Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Ginza Okuno Building Details (July 20th 2010)"

There are a lot of details to the Okuno Building (奥野ビル), and I'm still working on fitting the pieces together.  In the meantime, here are some details I've learned about the building that I've decided to go ahead and put on-line, in case someone is interested in learning about this interesting building in Ginza 1-chome.  (The date in the title for this post is unfortunate, as I keep updating this, but it can't be changed unless I delete this post and repost it as a new post, and I don't want to break links, etc., so I'm leaving it as it is.) - LHS

Built in two stages, construction of the left half of the building was from April 3rd, 1931, until April 15th, 1932, and construction of the right half of the building was from February 2nd, 1933, until January 22nd, 1934.  It is internally joined and not immediately identifiable as two buildings joined to become one - although one sinking slightly relative to the other has made it easier to tell with the telltale crack that identifies everywhere the two buildings were originally (seamlessly) joined.

The building began life as 銀座アパートメント (Ginza Apartments), a luxury apartment building with steam heat and a telephone in every room, a sento in the basement, beds that folded down from the walls, a "danwashitsu" (lounge) on the 6th floor, an elevator (still with manually operated doors today) and by one report I've heard, a club on the 7th floor (but a more plausible explanation I've heard of that old room - now used as an office - is that it was a laundry room).  From different sources, I've heard it said that two different rooms on the 7th floor were the lounge, but I think neither.  One was the laundry room, and I think the other was used by the owner of the building as a place to stay in Ginza - a kind of second house.

The man who had the building constructed lived and worked on the land until the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, when the buildings in the area were destroyed by fire.  He moved his residence and business down to Oimachi and then - several years later - had the Ginza Apartments building (current Okuno Building) constructed.  So - while I haven't found any strong evidence to prove the idea, I think he kept the rooms at the back of the seventh floor in the 1932 building for family use.  Certainly that's what I would have done.  When (if?) I find solid evidence to prove this theory, I'll post it here.  In the meantime, one piece of evidence is the old piping (on the seventh floor).  While all of the rooms had running water, none of them had bathrooms, which that piping seems to suggest the rear seventh floor room did have.

There's a lot of history in that building, so it's difficult to pick a starting place.  But since the 7th floor is controversial, I'll start with that.

Having had several very close looks at the seventh floor (from both inside and outside), I think it's very clear that the elevator tower and a section at the back of the building were part of the original structure.  This is an issue, because there is a new section on the front side of the building that was obviously added later, and most people I've talked with seem to see the new 7th floor section sitting on top of the sixth floor (as seen from the front of the building), and assume that the entire seventh floor was added later.  If you closely observe the details of the structure however, you can see that this is highly unlikely (I'll go further and say it's impossible).  The rear part was seven-stories high, and you could take the elevator up to the seventh floor and then - after opening a door next to the elevator - walk out onto the roof of the sixth floor, where there was a kind of rooftop garden.  (There is obvious physical evidence for this from both inside the building and outside, when looking at the building from the rear - which is nearly impossible now due to new construction on that side, but there are photographs).

In fact, there's a ladder that leads up to what is effectively the 8th floor, where the water tanks (both the rusted out and no-longer-used original pair, and a newer pair) and (now disused) TV antennas are.

Dropping down to the basement, another unique aspect of the building must be explained.  The building is striking with two internal staircases with (now always open) windows between them.  The current building was built in two halves, with (from the standpoint of facing the building) the left side built first (1931-32), and then the right half built afterward (1933-34).  The internal hallway is joined, so it's not overly obvious that the structure is in fact two buildings, but once you understand that it is, and pay attention to details, it's fairly obvious.

(And it's becoming more obvious since the foundation was damaged by construction of the large building to the side and behind the Okuno Building, with the two halves of the Okuno Building now separating - creating very obvious cracks all the way through the building where the two halves were joined some 78 years ago and have begun to come apart in conjunction with the very deep and very large hole that was dug for the construction of the new building next door.)

I bring all of this up, because there are two separate basements.  And again there is controversy regarding the sento (bath), with some people thinking that there was a sento in each of the basements, and some thinking it was only in the right side basement.  To ponder this, let's look at what can be observed in the current state of the building.

