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The grim history of INS Building

AKA INScape Arts, but FKA INS’s HQ in the Northwest

Mary Peck/Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

Today, we know it as INScape Arts, “the largest arts and culture enclave in Seattle,” where 125 artists rent spaces to live, work, and showcase the fruits of their labor: films, glass art, jewelry, puppets, even artisan tea. The space is bright and airy; the art spills into the halls and up into its high ceilings.

But for 72 years, the imposing Mediterranean Revival building on little, two-block-long Seattle Boulevard South, just before it turns into Airport Way, served a darker purpose. When it was built in 1932, it was the United States Immigration Station and Assay Office, the entry and exit point for immigrants arriving in Seattle, hundreds of whom were detained there for months.

Or, as later generations of Seattleites knew it until it closed in 2004: the INS building, for the newly minted Immigration and Naturalization Service, formed just a year after construction was finished (and replaced in 2003 by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security).

Per the Seattle Times, “This four-story building with the brick edifice, Corinthian columns and wrought iron grace notes was built at a cost of just over half a million dollars… The land had been bought earlier for $100 thousand, after the plan to build a post office was abandoned.” The Assay Office contained within the building meant it was a big deal to a city that had made millions off of the Klondike Gold Rush just two decades earlier. This office processed and assessed gold and other precious metals, which were mostly brought in by miners after working in Alaska—an important resource to find out how much your hard-earned haul was worth. Between 1932 and 1955, when the city closed it down, the Assay Office assessed nearly 1,000 tons of gold, at an overall value of $658,619.46.

But the main purpose of the building was really to process people, not gold. It was a 77,000-square-foot machine designed for intaking people and often subsequently deporting or detaining them. The basement was where immigrants would be initially received, and it also contained an isolation cell and storage for confiscated materials. Two swearing-in rooms were found on the first floor, for the immigrants who were eventually able to obtain citizenship, along with waiting rooms and a filing room. The second floor had a hospital and a handful of detention cells, as well as two courtyards—which offered the only glimpses of sky available to these detainees. An enormous cafeteria was found on the third floor, along with more isolation cells, administrative offices, and an immigration court and visitation area. The fourth floor belonged to the Assay Office and vault.

Once it was constructed, the bulk of the operation was dedicated to enforcing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This act issued a moratorium on labor immigration for people of Chinese ethnicity and required these emigrants to be certified by the government of China that they were “qualified” to immigrate to the U.S.—meaning that they weren’t going there in order to work as laborers—a clearance that was difficult to obtain. The moratorium was originally only supposed to last 10 years, but it was extended by the subsequent Geary Act in 1892 and not repealed until 1943.

This restriction was also placed on Chinese nationals who’d already legally emigrated to the U.S. in the event that they left the country; they would be required to obtain this not-a-laborer certification from China and then reapply from scratch. Hot on the heels of this act, U.S. Congress also prevented state and federal courts from granting citizenship to resident aliens from China, even though those courts still had the power to deport Chinese emigrants.

As such, around 95 percent of the people detained at the INS building until the 1930s—anywhere from 25 to 300 people at any given time—were Chinese, and most of those were men. Some were imprisoned in the dorms for months, occasionally for up to one year. Chinese cooks and servers were brought in to provide meals for the detainees in the cavernous cafeteria on the third floor, and one of the servers in particular was known to sing in Mandarin as he dished up meals for Chinese detainees. After a while of this charming display, an interpreter pointed out that his lyrics were, in fact, instructions on how one should answer examiners' questions in order to be cleared for entry to the U.S.

Once the United States entered World War II in the 1940s, the INS’s detention focus switched to Japanese men. On December 8th, 1941—the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed—community leaders of Japanese extraction were corralled at the INS building for questioning before being sent off to internment camps. However, the war made it difficult to actually deport Japanese people back to Japan, and so some were imprisoned here. One detainee, known as Seattle Joe, was a Japanese citizen who'd deserted his job as a sailor. He was confined to detention but escaped from the INS building, and for years thereafter, he mailed postcards to the Seattle INS from cities around the world.

In the later part of the 20th century, most of the INS building’s detainees were from Latin American nations. To this day, in the second-floor courtyards, many of their names can be seen painted with asphalt onto the external brick walls of the building—Sergio, Pazcual, Regino Lopez—along with their places of origin, including Honduras, Guatemala, various states in Mexico. ·

When Tacoma’s high-tech Northwest Detention Center—one of the largest immigration prisons in the nation, with a capacity of 1575—was built in 2004, the old INS building, with its mere 200 beds, was shuttered the same year. Then it sat vacant for about four years before being purchased by private investors for $4.4 million, who spearheaded a major interior overhaul and reopened the building as INScape in 2010.

Today, all the little detention cells are studios inhabited by artists, making it a much cheerier place to hang out. When you’re there, it may be difficult to remember that this dreamy, colorful space was a prison for decades. Fortunately for us, the Wing Luke Asian Museum partnered with INScape Arts in 2014 to create “Voices of the Immigration Station: 72 Years of History on Five Floors,” a permanent art installation that comprises comic art, encaustic (wax-based) paintings, silkscreened prints, and a sound exhibition, along with signs throughout the building to mark each room’s previous use—confiscated materials room, long-term detention area, isolation cells, and so on—in order to ensure that the stories, faces, and voices of INScape’s former occupants aren’t forgotten by generations of Seattleites to come.