This house is significance due to its association with John Matsudaira, who became an important figure in both the Japanese American and Northwest artist communities. It also illustrates the social and economic success of Japanese Americans prior to their incarceration during World War II, as well as their triumph in surviving internment and rebuilding their social networks and professions after the war.
This single-family residence is located in the Rainier Beach neighborhood at the southern end of Rainer Valley. It was constructed in 1952 and was first occupied by Leo H. Wert and his wife Ethel. Leo worked for Boeing, and the Werts stayed in the house through 1954. The house was vacant for a period in 1955; but, by 1956, Lillian and John Matsudaria, a painter and draftsman, purchased the property. The Matsudarias moved to this house from their apartment on First Hill, where John completed his first painting and usually painted in their tiny kitchen. Their residence on First Hill was later purchased by Providence Hospital for the expansion of their campus. The current Matsudaria house was originally two bedrooms; but, with three children, they added two more bedrooms in order to accommodate their expanding family. Lillian Matsudaria still lives in the house today.
John Matsudaira was born in Seattle in 1922 to Japanese American parents, but he was sent to Japan at an early age to attend school. John returned to the Seattle area in 1935 and attended Maryknoll School and O’Dea High School until 1942, when he and his family were interned at the Minidoka camp in Idaho. While incarcerated, John enlisted and was wounded in Italy, spending two-and-a-half years in the hospital. He returned to Seattle after the war in 1947 and attended Burnley Art School with fellow artists, Jacob Elshin and Nick Damascus. John Matsudaira developed his art skills by studying with his artist friends, including Paul Horiuchi and Kenjiro Nomura. In the early 1950s, he was one of four Japanese American artists featured at the Zoe Dusanne Gallery, Seattle’s first professional Modern Art gallery. John Matsudaira also exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum, the International Art Exhibition in Chinatown, and at the 1962 World’s Fair. In addition to his career as an independent artist, John worked for thirty years as a draftsman at Boeing.
Substantial residential and commercial development in South Seattle and the Rainier Valley occurred when a transportation corridor connecting the Rainier Valley to downtown and Seattle’s industrial district was constructed along Rainier Avenue during the late nineteenth century. Development in the valley was facilitated by logging during the 1880s, the operation of the Rainier Valley Electric Railway in the 1890s, and the Jackson and Dearborn Street re-grades in the 1900s. Milling was the primary commercial industry during the last part of the nineteenth century although some agricultural activity existed. As residential development increased, Rainier Avenue gradually became the principal commercial corridor connecting the residential neighborhoods of South Seattle to downtown, the International District, and Seattle’s industrial districts. World War II brought additional building growth related to the wartime industry, as well as the influx of defense workers to nearby Boeing and the Duwamish shipyards.
While few minorities lived outside of the Central District during the early twentieth century, Italian American and Japanese American communities began forming in South Seattle during the 1910s and 1920s. The Japanese American community was able to grow and expanded to South Seattle as a result of relatively less restrictive immigration and exclusion laws. Despite the 1889 Alien Land Laws, which prevented non-citizens from owning land, they were able to purchase property under the names of their second generation family members. While the Immigration Act of 1924 inhibited further Japanese immigration, their social and economic presence continued to expand in Seattle. However, after President Roosevelt issued his Executive Order 9066 in 1942, the Japanese Americans in the Pacific Northwest were sent to internment camps and their properties and businesses were usually confiscated. After World War II, formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans returned to Seattle, successfully rebuilding their social networks and businesses and again emerging as a significant force in Seattle. The presence of the Santos family in this neighborhood in the 1950s is consistent with their post-war success and is indicative of the diversity that predominates in South Seattle today.