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Originally published October 16, 2010 at 7:35 PM | Page modified October 17, 2010 at 3:43 PM

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Old INS Building gets new life as arts space

The old U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Building on Airport Way South in the Chinatown/International District has been turned into an artists' enclave.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Now, the barbershop signs giving instructions for cutting hair of detainees are part of an art experience at the old U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Building on Airport Way South in the Chinatown/International District.

On Saturday, the imposing, five-story, 78-year-old structure that was vacated by the federal government in 2004 was officially opened as Inscape, dubbed by its backers as "the largest arts and cultural enclave in Seattle."

But to the thousands of detainees who in past decades were held in Chinese and "white" dormitories, the signs in the barbershop were very real.

The barbershop was a windowless, 8-by-8-foot room with a metal door painted gray.

Although all that's left of the small sink is the cut-off piping in the wall, still left taped on a wall are lengthy, very specific instructions on cutting hair.

"The detainees head shall be inspected for lice, infection or open sores. (If discovered, the haircut will not be completed, and the detainee shall be directed to submit a medical request on returning to his dormitory.) The selected detainee for haircut shall be seated in the designated barber chair," read Step 1 of 11 steps.

The original plans to turn the building into office space were shelved — partly because the economy has tanked, and partly because the dozen partners who bought the building at auction for $4.4 million in April 2008 say they didn't mind working with artists. Artists, for example, don't require carpeted hallways.

The old linoleum or tiling is just fine, if it means the rent is $1 to $1.25 a square foot instead of double that much.

And the lavatories don't need new toilets or sinks. The old institutional ones still work.

"Beautiful presence"

Rolf Hogger, chairman of MRJ Constructors, has his office near the old building.

He's one of the dozen investors — an attorney, an architect, "acquaintances," said Hogger — who bought the INS Building.

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In a description of their holding group for the project, the investors say that together they're worth more than $50 million.

Still, why invest in such a project at a time when others are sitting on their money?

The building can handle up to 125 artists as tenants; so far, 30 have signed papers and another 15 say they are "committed." That means only about a third of the building has been rented out.

"It's almost emotional. I commute in from Bainbridge Island every day, and I typically walk by the building and I've always admired its architecture. It has a beautiful presence, although for a lot of people it gets lost because of the industrial area to the south," said Hogger.

Solidarity

The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, described as having a "simple Neo-Classic design" with "certain Mediterranean qualities" such as its red mission tile roof and marble columns at the main entrance.

For the artists who are renting space at the 77,000-square-foot building, it means working in a building with an instant support group.

David Robinson, a painter, said he had previously done his art in rented space behind a house.

"It was solitary," he said. But working in proximity to other artists, and hearing their comments about his work, "I almost immediately became a better artist."

Ghosts remain

Sam Farriazano, a sculptor, also is the point man in turning the INS Building into an artists' center. He is the owner of Equinox Studios in Georgetown, an old industrial building that's also been turned into artist studios.

On Saturday, he walked through the building and showed how much of its ghosts remained.

According to the nominating document for the National Register, in 1916, some 900,000 people passed through the INS Seattle District, with as many as 750 people detained in the building at one time.

Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that prohibited immigration of Chinese laborers, those detainees were housed in separate quarters, said the nominating document, with men and women in separate quarters.

"All aliens were confined behind metal bars surrounding and separating the dormitories. Windows were screened as well as barred. Aliens were not allowed close to windows to prevent them from seeing others outside who might provide signals or cues to assist them in gaining admission," said the document.

This weekend — the grand opening of Inscape goes from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday — the building displays various depictions by the artists of life in the INS facility. At the main lobby entrance, for example, large paper cutouts are hanging, reproductions of actual graffiti from a recreation yard in the second floor.

The street side of the yard originally had a large metal fence topped off by barbed wire, said Farriazano.

There still is a monitoring camera mounted high up on a wall. On another wall, there still is a wooden backboard with an old basketball hoop.

The detainees used tar that had softened in the yard to scribble their graffiti. In recent times, it reflected the changed ethnicity of the detainees: "Manuel." "Acosta." "Thanh." "El Salvador."

If it were to be an office building, keeping such reminders intact would be eerie.

But Farriazano said the artists don't mind. "It's in the spirit of what artists are doing," he said. "Artists are outsiders, anyway."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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