The Publix Hotel Has a New Lobby and New Life
“The Publix was an old workingmen’s home, a tobacco-stained hideaway where lost individuals found solace.”Jamie Ford, "Love and Other Consolation Prizes"
Earlier this week, we looked at one of the real-world locations that novelist Jamie Ford chose to feature in his recent book Love and Other Consolation Prizes—Seattle’s Panama Hotel and the historic bathhouse hidden in its basement. But the Panama isn’t the only workingmen’s hotel in the city that appears in Ford’s novel.
The Publix Hotel is one of the first buildings you see when entering the International District from the west. From its opening in 1928 until 2004, the single-room-occupancy hotel provided affordable housing for the working-class immigrants who populated Seattle’s Nihonmachi. The building’s 220 rooms came with a bed, a sink, and little else, but their price points could hardly be beat.
The centerpiece was a grand lobby whose size doubled those of comparable hotels in the neighborhood. For the workers, the lobby was their living room, where they gathered to socialize and relax outside the confines of their cramped quarters.
Unfortunately, the Publix shuttered its doors in 2004, quickly falling into disrepair. It would remain that way for over a decade, until Miye Moriguchi stepped in.
Moriguchi’s family, which runs the Uwajimaya supermarket chain, had owned the Publix since 1974, but had been unable to determine what should be done with the building. Moriguchi helped accomplish that very task, crafting a thorough rehabilitation plan funded by historic tax credits and a loan financed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“The economy was growing, and there was a need for unique character and smaller apartments in the city that the [Publix] could kind of be molded into,” says Moriguchi. “It’s always been a very central location within Seattle, and it’s across the street from Union Station. It’s probably the most transit-oriented site in the city. We put all that together, and we felt that it was really a project that could succeed.”The plan involved turning the adjacent lot into a connected six-story retail/residential building, removing some of the dividing walls that separated the Publix’s rooms to create modern one-bedroom apartments, and, most importantly, restoring the lobby to its former glory. Construction began in December of 2014, and on August 1, 2017, the Publix opened its doors as a destination for affordable housing once more.
“For the first month or two, people were so shocked that [the Publix] was back and looking nice again. They would walk into the office and just talk with our staff there, saying ‘I used to live here 30 years ago,’” says Moriguchi. “That was neat because I think a lot of people have that connection with it, but there wasn’t much to talk about for a while. So now that it’s back, and people are living there and enjoying it, it’s really great to see.”
The Publix’s former residents weren’t the only ones who appreciated the project. In September, the nonprofit organization Historic Seattle awarded the Moriguchis and Uwajimaya their 2017 Best Rehabilitation Award for “their exemplary approach to rehabilitating a former working-class hotel and adding a new mixed-use building that beautifully melds old with new.”
Moriguchi, understandably, was thrilled upon hearing the news. “It was a really nice recognition,” she says. “It reaffirms what you felt was right in how to go about it. And the best thing is the people who live there really get it, they love being a part of the historic building.”
What’s next for the Publix Hotel? While all 125 apartments in the development have been leased, plenty of retail space remains unused. The Moriguchis hope to fill the space with authentic, family-run restaurants and vendors that, taken altogether, will provide residents and passersby with a diverse array of food options.Says Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle: “[The Publix] is good because it shows that [rehabilitating historic buildings] is possible, and that it can be successful. Preservation is always great, but it also needs to be economically viable and have uses that benefit the community.”