The Panama Hotel, located in Seattle’s International District, opened for business in August of 1910. The five story, brick building was designed by Sabro Ozasa, Seattle’s first architect of Japanese heritage. The building was to house Japanese laborers from the area, but also catered to fisherman heading to, or coming back from Alaska. The International District was known as the city’s “nihonmachi” – Japan Town, or translated literally: Japan Street.
The Panama Hotel provided a full-service traditional Japanese-style sento, or public bath house in the basement. In 1910, most private homes in the area did not have their own baths, so the sento provided a neighborhood service.
There was a separate bath for men, and one for women and children. The bath house is still intact in the hotel, and it is the only surviving bath house of its kind in the U.S. today.
Takashi Hori was the owner of the hotel in December of 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans were rounded up on the west coast and placed in internment camps. Many local residents approached Hori to store their belongings in the basement of his hotel, because they were allowed to bring only minimal processions. Hori was also eventually sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho in 1942. He returned to run the Panama Hotel after the war ended in 1945, having an acquaintance watch over the hotel during his incarceration.
With the Panama Hotel just blocks from King Street Station, I decided it was the perfect time to stay at this historic hotel during my time in Seattle.
The first impression of the Panama’s interior is the dramatic stairway to the office, which is on the third floor. This hotel really is a trip back in time, and there is no elevator.
The rooms are basic, and reflect the times they were made for. Spartan as they may be, I found them comfortable, clean and they met, even exceeded, my expectations. Each room comes with a sink, but guests share the bathrooms and showers. I did not have any issue with that, and I found no morning competition for the shower.
As a contractor, I loved the building details, as much as the history. The trim, bannisters and railings were all clear, beautifully grained wood. The lighting in the hallways was designed to use natural light as much as possible, and it was fascinating to see that change over the course of the day, although the electric lights were hardly needed until sunset.
Several rooms had armoires that were built out of refrigerator crates back in the 1930’s. The workmanship was quite impressive.
Originally, the ground floor of the hotel had a dentist, a tailor, a laundry, a bookstore, a billiards room, and a sushi restaurant. Today, the lower floor is home to the Panama Hotel’s Tea Room. A complementary continental breakfast is served here for guests of the hotel. The tea selection is extensive, and the squash bread phenomenal. It’s a great place to hang out at the end of the day after exploring Seattle’s downtown.
The Tea House has a great collection of historic photos from the area displayed on the exposed brick walls of the two main rooms. The Panama Hotel is both a working hotel, and a living museum.
When Takashi Hori returned to the Panama in 1945, the hotel’s basement was holding over 50 steamer trunks from the displaced Japanese-Americans. Many trunks and other belongings remain in the basement today. Hori made several attempts to find the owners, but most were never located. The owners had simply vanished. A window in the floor of the tea house gives visitors a glimpse of the private belongings left behind.
The Panama Hotel offers a unique opportunity to explore Seattle’s past. It’s a wonderful hotel. Don’t stay here if you need Five Star accommodations. It’s comfortable, but 1934 comfortable. Unfortunately, the front entrance is enough to deter anyone who needs an elevator. It’s a living time capsule, and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. The current owner, is the hotel’s third. That in itself, is remarkable.
Tours of the bath house are available upon request. I highly recommend joining one.
The Panama Hotel is a U.S. National Historic Landmark, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.