Still Chasing the Story

The backstory and mystery of the Lorenze Building at 17th and Market Street was just starting to emerge as my colleague, Tamiko Nimura and I watched the surviving fragments of the structure be demolished last December (2016). As historians, writers and preservationists we were confronted with the sobering reality that the last physical evidence of the building was gone but that certainly didn’t mean its story was erased. As told in the previous post, we knew the architecturally striking masonry building that once stood on the corner was very expensive to build back in 1890 and was oddly located away from the core of Tacoma during that boom time. While some of the story that follows recaps information in the previous episode here’s an account of what we discovered about this most extraordinary and unexpected place.


The street corner of 17th and D, later Market Street, was created with the original platting of New Tacoma in 1874 by the Tacoma Land Company the real estate division of the Northern Pacific Railway.[1] From the beginning, its location directly uphill from the transcontinental railroad passenger station at 17th and Jefferson made the four corners prime pieces of real estate. By 1883, maps show a large wood frame boarding house or residence on the Northwest corner lot (25) with other residential buildings filling in the neighborhood along D Street.


In 1889 Edward A. Lorenz commissioned

Lorenz Building

a four-story brick masonry building for the corner to be designed by the respected Tacoma architect Robert L. Robertson and constructed by B. W. Kearns & Culvert Contractors. Work began on the 64 foot wide 60 foot deep building in the late fall and was largely complete by April of 1890.

Lorenz was the patriarch of a family of steamboat operators and together with his brother and his three sons would go on to create a small fleet passenger and mail carriers which were part of the Puget Sound “mosquito fleet.” Edward and his sons Edward E., Otto and Oscar prospered in the maritime trade during the late 1880’s and 90’s and they invested the profits in commercial real estate, building the first Lorenz Building at 17th and Market and a second four story building at 1147 Tacoma Avenue in 1904[2]. The Lorenz brothers were important, alert figures in Tacoma’s maritime business and would have been familiar with the steady arrival by steamship of contract laborers from Japan and the growing need for suitable room and board.

Robertson’s design for the handsome building reflected the architectural tastes of the time incorporating Romanesque arches over the top story windows on the primary facades and expressing the corner location with a stacked turret capped with a conical domed roof and finial. He may have been influenced by the concurrent design of the massive Pierce County Courthouse that was built at the same time.The two buildings shared the same nearby overlook of downtown Tacoma as it boomed with new buildings and enterprises following the arrival of the Cascade route for the Northern Pacific transcontinental railroad in 1886. The Lorenz also copied style and features of the larger Fife Hotel Building which was constructed across the street from Robertson’s office at 9th and Pacific in 1888.

In a bold band of entablature at the base of the stacked box windows on the D (Market) Street façade, the building was identified as “Lorenz 1889”. It presented three retail storefronts along the east facing sidewalk on D (Market)Street with an entrance to the upper stories located under the building name and heavy brackets supporting the boxed window element. On June 30, 1890, the Daily Ledger carried an announcement of the opening of “The Sisson House “describing the 60 room accommodation with a home restaurant, bar and fully furnished rooms “either en suite or with closets and bathrooms on each floor.” The notice reported that “Rooms can be had by the month at from $10 upward.”[3]


The depression of 1893 brought financial difficulties to the operation of the Sisson House. Retail tenants changed or disappeared on the ground floor and by 1894 the upper floors were being offered for daily use as the Astor Hotel. Edward Lorenz appears to have either sold or lost the property prior to 1898. At the same time construction was stopped entirely on the massive Tourist Hotel (later completed as Stadium High School in 1906) and in 1897 the proud Fife Hotel was sold and changed its name to the Hotel Donnelly. The abrupt slowing of Tacoma’s population growth along with the failure of local banks and financial institutions in the mid 1890’s dramatically reduced the value of property. Complicating the ownership and value of the Lorenz Building was also the location, which was at the outer edge of the downtown’s commercial center and on a street not served by a streetcar line. While there is no public record of title transfer, several sources record that the Hotel Astor was leased by Japanese interest and began catering to the Northwest’s growing Japanese population.  In the Spring of 1899 two important pioneer hoteliers, Soroku Kuramoto and Yasuji Nagamoto opened operations in Tacoma as railroad and lumber companies greatly expanded employment for Japanese workers. The Japanese Consul’s Office was established in Tacoma in 1894 and both the Spanish American War and the Klondike Gold Rush helped create a burst in immigration and travel between Tacoma and Japan.1909-diner-menu-cropped

In 1900 Mr. Kuramoto, in partnership with Aiju Okanishi, leased or purchased through a business association, the entire building including the Astor Hotel and ground floor retail storefronts. While they began operation of the hotel on the upper floors[4] they arranged for Koichi Kawamura to open a restaurant and bathouse on the ground level. At least one source cites it as Tacoma’s first major Japanese Hotel[5] and in his own words Mr. Kuramoto stated that it “was so magnificent that one would not believe it was run by Japanese.”[6]

In the months following hotel’s reopening Mr. Kuramoto became a major combatant in the dockside competition for housing the hundreds of contract laborers arriving from Japan. After intervention by the Japanese Consul Sotokichi Hayashi, the settlement resulted in the first Tacoma Japanese trade association, the Innkeepers Union. In the minds of many, the Astor building symbolized the growing stability of Tacoma’s Japanese district. The building and hotel would remain at the center of Nihonmachi for the next 15 years and would stay in Japanese operation until the forced relocation of the neighborhood in May 1942.


