Audio on this page read by Ashley Harrison
You are now standing at the front door of the Louisa Hotel, which once housed, in its basement, the Club Royale, one of the most colorful watering holes in the Chinatown-International District.
The Louisa did not appear in the Green Book, but it houses a set of 1930s-era murals reflective of Seattle's jazz club scene and provides an important example of a revitalization project approached with historic preservation in mind.
Built in 1909 by a trio of Scandinavian immigrants – Otto John Nelson, Louis Tagholm and Niels “Raf” Jensen – the Louisa served as a single-room occupancy hotel for mostly Asian American working men who did seasonal jobs in the Alaska canneries. The building was purchased in 1963 by Paul Woo, who for many years operated the Mon Hei Bakery in the basement.
In 2018, Tanya Woo, Paul’s daughter, responding to the present-day need for affordable housing, mounted a renovation and modernization project to restore the Louisa as we find it today. The owners have maintained the historic façade and have devoted time and resources to preserving its historical legacy, including what is probably the most striking visual legacy of Seattle’s Jazz Age.
The Club Royale opened in August, 1930, and appears to have operated for just two-and-a-half years. A popular destination, The Seattle Star once described it as “colorful, flourishing and fashionable.” In a tradition going back to the western frontier, the club was also known popularly as the “Bucket of Blood,” not because it was violent, but because a disreputable nickname made it sound forbidden and exciting. Across the street from the Club Royale was Charlie Louie’s also popular Chinese Gardens. Both clubs offered liquor, food, gambling and jazz.
The great New Orleans clarinetist Joe Darensbourg recalled playing the Club Royale with Seattle saxophonist Gerald Wells, leader of the Black musicians' union. The Club Royale was also sometimes called the Hong Kong Chinese Society, but the owners were not Chinese, but rather a ring of white petty gangsters focused on selling illegal alcohol in a variety of establishments. Federal agents relentlessly raided the Club Royale, finally shutting it down for good on New Year’s Eve, 1932.Read More
Behind this temporarily papered-over glass door, a stunning set of Art Deco murals cover the walls and ceiling of the stairwell, which once led down to the glamorous Club Royale. Rediscovered in 2016 when renovation began, the murals depict white and Black patrons bedecked in top hats and furs, welcoming all who entered. (When restoration of the murals has been completed, with help from 4Culture, they will be visible through the glass door.)
No one knows who painted the murals at the Club Royale, as they are undated and unsigned, including ones found inside the club itself that were destroyed or hidden by the renovation. However, Louis Tagholm’s granddaughter, Marilyn Tagholm Bergstrom, speculates that they may have been painted by her father, Ted, who did this kind of work. Newspaper articles describing raids on the club always refer to it as the Bucket of Blood, not the Club Royale, which also suggests that the murals and the name in the stairwell may have come after 1932. The location later hosted another speakeasy called the Sky-Hi, which we'll talk about in the next segment.
Sometime after the Club Royale was shut down, another club opened in the same basement space. A 1935 City Council investigation into police corruption listed the 'Sky-Hi Club' at this address. The Council was looking into allegations that police were tolerating illegal activities in exchange for bribes. This is the same investigation discussed in the Atlas Hotel site entry.
Witness testimony in the investigation included the following description of activities in the Sky-Hi Club: "There is no difficulty at all in going in there. And we walked in freely and easily. Going into the door on the left was a room... the same games were going on. Lottery was going on the same way. It was also crowded with people. You go through the door from there, and in a sort of a side room, they were serving drinks of various kinds. There were a number of girls in the place sitting around in various compromising positions that anyone who was deaf and dumb could know they were prostitutes or near prostitutes, and you freely talked to them as you pleased."
The witness had been recruited as an 'upstanding' member of society who didn't engage in such activities, and his judgment of them carries through in his words. The witnesses were enlisted by the Council to go into businesses rumored to be involved in gambling, bootlegging, and prostitution, and testify about what they saw. One of the witnesses purchased a gambling ticket (seen in the above image gallery) while at the Sky-Hi Club, and it was entered into the record as evidence.
Following extensive witness testimony, police officers were called to the stand and asked what they believed took place in these businesses which were flouting the law. One after another, the officers called to the stand claimed that they had never noticed these locations, had never attempted to go in, had no reason to think illegal activity occurred there, or thought they couldn't go in without a warrant.
The officers claimed ignorance of the nature of these businesses that they frequently walked past on their respective beats, even though the witnesses were adamant that it should have been obvious to any observer that illegal activity was occurring.
It's unclear what action, if any, followed these revelations in the Council's investigation. At least in some years, cuts of those bribes reportedly went to the Chief of Police, Councilmembers, and even Mayor, depending on whether the person in power was aware of the payoff system. The tolerance system is reputed to have continued through the late 1960s.
The Black & Tan Club was mentioned many times in this Council investigation as a place where illegal gambling and liquor sales were taking place with no interference by local police. We have every reason think that is true. The following quote has been attributed to Noodles Smith, one of the proprietors of the Black & Tan Club in the 1930s: "The boys are glad when the elections are over. They know who they're going to have to keep on paying."Read More