Introducing the Panama Hotel, A Bittersweet Symbol of Hope
How do you pack a lifetime into two suitcases?
In the weeks following the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, Japanese-Americans were confronted with that very question, forced to decide what warranted inclusion as they prepared to go to an undisclosed location for an undetermined amount of time. The story of what they left behind is integral to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s newest National Treasure, the Panama Hotel in Seattle, which served as a repository for the trunks, suitcases, and boxes that couldn’t be brought along.
In February 1942, two months after declaring war with Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, granting the War Department broad authority to create military exclusion zones on American soil. The result was that by 1943, more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans had been forced from their homes and into a constellation of remote internment camps far from the coast. President Roosevelt’s military advisers had recommended such a tactic as a safeguard against potential espionage and sabotage.
Prior to World War II, Seattle had drawn thousands of Japanese immigrants, who largely clustered in a downtown enclave known as Nihonmachi, or “Japantown.” The Panama Hotel opened in August 1910 in the heart of the neighborhood and was designed by Japanese-American architect Sabro Ozasa.
The five-story, red brick building was considered a working man’s hotel, with 101 single occupancy rooms catering mostly to the Japanese community. The hotel also housed Japanese-owned businesses in the retail and office spaces, including an interpreter, dentists, life insurance agents, physicians, and a photo finisher.
Adding to the cultural significance was the 1916 opening of the traditional Japanese sento, a social center including a laundry and bathhouse, in the hotel’s basement. Called the "Hashidate Yu," the sento offered a place for guests and community residents to gather and share resources, network, and affirm cultural traditions. Although no longer in usable condition, the sento remains largely intact in the present structure, and is one of just two that remain in the United States from that era.
After Roosevelt’s Executive Order took effect, hotel owner Takashi Hori allowed scores of displaced Japanese-Americans to leave their belongings in the basement of the hotel for safe keeping. Hori himself was forced to an internment camp in 1942, returning three years later to reclaim his business from the management company that had run it while he was away.
He found around 50 unclaimed boxes still in the basement following the war, and although he tried to reunite them with their owners, many families had not returned to Seattle and were difficult to track down.
The Panama was also the inspiration for Jamie Ford's best-selling historical fiction novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, published in 2009. Translated into 34 languages and sold worldwide, the book helped spark a renewed interest in the hotel and surrounding neighborhood.
The hotel’s current owner, Jan Johnson, bought the hotel from Hori in 1985, inheriting not just the property but the basement collection as well. Johnson has protected these artifacts in the thirty years since she took over, and loaned some of them temporarily to historical exhibitions in places like Ellis Island in New York and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood. In 2001, Johnson opened a tea shop on the ground floor that displays historical photographs and other artifacts.
In naming the Panama Hotel a National Treasure, the National Trust has committed to working with Historic Seattle to help Johnson identify a long-term steward for the hotel before her impending retirement. Of paramount importance is finding a new owner who will continue to honor the legacy and protect this important cultural site, which was named a National Historic Landmark in 2006.
The National Trust is also working to identify preservation-related issues through the application for a Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant from the National Park Service. The JACS grant will be used to inventory, catalog, photograph, and research the collection of objects left in the basement, providing the foundation to preserve the building, its spaces, and collections. When completed, this project will yield a deeper understanding of what Japanese-Americans chose to leave behind when faced with the life-altering prospect of being forcibly relocated from their homes.
“Each trunk and suitcase left behind in the basement provides a rare and unique glimpse at what life was before World War II-era internment altered lives forever,” said Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust. “This National Treasure is a remarkably authentic place and symbol of the community, holding a fascinating collection of items that Japanese-Americans were forced to abandon abruptly in 1942. The Panama Hotel represents a painful but important time in America and we want to save it as a reminder of a dark time in our history.”
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