The Inscape Building’s Dark History

Seattle’s Inscape arts center once held Chinese and Japanese prisoners.

By Bess Lovejoy September 19, 2012 Published in the October 2012 issue of Seattle Met

The Mediterranean Revival facade of the Inscape arts center, which held its grand open house in summer 2012, is a minor symphony in the world’s most boring color: beige. But inside, the daylight streaming through the arched front entryways burnishes the buff--colored brick into gold. 

It’s an appropriate color for a building that once handled thousands of immigrants looking for a better life, and served as the Treasury Department’s last assay office for analyzing and purifying precious metals. For decades, bureaucrats on the bottom floors of 815 Seattle Boulevard South transformed immigrants into legal residents, while, on the top floor, metallurgists melted ore from Alaska and Canada into sleek gold bars. 

But the erstwhile United States Immigrant Station and Assay Office also holds a darker tale. While many of the immigrants who passed through its doors between 1931 and 2004 had their papers stamped immediately, others were detained for months, even years, in the prison cells on the second and third floors. Originally, almost all of those in the cells were Chinese men: The building was constructed to uphold the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and had separate dorms for Chinese men, women, and children, who were kept away from other detainees. 

During World War II, the focus shifted to Japanese men. The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, male Japanese community leaders were herded into the building for questioning before being sent to the internment camps. In later decades, most of the detainees hailed from Latin America. You can still see their scrawlsSergio, Guatemala, Cowboy ’95, El Chinoetched in hot tar on the terraces, the only place detainees were allowed a glimpse of the sky. 

The immigrant station closed in 2004, after the construction of a new detention center in Tacoma. (The assay office shuttered back in 1955.) The building lay vacant for several years, until a group of private investors purchased it in 2008 for $4.4 million. 

After a major renovation, the building reopened in 2010 as the Inscape arts center. Its 77,000 square feet now house 108 artist studios and office spaces for sculptors, photographers, performance artists, and even a tiny paranormal museum. You might say Inscape is devoted to another kind of transformation—turning raw energy and creative imagination into artistic gold. It’s a great way to leave the building’s dark shadows behind.

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