UW News

June 5, 2003

Charrette seeking renewed identity for Seattle’s Nihonmachi

A UW charrette from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 7 will generate ideas to enhance the sense of place in Seattle’s historic Japantown, or Nihonmachi. Students, planners, urban designers, architects, landscape architects and preservationists, among others, will gather at Sixth and South Main, the epicenter of Japanese American community life from the turn of the century to the forced removal during World War II.

“While the district has continued to be home to a pan-Asian community, the historic fabric of Seattle’s Japanese American community never regained the sense of identity and vitality it enjoyed before the war,” said Gail Dubrow, author of Sento at Sixth and Main and director of the Preservation Planning and Design Program at the UW’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

The National Park Service, along with state and local preservation agencies, is reassessing the significance and integrity of Japanese American cultural resources in Seattle, finding a cluster of historic properties of overarching national significance and high integrity that may be eligible for National Historic Landmark status.

These include the Panama Hotel, which possesses the oldest intact example of a sento (Japanese public bathhouse); Nippon Kan Theatre (Japanese community theater and meeting hall); as well as other significant examples of important building types, such as Kokugo Gakko, the earliest Japanese language school in America.

Each of these resources was listed on the National Register as part of the Chinatown/International District nomination, but the focus on pan-Asian resources obscured the extraordinary cluster of Japanese American properties that remain. “In truth,” Dubrow said, “Seattle’s Japantown compares favorably with Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, a designated National Historic Landmark, in terms of significance and integrity.”

The problem, however, is that the historic center of Seattle’s Nihonmachi has suffered from an erosion of identity over time and there have been no focused preservation and development initiatives. To begin to remedy these oversights, the National Park Service has funded the preparation of historic landmark designations for some of the most significant properties. This charrette is intended to explore a wider set of actions that will strengthen the visibility and identity of Seattle’s Nihonmachi.

The successful opening of the Panama Tea and Coffee House at Sixth and South Main, by Jan Johnson, and the refurbishing of the NP Hotel by InterIm, as well as the continuing vitality of Danny Woo Gardens, have persuaded many that renewed vitality is possible at this location. This project builds on a growing level of public interest in the site, as well as publicity generated from Sento at Sixth and Main: Preserving Landmarks of Japanese American Heritage. Thus, Dubrow said, the timing is excellent for bringing new attention to these resources.

The UW’s Preservation Planning and Design Program has partnered with InterIm and City Design to hold this day-long event, in consultation with the city of Seattle’s Historic Preservation Program. Financial support has been provided by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and UW, with additional support from local partners. Community members are invited to join the charrette at the Panama Hotel at 3 p.m.

A draft report of findings will be circulated to concerned individuals and community organizations for comment. A final report, which incorporates these additional comments, will be issued by December.