Two international events had major effects on the growth and commercial development in Tacoma’s Japantown and they both can be seen in the history of the building at 17th and Market. The completion of the Panama Canal in 1913 created a thoroughfare for goods and travelers between the Atlantic and seaports on the Pacific Coast and Asia. Tacoma’s waterfront boomed with new steamship lines connecting directly with Yokohama and Hiroshima.[7]  Family life flourished as prospering young single men returned to Japan for short visits and returned married. D Street became Market Street- a busy corridor for family homes and businesses along the western edge of Nihonmachi and cultural and religious institutions helped form a distinct ethnic neighborhood.


In 1915, the Buddhist community launched an effort to create a local church, meeting first in a small room in the large new Hiroshima Hotel at 15th and Market. In November 1918 eighty families contributed to a $2500 building fund to lease and convert the 1000 square foot corner storefront (1556 Market) in the newly named Columbus Hotel into the first Tacoma Buddhist Church. For the next 13 years, the church anchored the intersection at 17th and Market and hosted the community’s religious services, weddings, funerals, cultural events and social gatherings.marvin_d_boland_collection_bolandb13820

By 1925, the retail space next to the Buddhist Church (1554 Market) was established as a Jujitsu School and gymnasium for athletics and social clubs. Even after the Buddhist Church moved to its new building nearby at 1717 Fawcett in February 1931, the Jujisu School remained in the center storefront until 1942.


Upstairs, the former Astor Hotel continued to serve primarily Japanese tenants and travelers in rooms and suites that were well advertised in English language publications and considered respectable inside and outside the Japanese community. The opening of the larger Hiroshima Hotel just two block away at Market and 15th marked a shift of the perceived center of Japantown and continued a rivalry between the operating associations of the two most prestigious hotels in the district. The establishment of the Tacoma headquarters for the powerful Fuyuya Trading Company and bank across the street from the Hiroshima Hotel at 15th and Broadway settled the contest.

The onset of the First World War coincided with the name change to the Columbus Hotel and may reflect the ownership’s patriotic response to growing political rhetoric against foreigners and immigrants. Beginning in 1918, the building was listed in Polk Directories as home to the Columbus Hotel (1554 ½ Market). From 1930 to 1937 it was managed by Otsukichi Okawa and from 1938 until 1941 (last year before internment) the proprietor was Tainojo Tomita.

In 1934, the former Buddhist Church space on the corner was taken by N. Lan Chinese Medicine Company, owned by Yunan Ling, an herb doctor, apothecary and an importer of Chinese curios. He and his large family lived in the rear of the space until 1948 with his office and display window on the south and front side. His daughter notably, remembered the family wearing stickpins labeled “Chinese” during the World War Two to explain their presence after the relocation of their Japanese neighbors.[8]


During the late years of the depression, the ground floor shops rotated short term professional offices, became vacant or were occupied by religious charities such as the Father Devine Peace Mission (1552 Market).[9] The Columbus Hotel building along with the surrounding neighborhood became suddenly vacant when Executive Order 9066 required the relocation of all people of Japanese descent in May of 1942, following the start of World War Two. By 1943, it was providing low cost military housing and single room daily/monthly accommodation. Yu Nan Ling’s Medicine company remained on the corner and by 1947, Japanese owned businesses returned. Art’s Cleaners filled the space at 1556 Market and Fukui’s Grocery opened in the former Jujitsu dojo at 1554 Market. In 1954 Abe Gesuro took over the grocery which would stay in business until 1969 and survive a near disaster.

What comes next is unthinkably dark as the vacant corners of Japantown become the setting for Tacoma’s post war underworld and a deadly fire almost destroys the building.


Tamiko Nimura has been writing about the characters in this story, the soldier grocer, the surrounding neighborhood and coming soon a bio of the Chinese apothecary who with his wife raised nine kids in the corner storefront of the building .  Those stories also to follow along with a tour of Tacoma’s Japantown today.

Shuichi Fukui ,  Journalist Grocer

Discover Nikkei personal essay on researching the History Link essay

History Link thumbnail history

[1] New Tacoma Plat, Block 1508, Lots 23,24,25

[2] TPL Building Index, 1147-49 Tacoma Ave S. From 1914-15 the building housed the fledging Mars Candy Company which later moved to the mid west and grew into the 6th largest privately held company in America with annual sales of $33 Billion in 2015.

[3] TDL, 6/30/1890. TPL Building Index

[4] The hotel was listed as Astor Hotel in English language printing but called Hiroshim-ya Inn in Japanese signage.

[5] Tacoma-Pierce County Building Index, Northwest Room, Tacoma Public Library.

[6] History of Japanese in Tacoma, Otsuka, Shuhosha. Tacoma Jiho Company. 1917. Magden Papers TPL

[7] Japan’s second largest shipping line Osaka Shosen Kaiha (OSK) chose Tacoma as trans-Pacific Terminus in 1909 and was running six freighter-passenger ships between Yokohama and Tacoma by 1914.

[8] Tacoma: Voices of the Past Volume 1,

[9] Polk City Directory


  1. Fascinating account! I am Edward Lorenz’s great grandson. There are a few details that should be cleared up, however. The patriarch of the family was Carl Lorenz, who established the sawmill at Lakebay. His sons were Edward, Otto and Oscar, along with daughter Meta. All of them are buried together at the family plot in the old Tacoma Cemetery. I visit them often!


  2. My name John Campbell and grew up Tacoma. I was historic preservation coordinator for the Puyallup in 1996. I believe that this prime had a ancient Puyallup Indian village.


  3. I came across this while doing genealogical research. My grandfather, Tainojo Tomita, as per the article, operated the Columbus Hotel from 1938-1941. Tainojo and his family, were listed, along with a number of lodgers, as the hotelier in the 1940 Census. His brother, Umanojo Tomita, as per the 1930 Census, operated the Superior Hotel at 1701 Market St. Please contact me if you have any other information on the Tomita family at either address ( Kudos to both Michael Sullivan and Tamiko Nimura for providing website articles that have tremendously helped me with my research. Thanks.


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