Tea and Treasures: A hotel gets hip, from the basement up

The moment you step through the vintage glass doors and into the café, there's a certain feeling lingering in the air, the spirit of this place.

If you know nothing about what's in the basement — or the Lamborghini-driving fashion designer who brought it all back to life — you may think the ambiance comes from the aroma of toasted green tea and Italian espresso. Or the plank floors restored to violin glow. Or the historic black-and-white photographs on the brick walls. Or, perhaps, it's the extraordinary light that flows uphill from Elliott Bay, ricochets off a dreary slab building across the street, strikes the gilt letters on the café window and casts a perfect shadow on the wall: PANAMA HOTEL.

The Panama Hotel and Tea House, at 605 1/2 S. Main St., anchors what was once the heart of Seattle's Nihonmachi, Japantown, one of the most thriving communities of its kind in the country. It was built in 1910 by the city's first Japanese architect, and for the next three decades, the lower floors of the five-story workingman's hotel were home to a laundry, dentist, tailor, pool hall, book store, florist, sushi shop and sento, a Japanese-style public bathhouse.

Of hundreds of such communal bathhouses in Japantowns across the country, this is the only one preserved intact, in place.

The two pitted marble baths are still in the basement, along with rusty shower heads (that nobody used, even then), neatly numbered wooden lockers and handpainted signs advertising local businesses such as Yesler Hardware and Jackson Furniture and Appliance.

The other businesses in the building, along with most of Japantown, disappeared during World War II when the U.S. government forced 20,000 people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps. Many families hastily packed trunks and stored them for safekeeping in the hotel's basement. Most never came back.

Until now.

Since owner Jan Johnson renovated the hotel and last year opened an exquisite Asian tea house at street level, an eclectic parade of elderly Nisei, urban hipsters, Gen-Y artists and Alaska seamen have streamed through the café to peer at old Japanese-American photographs: plucked chickens in local butcher shops, dairy farms in Kent and Auburn, a pageant float graced by an American flag and a banner for the Japanese Fishing Tackle Dealers Association.

Dwarfed by pyramids of canned goods in his parents' grocery store, a little boy with bangs cut straight across his forehead stares out from a black-and-white photograph at 82-year-old Tama Tokuda. "That's Susumu Nitta," she says, recognizing a pal from long ago. "The old neighborhood, I miss it in the way that people miss their childhood."

For the old-timers, it's an emotional pilgrimage, not just a cup of tea — a community revival that goes beyond building renovations.

"Everybody knows about World War II," says Mark Hidaka, an owner of City Produce and son and grandson of the owners of Jackson Furniture, "but they don't know about the good stuff that was before that."

You can peek into the basement through a hole cut in the café floor. The light shines on a dusty footlocker, a cloth coat with fur collar, a pair of men's socks: Bits of everyday life before nothing was the same.

"What this brings back is part of the past that has been erased," says Gail Dubrow, who with co-author Donna Graves wrote "Sento at Sixth and Main," a new book about preserving Japanese-American landmarks.

Of course, one person's historic relic is another's clutter.

When Johnson bought the place in 1985 from Takashi and Lily Hori, who had owned and operated the hotel since the 1930s, there was barely room to walk between buckets of golf shoes, cigar boxes, fishing tackle, ancient Brillo pads, radiators, Aunt Jemima sink composters, Butterick sewing patterns, cans of Sunbrite cleanser, tea kettles, children's lesson books, paper airplane kits, hand-pump fire extinguishers, Colman's Dry Mustard, five-gallon tins of soy sauce, a bottle of Umajirushi vinegar with a flying horse on the label and half the vinegar still inside.

There were, and still are, original garbage cans filled with what appears to be original garbage.

"I tried to contact everybody to come get their stuff, but a lot of them didn't care about it," says Mr. Hori, now 84. "At that time, it was junk. So the only thing I can do is take it to the dump. Jan said: 'Leave it.' "

• • •

AT FIRST GLANCE, Jan Johnson appears to be the world's most unlikely savior, champion and caretaker of a national Nisei historical trove.

She is of Scandinavian, not Asian, ancestry, and though she grew up in West Seattle and Olympia, she knew only the basics about the internment — let alone commercial real estate or cranky plumbing — before buying the hotel. She is fluent in Italian and race-car mechanics but doesn't speak Japanese.

Johnson spent a significant part of her adult life in Italy designing fine knitwear and careening around the world in Lamborghinis (which she helped export to the U.S.), motorcycles, and an 85-foot schooner built by Howard Hughes. While in Rome, she was briefly married to Tim Page, a British war photographer. She has a daughter and two grandchildren.

Johnson has never lived a conventional life and doesn't track time in the usual way, by years. She moved back to Seattle from Italy in the mid-'80s, and claims she hasn't yet found a moment to unpack her trunks. You get the feeling she's been so busy zooming from one thing to the next, her adventures have accumulated like treasures in the basement, and when she stumbles across something good, she rips through the story in full color, with glee.

