Java Jolt

A Seattle teahouse stirs interest in the history of the relocation of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

The Panama Hotel's Tea and Coffee House opened in Sept. 2001.

Credit: Panama Hotel

Between ordering lattes and settling down at laptops, customers of Seattle's Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee House study historic photographs on the walls and peer through a glass window in the hardwood floor at a basement museum. They're drawn inside by more than the beverages—along with chai; the teahouse serves up the history of the 93-year-old hotel.

Built in 1910 by the city's first Japanese-American architect, Sabro Ozasa, the five-story hotel immediately became a gathering place for working-class Japanese immigrants in the heart of Seattle's Japantown, who met in its sento, an Asian-style public bathhouse.

Then in 1942, ordered by presidential decree to relocate to government internment camps, Seattle's 8,000 Japanese-Americans had only days to move. Some asked the Panama's owner, Takashi Hori, to store their belongings in the hotel's basement. When many families never returned after the war, Hori was left with a basement full of remnants of everyday life—clothes, papers, appliances, even garbage cans.

Current owner Jan Johnson bought the hotel in 1986 and began sifting through the relics. From out of the clutter came a collection of 37 trunks that became a museum display that has traveled to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, among others. Johnson kept the remaining items and incorporated them into a unique memorial: the teahouse, which opened in September 2001 after a four-year renovation.

"I wanted there to be recognition," Johnson says. "Recognition here, within this community, connected to the people and places here, not hundreds of miles away." 

The teahouse interior

Johnson designed the teahouse herself, using antique tables and chairs from the hotel. She turned original floorboards into picture frames for 1942 newspaper clippings and family photos of those long-gone. By stripping away plaster to the original wallpaper, its faint, floral outline visible near the 14-foot ceilings and removing linoleum from the hardwood floors, she exposed the years themselves. A spotlight shines down on the basement on a footlocker and clothes left behind.

Johnson offers pre-arranged tours of the basement and adjacent bathhouse, the only one of its kind in the country, which remains as intact as it was the day it closed in 1950. Advertisements for 1940s businesses still line the sento walls, and Johnson notes that five of the six families are still in the neighborhood and have visited the hotel.

Some visitors have suggested she renovate the bathhouse, restore the tubs, walls, and cement floors to their original condition. "I don't want it changed," Johnson says, "and that's what renovating it would mean. I want it as it is, as it was left."

The teahouse, a museum with an eclectic menu and a savvy stereo system, draws a diverse crowd. Young professionals and artists type on laptops alongside residents who remember the forced relocation and come to point out their families in the photographs. One woman stopped by to show Johnson the 58 journals her grandfather wrote in America after he left Japan. An elderly man left a few sticky notes on photo frames to identify families he knew six decades ago.

"People walk in for different reasons," says Linda Ando, a University of Washington counselor in the Office of Minority Affairs. "Maybe they just parked along the street because it's close to the stadium. So they're not expecting the history, but once you're inside, there's a story to every piece of that building. The Panama is very much a living museum with a soul—the history, the pictures, the stories waiting to be told."

Then there are the children, college students, and tourists. Because the relocation isn't taught in Japanese schools, travelers and educators from Japan often want tours as well. Johnson enjoys showing the building to Seattle elementary-school groups. Hundreds of children have wanted to write reports on the history that the teahouse reveals, and Johnson asks for copies of each one.

"Students come in having heard about the relocation, but they've never been visually and emotionally engaged like they are when they step through the doors of the Panama," says Ando, who frequently tells college students to stop by the teahouse to supplement their Asian Studies courses. "The pictures definitely affect them, and looking through the glass section of the floor and seeing where people left their belongings evokes a human reaction, not only intellectual curiosity."

In the center of this classroom of sorts, you'll find Johnson, waving a hello at each opening of the door. Usually customers seek her out to ask for tours or comment on the photos or décor. From the hand-blown glass teacups to the special sugar crystals, Johnson has chosen every detail of the teahouse.

"Jan is very much like a guardian of this place and the people," Ando says. "The pictures by themselves are one thing, but listening to her talk takes it to the next level."

Gin Phillips is a freelance writer living in Virginia.  

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