Tanya Woo and one of the recently unearthed murals at the Louisa Hotel.

When fire ravaged the Louisa Hotel on Christmas Eve, 2013, it forced Tanya Woo and her siblings to reckon with Chinatown’s particular historic limbo. The 1909 brick building is one of the neighborhood’s many single-room occupancy hotels—back then, stopover quarters for immigrants headed north to cannery jobs. By the time the Woos’ father, Paul, purchased the building in 1963, the cost of mandatory safety upgrades had rendered the upper floors of this aging structure uninhabitable. 

Paul Woo opened Mon Hei, Seattle’s first Chinese bakery, on the hotel's ground floor and nurtured a community hub within its street-level storefronts. He had plans to restore the Louisa, but passed away in 1997.

“It was basically up to the younger generation,” says Tanya, to enact their father’s plans, despite extra layers of challenge (and cost) created by the neighborhood’s national historic landmark status: The same designation that preserves Chinatown’s character also makes it difficult to upgrade its buildings.

Tanya and her siblings navigated loans, myriad federal historic guidelines, and tax credits to fashion 84 new studio and one-bedroom apartments. They pooled finances with another family to keep rents feasible for households near Seattle’s median salary. A new crop of businesses with neighborhood ties will soon make the ground floor a destination once again.

Most Seattleites know the Louisa merely as the site of the 1983 Wah Mee Massacre, the deadliest mass murder in state history. Last spring workers unearthed another vestige of its past: a series of murals from the days when the basement harbored a Prohibition-era jazz club. Now the Louisa could forge a new identity as the model for how Chinatown can keep its past intact, while writing its own future.

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