There was the time, while roaring down the back roads of Albania on a motorcycle, she was captured by the Yugoslavian army and accused of spying because she'd camped on an air base that had been disguised as a cornfield. The time, on a whim, she hopped an 18-wheeler down I-5 to deliver one of her Lamborghinis to a mechanic in Gilroy. And all the times she's woken at 4 in the morning and driven to Idaho to help friends round up cattle and auction horses.

Johnson's lifestyle and fine taste suggest family money, which there was, but not a lot. Her late father, with whom she was quite close, owned apartment buildings and also felled trees, worked the mills and walked logs in the bay. Often, Jan would tag along. Sometimes, he'd send her up in friends' float planes to get her out from underfoot. And early on, he taught her how to work hard. She recalls crawling into the kitchen cabinets of rental units to paint the insides.

Her parents split when she was about 6. Her mother and stepfather made a fair salary at Boeing and weren't afraid to spend it. Now, Johnson's elderly mother lives with her, nearby, and Johnson often runs home during the day to bring her coffee and a pastry.

More than money, Johnson inherited her parents' craving for adventure, identity as a working person, and talent for instantly turning strangers into lifelong friends. Long before Jan was born, during the Depression, a couple with a small baby knocked on their door looking to rent. But there were no vacancies, so her parents invited the couple to live with them, and the generations have been close ever since.

Recently, the great grandniece of that couple, Amy Cherundolo, stopped by the Panama on a visit from Arizona. "After my parents got divorced when I was a teenager," Cherundolo recalls, "Jan came out to Michigan for a week and kept asking me to come and visit. The week after I graduated from high school, I moved out here and lived in the hotel for seven months!"

If you hang around Johnson for any length of time, you'll notice she's surrounded by a coterie of fascinating people: an Italian-Argentinean-Chilean salsa instructor; a plumber; a Greek fur trader who loves to debate; a coffee importer who's habitually late; sansei women with fine leather handbags; Alaska seamen in boots on break; Japanese college students who work behind the counter and make art and poetry in their spare time; community activists; architects; musicians; restaurateurs; writers in dreds; aficionados of Italian cars.

Almost everyone who wanders into the tea house is proprietary about the place. The hipster types lay claim because they've "discovered" an authentic architectural gem. Nisei and sansei feel ownership because they're returning to the corner where they used to bathe as kids. ("Hey!" yells 78-year-old Frank Yamasaki, when he spots Locker #7 in the bath house. "That's my locker!") Johnson's Euro- and Lamborghini- and assorted other friends are at home here because, well, they know Jan.

To be a Friend of Jan means she's chatted with you long enough to hone in on something that makes you you, and before you finish talking with her she's introduced you to somebody else in the café who has a similar interest or, if not, the both of you awkwardly grope for some sort of connection when she scoots off to greet, interrupt and introduce the next customer and the next in an endless Friends-of-Jan relay. Her goal seems to be to introduce everybody in her life to everybody else and have them all become friends and hang out downtown and live where they work and shop at street level and travel the Northwest on a huge monorail stretching from Vancouver to Portland. Doesn't matter your age, hue or style to be a Friend of Jan. You can even wear Dockers.

For herself, around the hotel, Johnson favors tight black jeans and a strappy black exercise top worn like a bustier to expose a bit of midriff and cleavage. Her cellphone is leashed to her left hip; a ring of 38 keys ("Mr. Hori's keys") jingles on her right; her toenails are painted carmine red. She is a strapping woman with wavy copper tresses, a throaty laugh and gleaming teeth that are frequently professionally polished.

It's hard to guess her age, which she does not want revealed. ("What does it matter, y'know?") Like Tina Turner, she exudes a sensual glamour. She is younger than the sexagenarian soul star and was born sometime after the internment order.

"If you look at her, her clothing, she's, well, flamboyant," says Capt. Mike Sanford, commander of Seattle's west precinct, who works with Johnson on community boards. "I don't know how else you'd describe it. The first time I saw her I thought: WHOA! But she doesn't look the part of who she really is. She's a sweet lady who's very methodical and very insightful about people and problems in the neighborhood. She's street smart."

It was Johnson who pushed the city to install four-way stop signs at the corner of Sixth and Main to make the intersection safer for the neighborhood's many elderly. It was Johnson who persuaded the Ackerley Group to donate billboards educating the public about leaving nothing in the car to prevent car prowls. (In her own cars, the mess likely serves as a theft deterrent.) It is Johnson herself, on Sunday mornings, scrubbing graffiti off neighborhood walls.

Carolyn Hyman, public-safety coordinator for the International District: "If you listen to Jan, she approaches everything through an aesthetic. Even community safety! You know, the broken-window syndrome. Rundown buildings and broken windows attract criminals because they think nobody cares. She believes if you make things look better, things will be better."

• • •

IN ESSENCE, it was aesthetics that spurred Johnson to buy the Panama Hotel. Her father had just died and she'd returned from her second Italian sojourn to her old studio in the Northern-Pacific Hotel, around the corner from the Panama. She ran into Mr. Hori on the sidewalk and he mentioned he was planning on retiring and selling the building.

