Its safe to think of every parking lot in downtown Tacoma as a place of phantoms and lost episodes from the city’s past. The sense of missing is particularly strong on the corner of 15th and Market where the finest hotel ever built in Tacoma’s Japantown began and ended its storied history. It was the Hiroshimaya Hotel, named for the home town of most of Tacoma’s urban Japanese Issei immigrants, and built by one of the city’s richest and most influential power brokers.
The Hiroshimaya Hotel is a lesson in Tacoma’s unique social structure during most of the 20th century and the city’s curious interplay between ethnic groups, workers and industrialists, and rich and poor. When it was built in 1914 by John S Baker it was another in a string of elaborate and expensive commercial buildings that were riding Tacoma explosive growth before the First World War. It was Baker that commission Chicago architect Daniel Burnham to construct the first steel frame skyscraper in the Pacific Northwest, the Fidelity Building at 11th and Broadway in 1890.
From the day it opened, the Hiroshimaya served the Japanese community that surrounded it, run day and night by white collar and black tied Japanese managers, serving international travelers, import export merchants, visiting diplomats and business and social gatherings. Trans-Pacific steamship lines like OSK kept ticket agents in the lobby and by 1920 the hotel had telephones on every floor and a Western Union telegraph office on the Market Street level. The gleaming ivory glazed tile building was just a block away from the four story Tacoma offices of the Furuya Company Bank, known as an important piece in the “Great Furuya Kingdom”. Visiting Furuya men, in their distinctive black suits, always stayed at the Hiroshimaya and Masajiro Furuya himself had stayed in a suite of rooms before his empire collapsed into bankruptcy in 1931.
The extraordinary agreement between the respected hotelier Hyogo Nakashima and the financier John S. Baker was a work-around to deal with State and Federal laws that prevented Japanese Issei and later Nessei citizens from owning property. Partnerships and hand shake agreements between non-Japanese citizens and Japanese business-people and farmers were common but not openly discussed or recorded as public documents. For John Baker, one of Tacoma’s most esteemed civic leaders, to hire the prominent architect Roland Borhek to design an elegant hotel in the center of Japantown and then cooperate in its operation by Japanese partners was a statement, if not an all out affront to existing law.
What makes the Hiroshimaya Hotel and its
unconventional partnership even more interesting is that Congressman Albert Johnson, perhaps the most militant and influential champion of Federal anti-Japanese legislation as chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, was from Tacoma. The two men knew each other but they were hardly friends. Albert Johnson had worked for Sam Perkins as editor of the Tacoma Ledger and Daily News, the city’s most rigid and self proclaimed patriotic newspapers while Baker was a close relative of Frank S. Baker who published the Tacoma Tribune in the style of the progressive Cleveland Plain Dealer which the Bakers also owned. John Baker was no doubt welcome at the Hiroshimaya any time but for Congressman Johnson it was probably the last place on earth he ever wanted to visit.
While the daily patterns of life in downtown Tacoma went on in the 1920’s and 30’s an intricate system of business cooperation and social governance operated within Japantown. The meeting rooms and lobbies on two floors in the Hiroshimaya became an informal town hall where merchants, trade groups
like the hotel operators, political memberships like the Japanese American Citizen’s League (JACL), and parents groups met to plan events, discuss changing political winds and work out internal and external tensions. The complicated business of staying in business while State and Federal laws were becoming pointedly hostile to Japanese civil rights and property ownership became a major distraction and preoccupation for the 1500 people living, working and going to school in Tacoma’s Nihonmachi.
The Hiroshimaya Hotel was the first large institutional structure to mark the permanence and place for the Japanese community within the larger downtown. In a way it was like a towering white capitol building for the Nihonmachi. It was followed by several other architectural landmarks. Ambitious plans for the Japanese Language School that was constructed on Tacoma Avenue in 1921 were laid in meetings at the Hiroshimaya Hotel. Within the same meeting rooms, funds were raised and a contract was signed with Tacoma’s most respected architect, Frederick Heath (Stadium High School, Pythian Temple, Puget Sound Bank Bld.) to design the Classically styled building and negotiations were held with local trade unions to construct it.
Tacoma’s Buddhist congregation assembled in the hotel during its earliest days and again fundraising committees met in the
Hiroshimaya to plan a formal temple. Tacoma’s Japanese Buddhist community used rooms in the hotel for their temple before the first world war, hosting regular services, weddings, funerals and holiday festivals and banquets. In 1918 a storefront in the Astor Hotel at 17th and Market was dedicated as the formal temple but just two blocks down the street wedding celebrations. community and family gatherings and large association events were still hosted at the larger Hiroshimaya Hotel. On the first day of March 1931, just as the Depression was deepening, the Tacoma Hongwanji Buddhist Church was opened at 1717 Fawcett Avenue in a new brick building that survives today.
The difficult economic times of the 1930’s along with the opening of the modern Winthrop Hotel with its hundreds of rooms put a strain on the aging Hiroshimaya Hotel. In 1937 Washington State stiffened its Alien Land Laws further complicating the association between the Issei hoteliers and John Baker, who was nearing his 80’s. The decision was made to change the name to the Baker Hotel though operation continued to be entirely Japanese American with Seiishi Kano as house manager.
As the war in Europe intensified the hotel operation became a losing effort and John Baker decided to sell the building at a bargain price to the Tacoma Central Labor Council. The transaction was completed in the Spring of 1941 just as the uncertainties of America’s involvement in a second world war were intensifying. Where a Buddhist congregation once practiced their faith, more than 60 of Tacoma’s trade unions transformed the building into a Temple of Labor. The hotel rooms
were replaced with nine meeting rooms that held between 50 and 600 workers and organizers. Publication offices,printing presses and a radio studio were created and the dining rooms and hotel kitchens were renovated into members only recreation rooms and a restaurant and bar. Then in December, Pearl Harbor was bombed, the United States entered the war and President Roosevelt issued executive order 9066 calling for the removal of all people of Japanese descent from West Coast cities and farmlands. In May of 1942 the busy commercial district around the Labor Temple went vacant and empty. The Japanese community was looked on as friendly by the unions with shops closing in sympathy to labor actions during the 1930’s and Japanese grocers and restaurants helping with food for striking worker families. In two days, the entire Japanese neighborhood, men, women and children, were loaded on trains at Union Station leaving the nihonmachi a ghost town.
The former Hiroshimaya Hotel dived into the war industry as the headquarters for Tacoma’s wartime work force. The the post war years were an era of booming growth for social clubs like the Elks, Mason’s and Pythians but the Labor Temple was different, it was open to the many women within the labor movement and within its wall talk of politics was encouraged in every corner.
During the post war years Tacoma developed a fierce reputation as a blue collar, pro-union leaning city. Almost no one got elected to political office without visiting the Labor Temple and even as the ghosts of Japantown faded along with the historic fabric of the downtown, the lights burned late in the old Hiroshimaya Hotel when elections and labor contracts came around. The landmark building kept its place at 15th and Market until the early 1970’s when ugly debates within city hall, the recall of a majority of the City Council and a Federal funding opportunity called an Urban Development Action Grant all contributed to the demolition of the entire block. The Hiroshimaya Hotel was destroyed in 1974 leaving ground for parking lots to serve the Bicentennial Pavilion and the Sheraton Hotel (Murano).