July 23, 2015

[Interview] Laine Ross and David Vice of the Panama Hotel Legacy Film

More than a century after its construction, Seattle's single-room-occupancy Panama Hotel continues to evoke the lifestyle and culture of Japanese-Americans during the early part of the 20th century. Its current owner, Jan Johnson, has preserved the building, along with its Japanese-style bath house and collection of belongings stored by Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II.

A National Treasure of the National Trust, the Panama Hotel, has many stories to tell, and producers Laine Ross and David Vice of Seattle's Big Story Group have set out to capture as many of them as they can. Through their Panama Hotel Legacy Film project, the duo hope to honor the history of the hotel, its occupants, and its owner as the property looks for new ownership and continued preservation.

We spoke with Ross and Vice for their take on the project, the hotel, and the importance of preserving our shared history.

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The Panama Hotel sits at the corner of Sixth and Main streets in the city's Japan Town neighborhood.

How did you come to this project?

Laine: We have known Jan (the hotel’s owner) for almost 15 years, so we were talking about all of the stories that are attached to this project for years. We have a long background in historic preservation efforts [and] community building efforts.

We then became aware that the building was going to be considered for the National Treasures portfolio. So that’s where the preview that you’re seeing originated. We knew that on April 9, the designation would occur. So we sort of did some double time to produce that nine-minute segment.

What kind of format will the finished product take?

Laine: Big Story Group is an organization that is focused on digital storytelling, independent film, and nonfiction documentaries. So we looked at this and said, “Well, this is probably more of a series as well because I don’t know that you can tell this story in an hour-long format."

David: Now that could be viewed in two one-hour segments or three one-hour segments. And we do intend to have conversations with some of the newer potential distribution partners like HBO, Amazon, and Showtime.

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The basement of the Panama Hotel holds a collection of belongings left behind by Americans of Japanese descent who were forced into internment camps during World War II.

What are the goals of this project?

Laine: We wanted to capture the essence of Jan’s stories, which included the Panama Hotel. We then started to evaluate that this particular property has so much cultural significance that when you step into the building it’s like walking into a time capsule.

David: It was an opportunity to not only tell the story of the hotel, which we all know is a landmark, but also how it contained these other important stories of the strength of an independent woman business owner and her need to protect the history and the stories of what was in the hotel for 105 years.

So we started talking about it with her some time ago and realized that there was this really tremendous story about the hotel and how it related to the community. It was also an opportunity to bring that information to a community that might be unaware or less aware about the events in U.S. history, specifically the internment.

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The hotel also holds one of the most intact Japanese-style bath houses, or sentos in the country.

What has stood out to you about this project?

David: What became very evident in our interviews with people involved with the project was that the history of the internment and the relationship of the internees to their communities were very much untold.

I think Jamie Ford (author of the New York Times bestseller Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet) put it as “a paragraph in the history books.” Here you have this really critical component of part of the citizens of our country sort of swept under the rug. So like the belongings in the basement of the Panama, it’s kind of an opportunity to daylight some of the things that haven’t been spoken about. This is a film and we hope an educational project to do more of that.

Laine: Another major character in this film is Jan Johnson herself. One of the greatest tidbits or nuances around the story is how she acquired the building: a single woman, no attachment to family wealth, no credit. So those nuggets of stories I think capture the integrity of the property.

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The Panama Hotel remains an operational single-occupancy hotel to this day.

What makes the Panama Hotel's story so important and so intriguing?

Laine: You’re talking about a life-long commitment to saving a property that’s basically a masonry building that in the next seismic event could be gone anyway. So there’s that debate around “why do we even invest in saving these buildings.”

Well, I think beyond the obvious, which is the connection to your past and history, the legacies of these neighborhoods are critical to the storytelling of this country’s experience and that’s really why we demand to preserve these buildings.

David: I think the question is a good one. Why does anyone preserve history? I think it’s important for people to have access to this.

Jan has always wanted to provide some venue in the building where people could come in and have a learning experience. That’s been her goal for the entire time she’s owned the building. This is really an opportunity to create ways for more people to understand and value what has come before them.

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The Panama Hotel catered to Japanese-Americans and new immigrants who came to start a new life in the United States.

What has been your favorite part about this project?

David: We got together as much footage as we could in advance of the National Trust private screening here in Seattle. For me it was really exciting that we got the kind of recognition that we did with a crowd of almost 200 at the private screening. I think people got it. I think they understood exactly what we were doing and the importance of Jan, the hotel, and its new status [as a National Treasure].

Laine: For me the 'aha moment' is that we were here for this reason -- to capture and share this story. There are so many buckets of opportunity and discussion here.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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