Seattle’s Panama Hotel may look like little more than a quaint bed and breakfast with the Pacific Northwest’s requisite tea and coffee shop in its lobby, but hidden within its floorboards is an aspect of America’s history that refuses to be buried.
Built in 1910 by Seattle’s first Japanese-American architect, Sabro Ozasa, from the outset, the Panama Hotel served as a home to generations of new immigrants to the United States settling in the city’s bustling Japantown (Nihonmachi) District, as well as international travelers and offshore fishermen hailing from all over the Pacific Rim. Throughout the late 1930’s, as the area grew and prospered, the Panama Hotel’s popularity was no exception. With tenants above and a Japanese bathhouse in the basement, the Panama Hotel rose to be the center of Nihonmachi’s cultural life, bolstered by a traditional Japanese bathhouse tucked in its basement – the restored (display only) version of which remains the only sento in the United States extant today.
Everything changed, however, when President Roosevelt ordered the nation-wide forced internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942. Today, a window on the floor of the restored tea shop in the hotel lobby provides a glimpse into the area where Seattle’s residents hid their personal possessions in hopes of retrieving them later, only to never return.
The hotel’s current owner, Jan Johnson, bought the hotel from original owner Takeshi Hori in 1985 and continues to lead pre-arranged tours of these original, unclaimed belongings. Interspersed with true tales of people whose real lives have come to be represented by these ghost suitcases, visitors walk away with a better understanding of Nihonmachi’s vital role in Seattle’s cultural development in the years before and since this dark period of American history.
Recent years have seen the Panama Hotel become a newfound destination for the literary crowd, drawn by its pivotal and poignant role in Jamie Ford’s 2009 Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, whereupon the aforementioned belongings discovered in the hotel set into motion the rest of the best-selling novel’s plot.
Regardless of the draw – rare bathhouse, disgraceful history, literary basking – the Panama Hotel continues to operate to this day as a functioning bed-and-breakfast with 101 rooms individually decorated to match a theme. For guests less interested in staying the night, all are welcome to step inside for a peek at the discarded possessions visible through the floorboards in its public-facing tea house in the lobby, which also serves excellent Japanese pastries.