The left side building, which is where the single elevator is, has a well.  This well had fresh-looking, clear water up to the top of a 1.2-meter-deep square hole (in the floor of the well room) up until a construction company working on a site immediately behind and on the left side of the Okuno Building, dug out a huge three-story deep foundation for the monstrosity being put up (still under construction as I write this in May of 2010 - [Completed as I edit this in early 2011]).  As the gigantic and very deep hole in the ground sat there in the open air, I think they pumped out ground water - so much so in fact, that the sidewalk in front of the Okuno Building and the building on the corner (with a Doutor Coffee Shop on the first floor) sank about two centimeters, many new cracks appeared within the Okuno Building, and the well water level began to drop.

There are three motors with pumps in the well room [2012 update: All three old pumps were removed and a new one installed at the end of 2011], so it appears water was pumped out of the well and then used... how?  Originally possibly for all the water use in the building, but more recently... for the toilets maybe?  Or maybe not used, but just maintained since it was functional equipment?  In any case, the construction of the monster new building behind the Okuno Building not only partially dried out the well, but damaged the foundation of the Okuno Building.  [2011/04/01 - Further investigation indicates that the water level is natural and is self-filling - to be (formerly) pumped out for whatever use.  On March 12th, 2011, the day after the 9.0 earthquake (around 5 in Tokyo apparently, which still seemed rather strong), the water level dropped way down, and a few days after that, I observed water trickling back into the well and it's now back to the level it was at before the March 11th, 2011 earthquake.]

But that irritating recent history aside - looking back at the original function of the left side basement, it's likely that the well water was used at least for the building's sento and its steam heat.  Drinking water (each room had/has its own sink with running water) I'm not so sure about.  Probably that came from the city water mains?

The rooms themselves are not very large - most have what would be maybe six tatami mats?  (I'll try to bring a tape measure and measure one of the rooms sometime for a precise figure.)  Looking at the front of the building, the original left-side building had (per floor) four rooms across (several of which have had the side walls knocked out to make double-sized rooms, or a door put in-between, with one side an art gallery, and the other an office for the art gallery), and the right-side building had two of the front rooms made the same size as the left-side building, and one double-sized room, so there were three rooms across at the front of the building.

The left-side building has a slightly longer depth than the right, and had/has three rooms along the left side (as seen after entering the building), with a restroom at the very back.  The right-side building had/has two rooms along the right side of the building (as seen from inside the building), and had (not has) a restroom at the end of the hall on the right.  They have since smashed out the walls between the right-side building restroom, removed all the plumbing, and made the room at the rear larger.

So - as far as I can tell, there were seven rooms per floor in the left-side building, and five per floor in the right-side building.  With the danwashitsu (lounge) on the sixth floor taking up the space of two rooms, I think there were 58 rooms from the 2nd to the 6th floors.  The first floor appears to have been used by businesses, and didn't have residents (although I imagine a building manager probably lived in one of the rooms at the back of the first floor, in the left-side building).  A large commercial space at the front of the 1934 building has an internal connecting door that led (since blocked off) to a room that may have been lived in - which was a popular way for many small businesses to operate - living either behind or over the work space.

The rooms on the far ends of the connected hallway have angled hinged doors, and the doors of the rooms in the middle are sliding doors.  All original doors (many have unfortunately been changed) are of solid, heavy wood, with glass panes and open-able air vents.

The last tenant to live in the building was named Yoshiko/Yoshi Suda (some of the official certificates the 306-Project have found indicate her first name as "Yoshi" and then - in later documents - as "Yoshiko"), who lived in room 306 (where I am typing this sentence) until the beginning of 2009, when she died at the age of 100.  Apparently, she was one of the original tenants when the building was new in 1932 [2011/04/01 - Actually 1934, since room 306 is in the 1934 building], and she rented three rooms - one (306) for her business (a beauty salon), one to live in, and one for guests.  When she quit working in the 1980's, she gave up the other two rooms and moved into room 306, where she lived the rest of her life.

One story I heard that I'm fairly certain is not true, was from a current gallery owner who said the man who was renting the space next to her used to live there.  Apparently he told her that the river that used to run in front of the Okuno Building was so close, that he could fish in it from his fifth story window.  Assuming that the river was right in front of the building, this would almost be possible, but from talking with another former tenant (directly) and hearing other accounts, it seems that there was a street in front of the building, with two-story wooden izakaya on the other side of the street, and with the river on the other side of the izakaya.

