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A New Gateway to the Past: The Seward Park Torii Project in Seattle

A Southern friend of mine once told me that she moved to the West Coast because it was a place of destiny-making, a place where one could begin anew. But one of the first questions that she asked was, “Where do you all keep your history? Where is your Williamsburg?” If you’re from the West Coast, born and bred like me, the answer is “often deeply sedimented, less on display, often less carefully preserved.” Here, to me, the work of history often feels like the work of excavation in unexpected places.

The original Seward Park torii from 1935. Photo: Seattle municipal archives.

The Torii in Seattle’s Seward Park, located near one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, is one such place. A beautiful vermillion wooden gate once stood in Seward Park. It was used in the city’s annual Potlatch gathering to mark Seattle as the “America’s Gateway to the Orient.” Now it’s reduced to its concrete foundations, hardly noticeable in the park. The torii was designed by Harvard-educated Nikkei architect “AK Arai” (Kichio Allen Arai), who also designed Seattle’s Buddhist Temple. The lead carpenter on the torii’s construction, Kichisaburo Ishimitsu, built it at the Seattle Japanese Language School. Both of these buildings still stand today as testaments to their makers. And now, thanks to the work of many dedicated volunteers, organizations, and donors, a new tribute to Arai and Ishimitsu may appear in the form of a new torii in Seward Park. It is a story of collaboration, endurance, perseverance, and restoration.

Though there’s a short documentary about the torii project available from the Friends of Seward Park, the project could still use contributions from interested community members. Paul Talbert from the Friends of Seward Park graciously gave his time and energy to give some background on the project and answer a few questions for me about the old and new torii. Our conversation is lightly edited below.

Tamiko Nimura (TN): Can you say a little bit about the original torii?

Paul Talbert (PT): The [original] torii was built in the midst of the Great Depression. Kichio Allen Arai, the architect, had recently returned from Harvard, but because of racial prejudice and the Depression, he could only find work within the Nikkei community, which was diminishing as Nikkei left the area to find jobs themselves. Arai was paid only $2.00 for his sketch of the torii. The materials were $47 and the total cost with the labor of carpenter Kichisaburo Ishimitsu and helpers was $172. It was financed with donations that ranged from 10 cents to $20.00. With modern material and labor costs, the new torii will cost more than 1000 times as much.


TN: What is your favorite anecdote or story about the Seward Park Torii, either the original or the new one under development?

PT: I can think of a few stories about the original torii that are all a bit ironic, each in their own way.

One of the great ironies, in the most positive sense, is that the torii survived World War II unscathed. Its builders were incarcerated at Minidoka, and Ishimitsu’s carpentry tools were stolen while he was away. Berne Jacobsen, editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, decried the “mockery” the war had made of the torii and other Japanese gifts. Nearby cherry trees were apparently chopped down out of anti-Japanese sentiment, but the torii and the “gesture of good will” it embodied were apparently sufficiently appreciated to avoid destruction. Lawrence Matsuda’s poem “Nisei Fall” describes what a welcoming sight the torii was for those returning from Minidoka.

Decay in the torii was noticed soon after the war, and in 1954 the Parks Department planned to replace it because the decay had advanced to the point where a squirrel’s nest occupied one of the hashira (columns). The reconstruction never occurred, and when park visitor Edward Johnson asked for the torii to be repainted in 1962, the city chose to let it weather naturally, citing precedent in Japan. In the 1985 or 1986, the torii was removed as a hazard, and much of it presumably went to a landfill. We discovered a piece still exists in 2012 when we were presenting our project to the Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks. A Parks employee at the presentation asked if we wanted a piece of the original torii that he had saved in his back yard, eventually using it as a balance beam for his children. Of course we said yes, but after consulting with his superiors, he determined that because it was “Parks property” (which had been discarded nearly 30 years earlier), he could not give it to a private organization. Instead we arranged for it to be donated to the Wing Luke Museum, where we hope it will eventually be put on display.


TN: How did you come to be involved in the torii project? What motivates you to work (and continue working) on the project, personally?

PT: I moved to Seattle in 1983, and for the first week I stayed with a friend near Seward Park. When I drove down to the park there was this massive gate that took me completely by surprise. I had no idea what it was, and since I subsequently settled in Wallingford, I never saw it again.

Fifteen years later I had moved to Hillman City a mile from the park and became involved with the Friends of Seward Park. I eventually discovered old photos of the torii, which I had completely forgotten, and wondered where it had come from and where it had gone. Early on I thought of bringing it back, but we were a new and inexperienced organization at the time, and it seemed beyond our abilities. In 2005-2006 I was invited to be a visiting scientist in Japan, and saw torii everywhere, including the famous Otorii at Miyajima that was replicated at half scale in the Seward Park Torii. About the same time, I began leading walks in Seward Park during cherry blossom season and telling people about the history of the torii, Taiko-gata lantern, and cherries in the park.

In 2011 when we celebrated the Seward Park Centennial, we adopted the torii, which had been present through half of those 100 years, as our logo for the centennial. Karen O'Brien, Marcia Bartholme, and I talked about how nice it would be to have it back, but I didn't want to do anything unless we had the participation of the Nikkei community. We invited the Seattle Cherry Blossom Festival Committee to come plant a cherry tree for Earth Day, since the festival had begun in Seward Park in 1976. After the planting, I showed people the foundations of the old torii. When Joan Seko said that we should bring it back, that was the beginning of our committee and our project. We were still busy with Centennial events in 2011, but the next year we began meeting and applying for grants, and in 2013 we hired Murase Associates and Takumi Company to design our new torii.

During our community planning meetings, the public felt strongly that we should use natural materials to complement the wilderness character of the park, but Seattle Parks and Recreation refused to allow us to have wooden columns for fear of vandalism and maintenance costs. The other traditional material for torii is stone, so we elected to have stone hashira (columns) and cedar nuki and kasagi (the cross-pieces). With the high cost estimates and the design restrictions imposed by Seattle Parks and Recreation, we had to think hard about whether to continue, but by that point we already had a community of supporters eager for us to proceed. Not wanting to disappoint our supporters was a major motivation for me to continue, and of course that is an even more compelling reason now. With more than 160 donors and more than $20,000 raised from the neighborhood it’s clear we have the community behind us.

This past week, major donors Tsuchino and Mike Forrester have stepped forward and pledged money so that, together with our Neighborhood Matching Fund money, we will be able to match every donation we receive to raise the final third of the money. With this gift we are confident that we should be able to finish this year.


TN: What have you noticed about the people who have been involved in the project?

PT: The volunteers on the Torii Project have run the gamut, from just-out-of-college to retired, and lots in between! Our committee members have various talents and abilities, but all of them pitch in and bring crucial elements to the collective endeavor. Each person has had a vision of what the torii would mean to him or her, some more personal than others. Most of our committee members are motivated because they remember the original torii as an important icon from their childhoods. Others never saw the original, but just think it is a great idea to bring back a monumental artwork welcoming visitors and honoring the gift of intercultural friendship from one of Seattle’s oldest ethnic communities.

We practice intercultural friendship among ourselves by supplementing meetings with chocolate chip cookies or having a Japanese dinner in a tatami room, meeting for waffle breakfasts, or checking out sushi restaurants on road trips to look at granite columns. In early February. we hosted a Setsubun celebration for the community at the torii site. Enthusiastic bean throwers turned out to expel demons and to usher in good luck for the new year! We hope that the new torii will similarly inspire other park users to host festivals, musical events, races, picnics, and other gestures of good will and friendship under the “bird perch” of the torii.

 

© 2016 Tamiko Nimura

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