A mural recently discovered in the basement of a demolished Pasco building can be traced to a Japanese immigrant who wanted to teach young people about his native land.
Harry Yamauchi painted the mural, featuring a cove surrounded by cliffs and evergreen trees with a snow-capped volcano in the background, around 1951, said his granddaughter, Linda Yamauchi Adkinson of Kennewick.
He painted the 9-by-8-foot mural as the backdrop for a stage for an after-school program he started.
The mural is all that remains of a building that was demolished recently to make way for a future Lewis Street overpass. Pasco is looking to preserve the painting, which city officials originally thought was 100 years old.
“I was just flabbergasted,” said Yamauchi’s nephew, Roy Satoh of Pasco, after hearing the city wanted to save the mural.
He had thought of trying to save the mural himself, but knew it wasn’t possible. He was pleased to hear the city stepped in.
“I kind of ran it through my mind: what could be done to preserve that?” said Satoh, 69. “But that kind of expertise and money was more than my family had. Then, what would you do with it?”
The man behind the mural
The building at the northwest corner of Lewis Street and First Avenue was built about the time of the 1929 stock market crash. Adkinson said the Great Depression likely sank plans to turn it into a branch of First National Bank of Seattle.
The Yamauchi family bought the unfinished building for $2,500 in 1931. The family moved in, but were forced to leave during World War II.
Yamauchi was sent to a Japanese internment camp in Arkansas, but assistance from local residents brought him closer to home. The U.S. government ordered more than 100,000 people of Japanese heritage living on the West Coast to the camps because of fear of an attack.
The family stayed in Spokane for a while and was finally able to return to the house in 1949, Adkinson said.
“A couple years after that, he got the notion that he was going to do some Japanese culture with the children, so he started a school in the basement,” said Adkinson, who lived there until she married in 1961.
The stage was intended to be used for children’s musical and theatrical performances, but it was tough to keep the kids interested, Adkinson said. The Japanese language program for 16 kids, many of them third-generation Americans, didn’t last long — but the mural lived on.
“It was teaching us the alphabet, teaching us the right accents and pronunciations,” she recalled. “Pretty soon the kids started drifting off to their bicycles and skates.”
Adkinson remembered her grandfather telling her that the volcano in the mural was Mount Fuji in Japan. But she said he could have been influenced by other areas, including Hawaii, where immigrants from China and Japan would often make their first stop in United States territory.
“It kind of looks like the (Columbia River) Gorge to me,” she said.
Satoh believes the painting is of a seascape, he said.
“Mostly, I was just impressed by his work,” he said. “I think back on it, and, my gosh!”
Satoh doesn’t know of any other paintings his grandfather completed, but he found other ways to express himself and pay homage to his native land. Yamauchi put in a large Japanese garden behind the building, complete with lava rocks, a 10-foot-wide wooden umbrella and a fish pond with two bridges, Satoh said.
The garden reminded former Franklin County Prosecutor Jim Rabideau, a longtime Pasco resident, of those he had seen in Japan while in the Navy.
“It was a fascinating thing,” he said. “It was very elaborate. It was there for years, but, after the family moved out, it sort of deteriorated.”
Building’s rich history
The building was largely used as the home for the family, but Yamauchi did rent it out to the Columbia Basin News, a paper that competed with the Herald for 13 years beginning in 1950.
It was never officially a hotel, but Adkinson said a room once was rented to Noburu “Peanuts” Fukuda, a man who picked up litter on Pasco streets and gave candy to Tri-City children for generations.
Yamauchi ran several downtown businesses, including the M & M Cafe, a grocery store, a hotel, a fish market and a pool hall, Adkinson said.
The building continued to house a print shop for a while after the newspaper folded. Some family members lived there after Yamauchi died in the late 1960s, Adkinson said. It was sold in the 1970s to a woman who turned it into an antique shop, which Adkinson suspects was stocked with furnishings left in the house. It has been vacant since the late 1980s.
She is happy that progress is being made on building the overpass. She has long despised the underpass that goes beneath the railroad tracks, linking downtown with east Pasco. The tunnel was built in 1937.
Adkinson recalled living on the other side of the tracks from Whittier Elementary School, which she attended while growing up. Once, when she was walking through the underpass with another girl, a man grabbed her friend, who managed to escape.
“We didn’t care what people said after that — we just walked across the railroad tracks,” she said. “When we heard that they wanted to replace that with an overpass, we said, ‘Thank the Lord!’ ”
Adkinson is pleased that the city is looking to save the mural, but she said she would have rather seen the 5-cent cigars advertisement that was on the side of the building across Lewis Street that housed the M & M Cafe preserved.
Moving the mural
City officials have discussed moving the concrete mural to Pasco’s planned new police station. Adkinson feels it would be more appropriate to take it to Peanuts Park, a dilapidated plaza near the Pasco Farmers Market that is named for Fukuda. The city is considering redeveloping the park, which has become a hangout for homeless people.
The cost to move the mural is estimated at $5,000, said Pasco Public Works Director Ahmad Qayoumi.
“We are in the process of finalizing the cost,” he said.
Satoh got one last chance to visit the mural while it was in the basement. Contractors let him inside shortly before the building was demolished. It was the first time he had been there since his family moved out.
“I drove by. Eighty percent of the block was already gone,” he said. “I was fortunate that the building was still there.”
He was relieved to see the mural was in good condition, though darkness made it tough to see.
“Transients had been in the building,” he said. “I was afraid it had been defaced. It was intact. That was pleasing to know.”
A steel plate covered the mural when city officials first looked at it, so workers didn’t know about it until a passer-by alerted them, said David Tanner, Pasco senior engineer. The building is the last major piece of the demolition project.
The mural was moved from the basement Friday to be stored behind city hall until a decision is made on where to put it.
Other unexpected items found in the demolition of two large city blocks include a hydraulic lift and a water tank, Tanner said.
“We didn’t come across too much until we came into this building here,” he said.
The rescued mural will remind Satoh of his childhood and the house where he lived since shortly after he came from Japan in 1950 until 1962, he said.
The kids played on a pile of coal that was used for a furnace and his father set up a shooting range there.
“Even in the pitch black, my recollections seemed to be from a child’s perspective,” he said of his recent visit. “And how much smaller the basement actually was than I remember it to be.”