PANAMA HOTEL TEA & COFFEE
607 Main St., 515-4000 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.
IN 1910, Sabro Ozasa, the first Japanese-American architect to build in Seattle, completed his five-story Panama Hotel in the city's thriving Nihonmachi, or "Japan Town" (now part of the International District). Fifty-nine years later, the Panama is again a pioneer, this time with Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee—an elegant teahouse with baristas that doubles as a museum.
The Panama served its initial customers, mostly immigrants, in simple rooms with no closets and shared toilet facilities. In its basement is the Hashidate-Yu public bathhouse, which also served the wider Japanese community. The elegant marble baths— untouched since they closed in the '50s—are today considered a rare national treasure.
Yet the very same cellars accrued sorrowful relics: boxes, trunks, and suitcases, hastily packed and stored during the spring of '42, as their owners were ordered off to internment camps. Teapots, flags, love letters, clothing, cookware, books, and newspapers made their way into the building's capacious basement.
Takashi Hori owned and ran the Panama for 45 years. Interned himself from '42 to '45 in Idaho's Minidoka camp, he has made energetic attempts to reunite goods with their owners. But the majority remains unclaimed—and has now been integrated into the atmosphere of the teahouse, where a square of glass in the floor provides a ghostly view of the basement.
The walls are lined with vintage photos of the neighborhood, and former residents are dropping in with regularity. They are people like Tad Sato, now 79, whose father once ran a shop across the street. Tad, whose pal Eddie Sano's father owned the baths, mesmerizes the whole cafe as he studies the photos.
Their intention may have been meeting for stylish piadini, but the milliner, architects, and visiting mortgage brokers find themselves Tad's captives in a whirlwind tour of the past: There, see that house on the top of the hill? He broke the glass window with his childhood BB gun. Over here, ladies of the night beckoned men from a window. At that diner, for a dime, you could get "rice and gravy."
"My old neighborhood!" he cries happily. "It's amazing!"
ALL THIS is the work of artist Jan Johnson, who bought the hotel 16 years ago. Johnson was a clothing designer who worked in a nearby loft; she knew Mr. and Mrs. Hori as her neighbors. One day, Mr. Hori let it drop that he was going to sell the hotel. Johnson knew nothing of the trunks in his basement, but she regarded the Panama as a landmark. She decided to try to buy the place herself and entered into a year of what she calls "tea and discussions."
Several parties, says Hori, went after his building. "But Jan seemed interested in it as a whole." When they sealed the deal, he offered to have the basement cleared.
By refusing, Johnson now says, she changed her life. For she plunged into exploring—and showing—its contents. "At first, I was just like a crazy circus barker. I'd stop teachers in the street and make them show their students." By the '90s, word of mouth had made the baths especially famous, and Johnson wanted a place to host their visitors.
She decided to craft a teahouse shaped by the building's narrative. In '97, when a double-storefront lease expired, Johnson kept its two spaces and began the project. It turned into an arduous four-year odyssey, stripping away plaster, acoustic tiles, and fake wood paneling. By last November, Johnson felt herself overwhelmed. "I would think, 'I've almost done it.' Then there was always more."
That was when she called the team behind nearby cafe Zeitgeist, sited in South Jackson Street's 1901 Fuller building. The partners who created it—by hand, the way Johnson was doing—were Michael and Mark Klebeck, Joel Radin, and Bryan Yeck, local entrepreneurs in their mid-30s. Yeck, a painter, initiated the first Zeitgeist Art & Coffee—a hub of the old Washington Shoe Building artist enclave. When the art crowd was evicted in 2000, Yeck, the Klebeck brothers, and Radin built a new Zeitgeist only two doors away. It remains a testament to the quartet's partnership—one formed from an affinity for the socially stylish (the Klebecks and Radin created local benchmarks such as Kid Mohair and Cafe Bauhaus).
The same team has remade the Elliott Bay Book Co.'s cafe and, in December, will open a smaller Zeitgeist on Capitol Hill. Distinguished by late hours and a range of gourmet doughnuts, it will be housed in a turn-of-the-century storefront.
The group's work, composed of pieces they salvage, re-create, or build, comprises a fresh and compelling Seattle aesthetic. It is responsive to historic spaces, yet also sculptural and semi-industrial. Unlike most local spots that tout themselves as "Euro-styled," the sites created by this team—while they reflect a worldly perspective—demonstrate a broadly informed design independence.
All four collaborators, says Mark Klebeck, "are attracted to beautiful woods—fir, cedar, birch, mahogany. We also all love natural light, old glass, and found objects." The big communal trick, he says, is "tying it all into a space".
To accomplish that, says Yeck, they use conceptual guidelines (they saw Zeitgeist as "part aviary, part Suzallo Library, part old train station"). For Jan Johnson, he notes, "Every piece had to replicate or actually come from her building." So they custom crafted a period staircase from salvaged pieces and created yards of special wall trim, "staining it until it had that high, dark '20s feeling."
The result? A space far from the usual concept of restoration. As Tad Sato teases barista Yuko in Japanese, a curator from New York joins a programmer peering into the basement. On the wicker chaise, a couple chatters in Italian; around the conference-size table downstairs, pens and papers sprawl—while glass teapots steep a round of Silver Needle tea.
The eyes of those looking in from the old photos seem pleased.