Examiner Staff

The historic Nippon Kan Theatre is on its way to becoming office space for the new owners of the building, ABC Legal Services.

Board members of the International Special Review District (ISRD) approved the proposal of change of use at the meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 27. The ISRD is one of Seattle’s seven historic districts.

Community members have been anxious to see what happens to the Kobe Park Building, which houses the theatre and the International Examiner office at Sixth Avenue and South Washington Street. ABC Legal Services, a private Seattle company that provides messenger, investigative and research services, bought the building for a reported $3.1 million this summer.

Many had hoped and expected that the space would continue as a theatre space. Built in 1909, the theater was the center for the Japanese community up until the internment during World War II. Ownership of the building initially belonged to the Cascade Corporation, established by Takahashi, Hirade and Tsukuno, according to “Seattle’s International District” book by Doug Chin.

After a change of hands from different owners, the Northwest Asian American Theatre managed the space, presenting such hit productions as “West Side Story” and other community performances. The Stroums, who owned the building prior to selling it to ABC Legal Services, have not rented out the space for a couple of years, though people continue to ask about its availability.

At the Sept. 27 meeting, ISRD board member Jerry Chihara inquired about the historic landmark status of the building, and whether the new owners had to adhere to regulated controls over the interior.

ISRD board coordinator Sarah Sodt clarified that though the theatre is listed on the U.S. Department of Interior’s national register of historic places, there are “no regulatory controls associated with that designation.” In order for there to be controls on the interior spaces, the building would have to be listed as a city landmark, said Sodt.

When the building was sold, The Seattle P-I reported that ABC Legal Services planned to preserve the 400-person theater and to make minor structural changes inside.

Ron Belec, representative for ABC Legal Services, said the company had attempted to find a tenant to lease the theater on a regular basis. He discovered that there were major challenges in doing so. The first was the “antiquated” equipment and facilities, which would require investing many thousands of dollars to get the theater up to today’s standards. The other challenges were the location and the lack of parking – there are only 30 parking spaces for the building.

The company decided to use the Nippon Kan as their messenger department, which means 25 to 30 bike messengers will check in to the space about three times a day. About 20 employees will occupy the offices in the upper half of the building, which was formerly the Astor Hotel many years ago.

Belec said the company will preserve what they can, including the historic pictures. They will seek help from the Wing Luke Asian Museum for the preservation of the pictures.

Cynthia Stroum is seeking buyers for the historic curtain at the Nippon Kan that has the names of several local Japanese American businesses valued at $100,000. Belec said the Stroums also took back the baby grand piano.

Belec said that if the curtain was made available to them, the company would hang it back in the theater.

In 10 years, Belec said, he predicts that technology will make bike messenger services obsolete, in which case, the company may consider renting out the theater space if there’s enough demand and interest.

Belec added that their company has been in business in Seattle for over 30 years, and that they “intend to be good neighbors for the International District.”

Chihara said the company’s efforts to preserve the space were “commendable.”

The next step for ABC Legal Services is to approve the building plans with the Department of Planning and Development (DPD).

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