November 13, 2017

Discover a Historic Japanese Bathhouse Beneath the Panama Hotel

The exterior of the Panama Hotel.

photo by: Artifacts Consulting

The Panama Hotel has had five different owners over its 107-year history.

“‘That’s the beauty of the sento,’ Fahn said. ‘Everyone’s allowed—men and women, the rich and the poor.’”

Jamie Ford, "Love and Other Consolation Prizes"

In the heart of Seattle’s Nihonmachi, or “Japantown,” you’ll find the Panama Hotel, an unassuming, five-story brick building with an old-fashioned neon sign protruding from its facade. An unwitting passerby would find it hard to believe that such a property could be a National Historic Landmark (as well as one of the National Trust’s National Treasures), but that happens to be exactly the case.

That’s because the Panama Hotel is a priceless relic of Japanese-American history, opening in 1910 to offer immigrants a safe place to call home during their struggle to gain a foothold in an unfamiliar, often hostile new country. It was one of several buildings designed by architect Sabro Ozasa, the first Asian-American to practice architecture in Seattle, but few others remain standing. Its rooms remain largely untouched, and the belongings of World War II-era Japanese-Americans fleeing the city to avoid internment fill its storage areas. Open to this very day, the Hotel is a lasting reminder of the immense hardships these immigrants faced.

The exterior of the Panama Hotel in the 1920s.

photo by: Panama Hotel

The exterior of the Panama Hotel in the 1920s.

“You [enter the Panama] and you really experience what a hotel building was like from the early 20th century, because nothing’s been changed and it’s still active as a hotel. That’s the key thing—it’s always been used, it’s never been closed,” says Eugenia Woo, Director of Preservation Services for the nonprofit organization Historic Seattle. “It’s a really special place, a truly unique property in the neighborhood. There are other, similar properties, but they’ve either been rehabilitated and changed on the interior, or they’re just vacant on the upper floors.”

The Hotel’s piece de resistance, however, is Hashidate Yu, an authentic Japanese public bathhouse (known as a sento) located in its basement. There is a rich tradition of bathing in Japanese culture, and the many sentos which once dotted the Pacific Coast of the United States were a testament to Japanese immigrants’ dedication to sustaining that culture. They served not just as places for immigrants to bathe, but also to socialize and find respite from the intense discrimination they faced from the outside world.

Today, only two sentos remain in the entire country. And of those two, Hashidate Yu is by far the better-preserved.
One of the baths in the Panama Hotel's sento.

photo by: Artifacts Consulting

Hashidate Yu's bath basins feature Alaska Tolkein marble cladding over a concrete structure.

This sento compelled author Jamie Ford to revisit the Panama Hotel in his new book, Love and Other Consolation Prizes. The property had been previously featured as the titular hotel in Ford’s bestselling first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. While it does not appear nearly as prominently in his new story, its sento’s thematic richness proved irresistible to Ford.

The protagonist of Love is a half-Chinese orphan named Ernest Young, who is raffled off to work for the madam of a brothel at Seattle’s 1909 World’s Fair. He soon meets two young girls—the madam’s daughter, Maisie, and a Japanese scullery maid named Fahn. The three form a friendship that is cherished by each of them, but most of all by Ernest, who finds the security and companionship he has sought his entire life.

The trio’s mutual affection is never more apparent than when Fahn takes Ernest and Maisie to bathe at Hashidate Yu. Ernest feels nervous and self-conscious at first, but slowly allows himself to enjoy the steaming water. Fahn and Maisie eventually join Ernest in the men’s bath, and the children laugh and enjoy each other’s company. Just as Japanese immigrants used the bathhouse to bond and commune with one another, so too do the characters of Ford’s novel.

“The warm ocean of happiness and contentment that washed over him seemed endless. He wished Maisie and Fahn could read his mind—and that it could always be like this.”

Jamie Ford, "Love and Other Consolation Prizes"

While the bathhouse closed in 1954, the spirit of Hashidate Yu lives on. Jan Johnson, the current owner of the Panama Hotel, opened a coffee & tea house on the building’s ground floor in 2001. This gave locals an intimate, welcoming space to gather and hold small events, which were surprisingly hard to find in the neighborhood.

In cooperation with the National Trust, Johnson is currently seeking long-term stewards for the Panama Hotel who are dedicated to safeguarding the property and its many artifacts. While such a change always raises questions about a building’s future, there is considerable optimism that the historical significance of this landmark will be protected.

“Our hope is, whoever is the next owner or steward can take [the Panama Hotel] into the future and honor its past,” says Woo. “We understand that there are probably going to be some changes ahead […] but there are a lot of eyes on it. A lot of people care about this building.”

Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

We believe all Americans deserve to see their history in the places that surround us. As a nation, we have work to do to fill in the gaps of our cultural heritage.

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