Seattle, Washington

Ano-nonsense brick structure built in 1910 to house Chinese laborers, the East Kong Yick Building lacked the kind of architectural features that provide excitement when an old building becomes a museum. No grand staircases, gorgeous detailing, or lovely materials here. Yet the simple building and its cramped rooms for struggling immigrants represented treasured assets of the new Wing Luke Asian Museum, a community-based institution in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District dedicated to examining diverse Asian cultures and named after the first Asian-American elected to citywide office in the Pacific Northwest. Capturing the meaning of these spaces while carving out modern facilities for a 57,000-square-foot museum was the key challenge facing Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen (OSKA) Architects as it renovated and converted the old building.


Built by a group of 170 Chinese Americans who pooled their resources, the East Kong Yick and its sibling structure just to the west of a narrow lane called Canton Alley, provided housing for immigrant workers on their upper floors and retail space at street level. Waves of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino laborers lived there between jobs in Alaska’s fish canneries, on Washington farms, and on construction projects throughout the West. The men booked passages across the Pacific at the shipping-line counter in the Yick Fung Co. shop on the ground floor of the west building and gathered at a family association hall on the third floor of the east building. By the 1970s, though, the living accommodations upstairs in the east building no longer met the city’s building code, so they were boarded up; for nearly 30 years, only the ground-floor shops remained in use.

When Rick Sundberg, FAIA, the OSKA principal in charge of the project, first toured the derelict upper floors of the East Kong Yick Building, he noticed the two boarded-up light wells and told himself, “If we win this project, we’re going to use those light wells as key elements in our design,” he recalls now. He also determined he and his team would try to preserve as much of the old building as possible and reuse everything that had to be replaced or changed.

While an earlier design for the project proposed essentially a gut renovation, Sundberg called for less radical measures. His scheme removed most of the second floor to make room for a double-height entry lobby and a dramatic steel stair, but used the light wells as circulation and orientation spaces, and recycled old materials. “I told everyone, ‘Nothing leaves the building,’ ” says Sundberg. So his team used discarded floorboards as treads on the new grand stair and tin from old fire doors as cladding for the ticket counter in the lobby. Contractors installed skylights over the light wells, turning them into indoor spaces, but kept the original wood windows with their rough charm.

The museum felt it was important that its new facility offer “immersion” spaces where visitors could experience the lives of the building’s inhabitants. So Sundberg visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City and watched as its historic rooms elicited strong emotions in visitors. “I’m from Scandinavian stock, so I don’t get choked up. But I couldn’t help but notice how these spaces moved people,” says the architect. As a result, he developed an approach to preserving the East Kong Yick Building’s old rooms and original features (such as a long, straight stair) that doesn’t clean up history. He and his team stabilized walls and ceilings but kept the peeling paint and tattered surfaces.

To upgrade the building’s structure and keep it standing as most of its second floor was removed, OSKA added exposed steel cross bracing inside its two street facades (north and east), built a new concrete core at the back (south) side, and inserted steel beams running north–south to tie it all together. “The building was a seismic wreck,” says Sundberg, “so we had to take it apart and thread a lot of new structure inside it.”

On the outside, OSKA retained the original appearance of the building as much as possible. The architects repointed bricks, replaced glass in repaired wood windows, and restored the terrace set into the second level of the main (King Street) facade. They had to change the glazing on the ground floor of the King Street elevation to accommodate the new lobby, but they kept the fenestration’s proportions. Sundberg wanted to put back the original balconies that once projected off the upper floors and the flagpoles he saw in old photographs, but they had been lost long ago, and the $12.1 million construction budget wasn’t big enough to pay for re-creating them.

To engage local artists, the museum commissioned a series of pieces, the most prominent being a fan-shaped steel canopy by sculptor Gerry Tsutakawa above the building’s main entrance. Meanwhile, curators moved the Yick Fung Co. store—including all of its shelves, counters, and canned goods—from down the block to the museum’s ground floor. Visitors on immersion tours get to experience the historic store, the building’s original stair, and the sparsely furnished apartments.

OSKA created a series of new facilities to complement the restored old spaces—including a gift shop, the 60-seat Tateuchi Story Theatre, an 1,800-square-foot community hall, and two contemporary exhibition galleries on the first floor; art galleries and community exhibition spaces on the second floor; and a library and collections storage space on the third. The architects didn’t design any of the exhibition galleries, but they placed the community exhibits in spaces that follow the footprints of the old apartments, subtly evoking a previous era.

As Sundberg had hoped, the restored light wells serve as the museum’s physical and mnemonic anchors—double-height spaces that connect old and new. He stripped the wells of their original tin cladding, exposing rough fir boards that add warmth to the setting. In the west light well, in particular, visitors tend to linger—sitting on a bench, staring at a suspended artwork called Letter Cloud, by Erin Shie Palmer and Susie Kozawa, or just figuring out where to go next.

The Wing Luke acts as a portal to a group of cultures that have made significant marks on Seattle, says Beth Takekawa, its executive director. By weaving new elements and a Modern sensibility into its historic fabric, its new home looks back at a rich history and forward to new contributions.