I’m not ready to part with it. But I’m going to die someday and I want to have my ducks in a row.”

“I want to save the building,” she said. “That’s all I’ve ever been concerned about.”