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Originally published March 5, 2014 at 11:44 AM | Page modified March 6, 2014 at 6:22 AM

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Owners to raze part of Wah Mee building, preserve its exterior

Owners of the Chinatown International District building that housed the Wah Mee Club say the part damaged by a Christmas Eve fire will be torn down but the historic exterior will be preserved. The ground-floor club has been closed since the 1983 massacre of 13 people.

Seattle Times business reporter

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The owners of the old Wah Mee Club building in the Chinatown International District have decided to tear down the part damaged by fire on Christmas Eve while preserving the historic exterior.

City workers, contractors and structural engineers have had a difficult time inspecting the 104-year-old building, said part-owner Timothy Woo.

“We want the safest option and the most effective option,” he said. “The building is unsafe and we don’t want humans to go in there to manually extract the debris.”

Only the portion of the building destroyed by the fire will be torn down, which Woo said is roughly half. The other half has some water damage from the fire but is structurally sound, he said.

“We are going to try and save as much of the brick exterior as we can, but we’ll scoop out the insides,” Woo said. “This is a historic building to the community. It contributes to the overall feel of the International District, so we want to preserve it as much as we can.”

The top floor of the building, at 665 S. King St., had been unoccupied since Woo’s family took ownership more than 50 years ago because it was not up to city code. The Wah Mee Club, located off the alley on the ground floor, has been closed since the massacre in 1983 that left 13 people dead.

The seven businesses along the street level of the building have been shut down since the fire. Woo said he does not yet know when they will be able to reopen. Because the utilities to the entire structure will remain off during demolition and reconstruction, the businesses may have to stay closed until the project is finished, he said.

Some of the business owners already have applied for federal emergency disaster loans, said Christin Lau, who works at the Seattle Gospel Center Bookstore. The store found a temporary location two blocks away and opened Monday.

“We want to move back into the building as soon as it is rebuilt,” said Lau. “But we are happy to have a new location.”

The Department of Planning and Development received Woo’s application for a permit for restabilization Tuesday, said department spokesman Bryan Stevens. This phase is for demolishing the west wall of the building, which faces Maynard Alley South, and for stabilizing the remaining walls. Another permit must be submitted for gutting the inside, he said.

“The highest priority is to make that building safe so structural engineers can actually enter the building and to get insurance adjusters in,” Stevens said. “They haven’t been able to do that yet.”

Because the building is recognized locally and nationally as significant to the historic neighborhood, any plans to change the building exterior require approval by the city’s historic-preservation committee.

“The building itself is not a landmark, but it is part of the fabric of the larger historic district,” said Rebecca Frestedt, the city’s historic-preservation coordinator for the Chinatown International District. “We have to approve any changes to the exterior appearance of the building.”

Stevens said permit approval should happen Thursday or Friday because it is considered an emergency repair.

The first phase of demolition will take at least two weeks, followed by the second application and phase two of demolition, Woo said. He said the whole demolition process will take more than a month.

The plan for reconstruction is not yet finalized, and Woo does not know when it will be finished. He said the current idea is to restore the building and to bring it up to code. The fate of the old Wah Mee Club space is undecided, he said.

“We are not sure what we are going to do with the Wah Mee Club. Hopefully we can find a good use for it — something that could positively impact the community,” he said.

Coral Garnick: 206-464-2422 or On Twitter @coralgarnick

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