YOKOHAMA -- A rare remaining western-style prewar home in this bustling port city south of Tokyo possibly built by Czech architect Antonin Raymond (1888-1976) may have been saved from the wrecking ball by Sanyo Bussan, the firm behind the long-established Monte Rosa pastry shop.
Raymond is known as the "father of western architecture in Japan," and Sanyo Bussan head Hiroshi Yamamoto, 50, has put out calls for anyone with concrete evidence about the origins of the building in the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Yokohama's Naka Ward to come forward after his firm purchased the property.
The Yamatecho neighborhood, formerly called Yokohama Yamate, was incorporated into an expatriate residential district after the Port of Yokohama opened in 1859, and soon became home to many people from outside Japan. According to the Yokohama Municipal Government, it was confirmed that 38 of the western-style buildings constructed there before World War II were under private ownership in 1992. Now, the number is 17.
The possible Raymond home is on a 790-square-meter lot at 133 Yamatecho. The two-story wooden structure itself boasts over 287 square meters of floor space. It was for a long time owned by a Japanese person, and aside from a period after World War II when it was requisitioned by the Allied occupation authority, it was always rented out to foreign residents. However, it became vacant around two years ago.
In May, Yamamoto learned the house had gone on sale. He said he thought, "If the situation remains as it is, the home will be destroyed as part of a redevelopment. Our company should make a contribution to society that only we are capable of." He then set about negotiating with the owners, and on Aug. 25 it was transferred to the company.
At the same time, Yamamoto was investigating the history around 133 Yamatecho when an expert told him it "may have been built by Raymond." Before World War II, the house was managed by oil company K.K. Rising Sun (predecessor to the former Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K.) and a 1938-1939 register of foreign residents shows that the house was then occupied by an accountant at the firm.
Yamatecho 58, the headquarters of K.K. Rising Sun, and the company-owned house at Yamatecho 38 -- now Ferris University's Building No. 10 -- were designed by Raymond, and the company had a strong connection with the architect.
Architecturally speaking, there are also a number of characteristics to the house that suggest Raymond may have had a hand in it. The home's front entrance and the door that faces the garden, the stairs, storage and other areas are all extremely similar to the same parts of the Rising Sun building he is known to have designed.
Kazuaki Seki, professor emeritus at Kanto Gakuin University, conducted an August on-site inspection of the property. He highlighted in his comments that "the design of the curtain-rail box in the living room, and the layout of the steel sashes in the windows facing the garden, among other points, are consistent with other works by Raymond."
Yamamoto also had an unexpected stroke of good fortune, when a chance find on the internet brought him into contact with Carey Shea, an American woman who lived in Yamatecho 133 as a child, from 1957 to 1964.
He emailed Shea as soon as he found her, and she responded by telling him about her memories of their live-in housekeeper Tami-san and the cook. Tami was a Japanese woman, aged around 20 at the time, and she reportedly worked at the house from when the family moved in to when they returned to America. Yamamoto said, "If Tami-san is still alive, I would like to speak with her about what 133 Yamatecho was like at the time."
Yamamoto could trace the house's history in the record books back to 1936, but before that year things become uncertain. It appears to have been constructed in the early Showa era (1926-1989), but the exact timing and who was involved is as yet unconfirmed. Professor Seki said, "The circumstantial evidence is there (for it to be a Raymond building), so if blueprints or related documents from the period can be found, then that would be decisive. The chances aren't zero, and we will use every means to continue our investigations."
Raymond was a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright, known for designs including the former Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. This year, the Tokyo suburban city of Musashino began work to preserve the luxurious former residence of Tetsuma Akaboshi, another Raymond work built in 1934.
To restore 133 Yamatecho to near-original condition, Yamamoto has commissioned top architect Akira Kanehiro, 50, who has experience renovating western-style homes in the Yamate district. He is also aiming to have the building designated as a "historic structure" by the Yokohama City Government.
"133 Yamatecho is a western-style building with 'staying power.' As we proceed with its restoration, I want to consider how we might use it in future," Yamamoto said.
Anyone with information about 133 Yamatecho or Tami-san is asked to get in touch with the Mainichi Shimbun's Yokohama Bureau.
(Japanese original by Takuji Nakata, Yokohama Bureau)