<p>Participants run a race at a 1950 powwow event near the Seward Park torii. Photo courtesy of John L. O&rsquo;Brien family</p>
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Participants run a race at a 1950 powwow event near the Seward Park torii. Photo courtesy of John L. O’Brien family

 

Last September, in the University of Washington Libraries’ Special Collections, Karen O’Brien was thumbing through the pre-war files of the Seattle Japanese Chamber of Commerce for the second time. She was looking for a photo of a torii, a Japanese gate, in the middle of University Street downtown. 

O’Brien grew up in the Rainier Valley and vividly remembered the 26-foot-tall Seward Park torii, which stood at the entrance to Seward Park for 50 years. She had learned that the Seward Park torii began its life as a contribution by the Japanese chamber to the 1934 International Potlatch Festival, a predecessor of Seafair. After the festival, the chamber had donated the torii to the city as a symbol of goodwill, and the following year, it was installed in Seward Park. 

The torii had been a source of pride for the Japanese community before the war, and it survived the bitter anti-Japanese sentiment of the war years unscathed by vandals or the housekeeping habits of nesting squirrels, eventually to succumb to age and decay in the mid-1980s. 

O’Brien and a committee of other community activists were aiming to bring it back and were eager to tell its story.

O’Brien opened a folder dated 1939 that she had previously skipped. There was no torii photo in it, but laid out before her was the architectural sketch for the torii, colored in bright vermillion and black, with a small human figure sketched below the massive structure. In the corner was a signature and date: A. K. Arai, 1934. Now, O’Brien knew the name of the architect. Kichio Allen “A. K.” Arai was later the architect of the Seattle Buddhist Church. 

In other files O’Brien found receipts signed by Kichisaburo Ishimitsu, the Rainier Valley carpenter who built the torii and who, with his sons, later assembled the teahouse in the Washington Park Arboretum’s Japanese Garden. The receipts also bore directions for lumber delivery to “the Japanese schoolhouse”;¬ apparently, the torii was assembled at the Japanese Language School on Weller St. 

The largely forgotten story of the torii was finally coming back into view. 

 

Bringing it back

The torii’s enduring symbolism of friendship between communities seemed appropriate for the diverse communities that visit the park, and the torii was adopted as a symbol for the Seward Park centennial in 2011. 

A special centennial cherry-planting ceremony took place in the park for the annual Seattle Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival, which began in Seward Park in 1976. After the ceremony, community members met by the concrete supports for the torii that are still visible in the park and began to discuss restoring the torii. 

Over the next year, the Friends of Seward Park formed a torii committee and obtained a planning grant from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. Support poured in from other community groups: the Lakewood-Seward Park Community Club, the Seattle Cherry Blossom Festival, the Rainier Valley Historical Society, the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington, the Seward Park Audubon Center, the Seattle Japanese Queen Scholarship Organization of Washington and others. 

Now, those community groups are inviting the public to help design a replacement for the former neighborhood icon that will honor its predecessor and reflect current community values. 

Beginning Jan. 26, public meetings conducted by the landscape architectural firm Murase Associates will gather community input on the design and placement of the new torii. The Friends of Seward Park and their partners then aim to seek additional grants and raise funds to rebuild the torii.

To broaden community participation, the Friends are also hosting contests to design a torii-themed T-shirt and to write haiku, a Japanese form of poetry, related to Seward Park, through Jan. 31. The winning torii design and haiku will be produced on T-shirts that will be sold to help raise funds for the torii restoration. Separate winners will be selected for under-14 and 15-and-older age groups. 

The Friends of Seward Park co-sponsored a haiku workshop with Haiku Northwest on Jan. 15, where Michael Dylan Welch of the Haiku Society of America explained the essentials of writing a good haiku.

For more information, visit www.sewardparktorii.org.

PAUL TALBERT is president of the Friends of Seward Park. He can be reached at sewardparkfriends@gmail.com. To comment on this story, write to CityLivingEditor@nwlink.com.