"I thought, 'Oh no, there goes another one.' " The artist dreaded the vision of the handsome brick hotel transformed into an ugly edifice like the low-income housing across the street. Next time she saw Mr. Hori, she asked him how much he wanted.

About half a million.

She said she was interested even after Mr. Hori told her he already had several serious potential buyers.

Mr. Hori laughed: Make me an offer.

She offered what he wanted.

Thus began months of tea and talk upstairs in the hotel with Mr. and Mrs. Hori. Somehow, Johnson knew she had to recapture the neighborhood's former spirit on a block worn faceless by grime, crime and drugs. She promised to treasure the old furniture (including closets made from refrigerator crates by Mr. Hori's father) and not kick out the low-income tenants.

Bit by bit, the Horis shared stories. How no bank would loan them money to bring the sprinkler system up to code (redlining was common in that era), so Mr. Hori had to use his wife's savings and the money he'd put away to send his daughter to college. How the boiler worked, and the knife switches, the faucets, fuses, washers, double-hung windows. Spelling each other, Mr. and Mrs. Hori drilled Johnson on the inner-workings in the deep bowels of the 106-room hotel. After months, Johnson was so exhausted, when she took a break to eat out with friends one evening, her companions took bets on whether she'd land sideways or face first in her plate when she fell asleep at the table.

In the end, the Horis sold the building to Johnson, not because she was the highest bidder (she wasn't), but because she cared so much.

"All these chairs and all these things, she loved them," Mrs. Hori says. "I wanted to sell it to somebody else but my husband wanted to sell it to Jan. He said, 'She has so many ideas. They're fantastic.' "

The early years were tough.

In addition to dealing with an aging building, Johnson had to cope with a failing business partnership and a neighborhood riddled with prostitutes, some of whom apparently did business in the Panama. Johnson was arrested for permitting prostitution on the premises after she allowed a lasciviously dressed woman (an undercover cop) to exit through a back door after the woman told her she feared police waiting in the front.

Johnson thinks the whole thing was a set-up. In those days, some saw her as an outsider and she was not always welcomed, perhaps because she's not Asian, perhaps because of her involvement in Democratic politics.

"There was a lot of weird stuff going on down there," Johnson says. "It upset a lot of people that I was there. It was ugly." She remembers running up and down the stairs, answering the phone, trying to keep the drunks out when approached by the undercover cop. Johnson says she just wanted to get rid of the woman when she showed her the back door.

Before her case went to trial, lawmakers including state Reps. Jesse Wineberry and Cal Anderson, and even King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, wrote letters to the court attesting to her good citizenship. In 1989, a jury found Johnson guilty of three misdemeanors and fined her $500.

Around that time, her business partnership with Dennis Haugen, who'd also invested in the building, soured because of what they each describe as conflicting management styles. They sued each other and finally settled in court, Johnson winding up with full ownership of the building.

"Basically," Haugen says, "she wanted to keep the place the way it had been run for years and years . . . I wanted to do updating so it didn't tie us in there 24 hours a day, seven days a week . . . It was more like, let's get in here and get this thing organized and enjoy and have some fun. But I think it basically turned into her life."

• • •

IF YOU RUN into Jan Johnson at the tea house and she's not chatting it up with the customers, she may be on her knees, scraping a smooshed crumb off the floor with her fingernail, or straightening the tea canisters so the handles line up just so, or polishing the furniture with prodigious amounts of lemon oil.

She has spared neither time nor expense. Everything is top quality, from the old-growth fir cabinets custom-designed to match the original wall paneling to the slivers of handmade jasmine soap in the bathroom. The effect could be snooty, but instead it's comforting. In an age of quick profit, someone cared enough about the character of a place to make it her life. Johnson doesn't call herself the owner of the Panama Hotel; she says she's the third caretaker.

The tea house doesn't make money, instead riding the financial coattails of the hotel. "It was something I wanted to do," Johnson says. "Something I had to do. Right? So it's done."

Since opening a year ago, the tea house has become a community social spot, a place to relax, like a sidewalk café in Rome or the public baths where families once gathered in the basement.

"When she first bought the hotel, some people in the Asian community felt a little bit uneasy, not knowing what she had in mind for the artifacts," says Ron Chew, executive director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum. " 'What's she going to do?' But now, I think people are really pleased with what's come of it. A place that has historic meaning has become a live public space, a space that echoes with a lot of old stories and a new use."

All day long, people stream into the tea house, sink into the comfy cushioned chairs and become enveloped by what the bilingual, bicultural baristas call an shin kan.

In Japanese, "an" means safety or security, "shin" translates to heart, "kan" means feeling of.

"It means if you are here, in this building, you are protected," say baristas Rui Ikeda and Yuji Kihara. It's like "being wrapped by warm air," "like you are inside of mom's tummy."

On the wall hangs a framed copy of a Japanese- and English-language newspaper published in Seattle on March 12, 1942 — 10 days before internment. Under the headline "This is Our Last Shot at Writing," the front-page editorial reads, "Beginning tomorrow, the North American Times will be no more. Just how long, we do not know."

Now, 60 years later, the tea house shines a new light on the basement. The son of that newspaper's editor visits the Panama two or three times a week.

Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter.