The University Laundry on Shattuck and Blake was owned and operated by five Japanese-American families in the early part of the 20th century. Photo: California Japantowns

Update: The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 7-0 on May 4 to landmark the laundry.

Original story: A little more than a week after the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, in which President Franklin Roosevelt created military exclusion zones that forced Americans of Japanese ancestry to report to detention camps, a Berkeley historian is asking that a former laundry operated by five families be landmarked.

Steve Finacom filed an application recently to landmark 2526-30 Shattuck Ave., a two-story commercial building at the intersection of Blake Street. The building was built in 1897, making this 120-year old structure a “rare survivor of Berkeley’s early commercial era, when what was then a small town was dotted with one and two story wood frame, “pioneer” or Victorian commercial buildings,” according to Finacom’s application with the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The building at 2526-32 Shattuck Ave. as it is now. Photo: Steve Finacom
The building at 2526-32 Shattuck Ave. as it is now. Photo: Steve Finacom

While the structure’s physical attributes – many of which have been obscured by a modern application of stucco – have historic value, its uses over the years also reflect Berkeley’s history, according to the application. The French immigrant Jean Bernadou established a laundry on the ground floor soon after the building was constructed. Jacques (Jack) Jaymot, another Frenchmen, took over the business in 1909, according to Finacom.

Laundries in the late 19th and early 29th centuries were often identified by nationality to indicate their cleaning methods. French laundries often used French or German soaps to clean, wrote Finacom.

“French laundries generally had the reputation of doing fine detailed handwork including washing lace and getting white cloth items — like men’s shirt collars, and table clothes — spotlessly clean and white, as well as delicates such as undergarments,” wrote Finacom.

In 1914, five Japanese-American families — the Fujiis, Kimbaras, Imamuras, Tsubamotos and Tokunagas — banded together to open the University Laundry at 2526-30 Shattuck Ave. The individual families had all owned their own laundries and then formed a partnership. The families lived upstairs and shared a kitchen, dining room and living room, and worked on the ground floor.

“Japanese and Chinese laundries had the reputation of doing quality washing work, at lower price than many other commercial laundries,” wrote Finacom.

The five families operating the University Laundry were part of a thriving Japanese community in Berkeley. Despite years of discriminatory immigration practices and redlining in Berkeley, the community had grown to about 1,300 by the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, prompting the U.S. to enter the war.

“There were 28 different organizations, churches and private schools serving this community,” Robert Yamada writes in his book, The Japanese American Experience: the Berkeley Legacy, 1895-1995. “In addition to those working as domestics and laborers, and gardeners in the communities, there were now over 70 separate businesses owned and operated by Japanese in Berkeley. There were 12 doctors, dentists, and lawyers, 12 grocery stores, over 17 flower shops and nurseries, and 6 laundries, 6 shoe repair shops, 6 cleaning establishments and several rooming houses and bath houses. A way of living had been formed in the community. The Japanese were applauded for not rocking the boat, for doing well academically, for being hard working and honest, and in not causing any trouble. They had the lowest crime rate for any minority group and all in all, in their in their place, were seen as an asset to the community.”

The five families that operated the University Laundry learned to live and work together. Finacom excerpts part of a 1986 memoir written by John Noaki Fujii, the son of one of the University Laundry’s founding families.

“Since the partners along with their wives and children all shared the upstairs living quarters together, the group developed a common communal life-style,” wrote Fuji. “All the adults worked long hours every day, usually six days a week. The women rotated kitchen and cooking duties periodically and child care was combined and shared…Among the men, each partner took responsibility for a part of the business. For example, Kurasaburo took care of the heavy washing and starching of clothes. The Imamuras did ironing and much of the mangle work. Mr. Kimbara went out to pick up and deliver laundry, In the first few years, pick up and deliveries were done using horse drawn wagons. Thus, two horses along with the wagons were maintained in the yard and barn at the rear of the building.”

That changed in February 1942 with Executive Order 9066, which established “military exclusion zones,” including the West Coast. The first and second-generation Japanese residents were forced to abandon their homes and businesses because the federal government suspected their Japanese ancestry meant they might be loyal to Japan. They were sent to concentration camps around the west. The five families were no exception.

“Kurasaburo and his two remaining partners, Kimball and Imamura, dissolved their progressing laundry business as best they could, virtually abandoning their tens of thousands of dollars in capital investments,” wrote Fujii. “The laundry would be lost, their investment would never be recovered. With only hand-carried luggage, the Japanese evacuees, including the Fujiis, were all taken to the Tanforan relocation assembly center on April 29, 1942.”

Consequently, the building is an important representation of the past, said Finacom.

“The story of the Fujiis and the other Japanese-American families in establishing lives, homes, and businesses in Berkeley mirrored the experience of many other Japanese-Americans,” Finacom wrote in the application. “The University Laundry building is a tangible and physical reminder of this story and part of Berkeley history, as well as the broader history of discrimination against, and accomplishments of, Japanese-Americans.

In the 1950s, the building housed the Nash Berkeley car dealership, operated by Gil Ashcom, said Finacom. In the 1960s, there was a coin-operated laundry there. In 2014, the building caught fire and eight people were displaced. At the time there was a massage parlor and the MG Enhancez Hair Shop at the site. The owners of the structure, Tsui Shen and Yeu B. Wu of Kensington, have repaired the building, which is now vacant, , according to Finacom. The property owners could not be reached for comment.

LPC staff recommends opening the public hearing on March 2 but delaying full discussion until April 4.Read the LPC application.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...