[2010/07/20]: I have since discovered an old postcard with an aerial view of Ginza that very clearly shows the river.  The buildings on the other side of the street from the Okuno Building were quite narrow, so it just might have been possible, although it still seems unlikely.

During WW-II, when Tokyo was fire-bombed, there was some fire damage to the rear of the building, but not the front, with internal steel fire doors apparently helping to protect the side away from the fire-damaged side.

Originally the building was an exclusive ultra-modern building, and (according to what Ms. Suda told one of the third-floor gallery owners), when she moved into the building, only about half the rooms were occupied (since they were fairly expensive to rent).

During the war, most of Tokyo was fire-bombed and burned to the ground, at which time the tenants of the Okuno Building must have felt very lucky - living in a solid concrete building.

Speaking with a tenant who moved into the building in 1952 when she married (a time when housing was still in short supply and the building was completely full), she said that there was one family of four she knew of living in one of the rooms.  In her case, she and her husband were renting three rooms for their family and business.  It's a little hard to imagine a family of four living in one of those small rooms now, but looking at pictures of Tokyo from that time frame, and reading accounts of how things were, it isn't hard to imagine even the family of four living in one room feeling fortunate to have a room at all, and in Ginza, the most fashionable area of the city (and with more concrete buildings that survived the fire-bombing of Tokyo than other areas).

I haven't found anyone who knows at exactly what point the building owners stopping allowing new residence tenants in and only allowed in commercial renters (first as office space and recently as gallery space), but in any case, that transition is complete, now that the final tenant, Ms. Suda, has died.  As I sit here writing this in the space she used for some 77 years, there is a definitely a feeling of history in the air, and - once again - I find myself wishing I could talk to Ms. Suda about the full history of this building, which she alone experienced.  (And - naturally - it would be very interesting to hear about the eras she lived in/through; WW-I, WW-II, the immediate post-war period, the booming economy years, etc. etc.)

In talking with the former residence-tenant (and current gallery-tenant, who I'll refer to as FT2 - Former-Tenant-2) who moved into the building in 1952, several interesting details surfaced [June 2011 Note: Ms. Ishii died in spring, 2011, but her son is carrying on with Ishii Gallery (Room 206), although the office (Room-208) was closed and is now a French antique shop.]

[From interview I had with Ms. Ishii.]:
There was no meter for the electricity!  Electricity was just part of the monthly rent.  Thinking of electric heaters and whatnot, this might seem strange, but remember that the building had steam heat in all the rooms when it was new, and non-heat use probably didn't burn all that much power.  By the 1950's though, when FT2 moved in, electricity use was up and the fuses often blew.

Another issue in the immediate postwar period was the plumbing.  There were some issues with water leaking from one apartment to another (every room had/has its own sink with running water), and the restroom that FT2's family used (communal per building, per floor) didn't flush on its own, so they had to take a bucket of water from their apartment to flush it each time.

As there began to be fewer resident tenants in the building, and more businesses, it was decided to remove the restroom in the right-side building, and have everyone use the communal restrooms on each floor of the the left-side building (remember that - functionally, the Okuno Building is one building, but structurally, the left side was built as an independent building first, and then the right side, and then they were internally joined).  This suddenly explained something I'd been puzzling over for about 18 months!

Every time I visited a gallery in RSB (Right Side Building) that was located at the rear of the building, I had puzzled over the ceiling, which had cut off pipes and the remains of a smashed out concrete wall.  After talking with FT2, I immediately rushed upstairs to the 5th floor gallery and took another look at the ceiling.  Suddenly I could see what those pipes were about!  Taking a new look at the removed walls, and noting that the door frame to the room was different from the other rooms (as was each rear room door frame in the building), and this evening (June 16th, 2010), I spoke with a man who has had an exhibition in the 5th floor RB and was helping out there today, and he told me that a few weeks ago, while he was there, an old man visited the gallery who used to live there.

As I had suspected, the restroom door was right on the hallway, and the door to the room next to the restroom was recessed about a meter, with a hallway that led back to the room which was behind the RB restroom.

