Old hotel full of memories finds room for a new start
Ten years after closing the Publix Hotel, Uwajimaya plans to revive a shuttered historic hotel in the Chinatown International District.
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
For Don Taniguchi, nostalgia seeps from every crack in the Publix Hotel. As he moves from room to room, he points at the air, conjuring people who once lived here and the objects they owned. His grandmother’s piano over here; this pink counter where his family cooked dinner. Out the window of Room 502, you could see Puget Sound.
For three generations, Taniguchi’s family managed the building, which was home to mostly working-class men living in single rooms with shared facilities down the hall. High maintenance costs finally forced the Publix to close in 2003.
“I have a lot of fond memories of the things I did here and making do with what you’ve got,” he said.
In the past 10 years, the Publix has had few occupants — a handful of businesses, artists and pigeons. Today paint blisters off the ceiling in the lobby, crumbling into grit that coats the oyster-cracker-shaped floor tiles and wooden front desk.
Now this Chinatown International District hotel is at the corner of history and change. Uwajimaya, the Asian grocery retailer that owns the hotel, has decided to bring it back to life. The project also includes redeveloping the site of the old Uwajimaya store next door to host Asian cultural businesses, such as a Japanese tea house.
Once renovated, the Publix will become market-rate apartments and retail space for another generation of Seattle workers in an effort to upgrade and economically diversify the neighborhood.
“I think the district needs more people with income,” Uwajimaya board Chairman Tomio Moriguchi said. The area already has its fair share of affordable housing, he said, and would benefit from Microsoft or Amazon employees with money to spend at neighborhood shops and restaurants.
“The (Moriguchi) family doesn’t feel that adding more people with low income is healthy for the whole district.”
Filling a need
The facade reads “1928,” but the first guests stayed at the Publix Hotel on Dec. 29, 1927. The names are mostly signed in pencil in a registry housed in a thick, yellowing stack at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience: “G. Wildner” in Room 239, “Tony Collins” in Room 433, and “Y T Iwasaki” in Room 626.
The Publix and more than two dozen other hotels in the Chinatown ID catered to waves of migrant workers from Asia — China, Japan and the Philippines — and from across the United States. The newcomers passed through Seattle on their way to work in the farms, canneries and lumber mills of the Pacific Northwest, but some married and settled here.
The land on Fifth Avenue South was first claimed by David S. “Doc” Maynard, the Seattle pioneer and physician, and eventually transferred to the Rainier Heat and Power Co., which built the Publix, Bush and American hotels in the Chinatown International District.
“It was a moneymaking venture,” said Seattle University professor Marie Wong, who is writing a book on historic single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels across the country. “People were coming into Seattle, they needed places to stay and there was a tremendous shortage of housing in the city.”
Residential hotels feature small rooms with shared facilities and common space. At the Publix, rooms were tiny — some about 8 feet by 10 feet — with a single bed, sink and four coat hooks on the walls. Toilets, baths and showers were down the hall. A 1937 photo of the Publix shows a sign advertising a special weekly rate of $2 to $3.25.
The tight personal space forced residents to bond with each other in common areas.
“Social life was literally created in the hallways,” Wong said.
Over the years, thousands of other names appeared in the Publix Hotel registry in swirling cursive. Next to the names, the “residency” column was mostly left blank. To many, the Publix became home.
Tenants were family
For Taniguchi, his family’s connection to the Publix dates to the 1940s. During World War II, his grandparents and parents were interned in Tule Lake, Calif., the largest internment camp in the United States, and Taniguchi’s birth place. His grandfather lost a business he owned in Tacoma, so when the family left the camp, the Publix represented a fresh start. They stayed on as managers for about 40 years.
A stroll through the halls today summons details from the past for Taniguchi.
The stairwell: a chore to sweep. The rooftop: his grandmother’s garden for bonsai and ikebana, traditional flower arranging. The cavernous basement: perfect for basketball with his friends, the children of other interned Japanese Americans.
“There’s a lot of room to play around here as a kid,” he said, clicking off the light.
The hotel was a home to many uprooted people, such as workers traveling to and from Alaska, railroad workers or ex-military, Taniguchi said.
“The guys at our hotel are guys that had hard-luck stories,” he said.
The tenants became like a second family, and even attended Taniguchi’s Little League games. As an adult, they helped him move out when his friends were too busy.
“They were the guys, basically speaking, that I could count on,” he said.
Taniguchi couldn’t stay away from the hotel for long. In 1991, he returned to the Publix as a resident and became hotel manager 10 years later.
But the place was in decline, and the high cost of upkeep and low rent meant the Publix was no longer a moneymaking venture. The hotel’s new owners, Uwajimaya, planned to renovate the property in 1990 and residents protested. For a time, the building stayed open for tenants like Earl Smith, a longtime friend of Taniguchi’s and former hotel employee.
In 1999, Smith fell on hard times and was looking for cheap rent when he found the Publix.
“It was either the street or that,” he said. “And the street doesn’t appeal to me.”
Smith said he paid about $70 or $80 a week for his room in the early 2000s. After coming home from work, he would play cards and talk with the other tenants in the lobby — middle-aged guys like himself seeking an inexpensive place to lay their heads down at night.
“It was a peaceable place,” Smith said.
In 2003, the cost of necessary repairs continued to mount and renovating the hotel wasn’t economically viable for Uwajimaya. Residents and housing advocates protested again. This time the hotel was shuttered and tenants were offered money to relocate.
“That was home,” Smith said. “Nobody really wanted to move.”
The Moriguchi family hopes the new Publix, with its central location and proximity to transit, will have broad appeal. Construction is scheduled to start next summer to renovate the hotel and the old Uwajimaya store site. The facade will look similar to today, but the inside will feature retail space, self-contained studios and one-bedroom apartments, a fitness room and underground parking. Moriguchi said the entire renovation will cost between $10 million and $12 million.
The hotel will be reconfigured with three or four rooms combined into single units that will rent for an estimated $1,000 or so a month, said Ken Louie, Uwajimaya vice president of real estate. He said he has also talked with owners of an Asian liquor distillery and ice-cream shop about locating to the renovated Uwajimaya store site.
The project’s lead architect, Clark Design Group, of Seattle, was chosen in part because of its involvement in preserving the INS Building in the Chinatown ID and the OK Hotel in Pioneer Square.
Some details are still in flux, such as how many units will be available and the name of the new building. Louie said whatever the new building is called, it will retain as much of the original character as possible, including the word, “Publix.”
“We want to keep the history in the building,” he said.
The InterIm Community Development Association, which provides affordable housing in the Chinatown ID, has welcomed the change. Executive Director Hyeok Kim said in the past that timing and financing haven’t been able to coalesce to renovate the property.
“If finally there is an opportunity that it will move forward, we certainly are very, very happy with that.”
But John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, which protested the closing of the Publix in 2003, was not thrilled with the announcement.
“This is really a metaphor for what is happening to this city,” he said. “We’re gentrifying low-income people out.”
Fox said single-room hotels like the Publix have provided vital housing for formerly homeless and other low-income residents, but downtown development has resulted in the loss of that housing stock.
“The need is even greater now than it was a decade ago,” he said.
The neighborhood currently has 2,500 housing units, over half of which are subsidized. In the next 10 years, the area will add up to 7,000 primarily market-rate units, including the new Publix, according to the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area.
Moriguchi said the time was right.
“One way or the other, we can’t continue to leave that building as it is.”
Anna Boiko-Weyrauch: 206-464-3145 or firstname.lastname@example.org