BY SCOTT EDWARD HARRISON
Special to the Examiner
There are a number of significant historical buildings in the old Nihonmachi (Japantown) area dating from 1900 to 1920 which survive to this day and still retain much of their original appearance. Foremost among these landmarks are the Seattle Japanese Language School (1414 Weller St.), the Nippon Kan Theater in the former Astor Hotel building (121 Maynard Ave.), and the Furuya Building (216 2nd Ave. S.).
It is often said that nothing is certain but change. How true this is. The Japanese Language School property is slated to begin a new life in the next few years as the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington. The Nippon Kan Theater building was recently sold to ABC Legal Services and is destined for a change in use. The Furuya Building will also be undergoing change in the very near future when it is remodeled as part of the expansion of Masin’s Furniture & Interiors. None of these buildings are unlikely to remain the same as they are today.
The Furuya Building is of particular interest for two reasons. First, it was the main store of the M. Furuya Company, the largest Japanese-owned commercial enterprise on the Pacific coast. In 1907 Furuya’s Japanese Commercial Bank, forerunner to the Pacific Commercial Bank, was located in the back of the store. Second, as a landmark building, it still stands today with many features intact, serving as a testament to Furuya’s accomplishments in business and the prominent position of his company in the history of the Seattle Japanese community.
The story of Masajiro Furuya, the M. Furuya Company, and the Pacific Commercial Bank has been related in detail in Kazuo Ito’s book, “Issei,” and most recently in the summer 2005 special edition of the International Examiner.
The building at the corner of Second Avenue South and Main Street is well known as the Furuya Building, however it was not built by Masajiro Furuya. Construction began in 1899 as the Seattle substation of the Snoqualmie Falls Power Company. This company, also known as the Seattle Cataract Company, was founded by William T. Baker in association with his son, Charles H. Baker. The building was first named the Cataract Building and later became the Baker Building. Originally planned as a five-story building, it was completed with a basement and two stories. According to historical researcher Florence Lenz, the remaining three floors were added sometime between 1903 and 1904. The top two stories were removed in 1940 or1941.
The M. Furuya Company moved into the storefront at the north end of the building in August of 1900. The Japanese Association hall occupied the space above the store on the second floor. In 1902, the Association established a small Japanese language elementary school, which developed into the present day Seattle Japanese Language School. In 1905 the building was purchased by George W. Stetson and re-named the Stetson Building.
The M. Furuya Company grew and prospered during the first decade of the new century. In late 1905 or early 1906 a contract post office handling mail to and from Japan was opened in the store. A large number of money orders were sent to Japan through the post office and this contributed to Furuya’s decision to start the Japanese Commercial Bank. Furuya purchased the building in March 1917 through the Northwestern Land and Development Company. In February of 1918 the bank moved from the back of the store to specially remodeled space in the corner storefront facing 2nd and Main.
In 1928, the Japanese Commercial Bank was consolidated with the Oriental American Bank and the Seattle Specie Bank to become the Pacific Commercial Bank. At this time, all Furuya operations were brought together as a corporation. The 1920s were good years for the M. Furuya Company and the bank. However, the great depression would change that forever.
The end of Furuya’s empire began 75 years ago, on Oct. 23, 1931, when the Pacific Commercial Bank was declared insolvent and closed by a federal bank examiner. This disastrous event, coupled with other business problems, resulted in the personal bankruptcy of Furuya as well as the corporation.
The retail store was reorganized by a group of employees and continued in business at Second Avenue South until November 1941 when it moved to a new location with parking at 1001 Jackson St. The store remained there until early 1942 when all people of Japanese ancestry were removed from the West Coast and incarcerated in internment camps.
Meanwhile, the old Furuya Building was purchased by Gilbert Brothers Wholesale Electric Supply around 1943. They maintained an office in the former bank space at 222 2nd Ave. S. During the war years remodeling was not feasible and few if any changes were made to the building.
In the late 1940s Eman Masin moved to the building and operated a merchandise brokerage at 220 2nd Ave. S. By 1951 the brokerage had evolved into the E. Masin Furniture Company. Masin subsequently bought the building from the Gilbert Brothers. The furniture store has continued in business at this location to the present day.
The Masin family has been an excellent steward of this historical property for more than 50 years. The exterior still has most of its original appearance, including the graceful arched entry to the former Furuya store.
Remarkably, the interior space occupied by the old Pacific Commercial Bank still retains many key architectural elements, such as the decorative plaster work around the ceiling, supporting iron columns, distinctive wood frame windows on the mezzanine level, and even the crest of the Japanese Commercial Bank. Most amazing of all are the twin bank vaults with their heavy steel doors, original locking equipment, and distinctive gold lettering.
Preservation of the building and the banking room is due largely to conscious decisions by Eman Masin. Though he probably was not in a position to spend money on cosmetic remodeling projects in the early 1950s while he was building up his business, he could certainly have done so in the 1960s and remodeled away all vestiges of the Pacific Commercial Bank and the Furuya store. He chose not to do so.
Masin was asked why he hadn’t “modernized” the room and walled-up or at least painted over the old vaults. After a brief pause he replied, “Why should I want to go the effort of removing something of such historic value?” Why indeed.
Masin’s Furniture & Interiors will soon be moving to remodeled quarters in the buildings to the north and the old Furuya Building will be made available for a different use. The exterior will essentially remain the same, but configuration of the interior space will depend on the needs of the new tenants. With a little luck, the next occupant will share Masin’s views on the value of retaining the historic character of this important building.
The author thanks John R. Litz for providing newspaper citations used in this article.