Now that the RB restrooms are no more, their former space has been added to the room at the back to make for a larger room.

That's fine, except that, while the restrooms were co-use (for male and female) until only  few months ago, now that they've made half of them men's restrooms and half women's, if your gender is on the wrong floor, you find yourself forever having to hike up and down the stairs.  Too bad they didn't keep both the LB and RB restrooms and make one a men's room and the other a women's room....

There was a row of two-story wooden izakaya across the street from the Okuno Building, and just behind the izakaya, a river (the river has since either been put underground or rerouted).  FT2 said that it was sometimes interesting to watch the goings on across the street from her family's apartment window.

There used to be a row of nice trees on the street, giving it a nicer atmosphere than now (there are currently some small trees on the the other side of the street, but not on the side of the street the Okuno Building is on.  Apparently it was known as "Ginza no Matsushima" (a term I wasn't aware of, but have been told means "The nicest area of something" - in this case Ginza).


There was a laundry service in the building?  Or someone on the roof who was in change of... of... how clothing was hung to dry, etc.(?)

The current antique shop was a pearl shop before (as one space, not two).

The far right ground floor space was used by a lawyer.

The boiler lost parts in the war and the sento was not used post-war.  Tenants used a public bath in another part of Ginza.

FT has no recollection of steam heat or radiators.  Probably the building's radiators and boiler were requisitioned during the war for scrap metal.

FT's husband had lived in the building since it was new, and in the postwar era, referred to how the building had become as a slum.

Laundry was hung on poles from the fire escape and the up on the roof.

Ice-based refrigerator.  FT's husband liked to drink cool beer, so they had an ice box with a delivery of ice once a week, that would be left in the hallway outside their door if they weren't home when the delivery came.

Other tenants:

 - Typing service.  Taking hand-written material from offices and typing it up (English? Japanese? Both?)

 - Shamisen teacher.  Tenants enjoyed hearing the music.

 - [Boston Shoes?]

The current Doutor coffee shop was a glass shop (as in window glass).

The stairs used to have red carpeting.  Possibly also the hallways, although that's not certain.

Visual evidence and building usage contemplation would suggest that the original owner of the building lived in (as a second residence I think) the left-side building on the 7th floor, which occupied the rear half of the first building (the current configuration includes a newly added second half on the 7th floor on the front of the building).

     Due to damage to the foundation caused by construction of the new building next to the Okuno Building, there is a water leak problem with the left-side basement room at the front of the building, next to the well/pump room.
     It appears that the contractors of the new building next door are shirking their rightful responsibility to repair the damage they caused, so that room may become unusable (unless the tenant doesn't mind water leaking into the room from time to time...).
     A photo exhibit at Shashin Ginko (the current tenant [July 2010]) was ruined by a recent water leak, as you can see here:
Polaroid Exhibit in Water (水の中のポラロイド) at Shashin Ginko (写真銀行)

I started a new (Japanese language) blog devoted to the Okuno Building, entitled: 奥野ビル.  The website for it is here:

[2011/01/28] - I knew that old buildings from around the era that the Okuno Building was built had telephone switchboards, but that detail had not jumped out of my memory until I met a tenant who told me that his room in the Okuno Building used to be the telephone switchboard room for the Okuno Building.  I had a look inside and it's quite a nice room now - with no trace of its former function as a switchboard room that I could see.

Other details... I've found what appear to be original cupboards in two rooms; one of the rooms having cupboards with wooden doors that pull out (with no glass), and the other with glass paned sliding doors that look a bit nicer.

What else - the confusion continues regarding whether the seventh floor existed or not until a couple of decades ago.  Unfortunately, a large number of people I talk to don't understand that the rear part of the building had a seventh floor from the very beginning.  I'm searching for photos of the building when it was new - does anyone have some or know where I can find them?

[2012/03/03] - I walked through each of the buildings narrating a video as I walked - making a simple tour of the entire structure (if you put the two together):

Okuno Building Tour - 1932 Building - (120207)

Okuno Building Tour - 1934 Building - (120207)

I also did a walk-through in the building recording the historical and fascinating time-worn floors:

Historical Floors - Ginza Okuno Building - (120214)

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

No comments: