A serendipitous mission to restore a treasured Walnut Grove, Calif. bath house

Front side of the Miyazaki Bath House & Gallery. photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

Front side of the Miyazaki Bath House & Gallery. photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

WALNUT GROVE, Calif. — Back in the early 1900s, the small town of Walnut Grove, Calif., situated along the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, was a flourishing Japanese community. Often called the “Kawashimo” by Japanese immigrants, the town had several Japanese-owned shops, including the Kawamura Barber Shop, Ben’s Drugs, Hayashi Company and many others.

Among the local landmarks was the Miyasaki Bath House, where locals and especially the Nikkei farm workers went to bathe and socialize after a long day in the fields.

After Executive Order 9066 called for the forced removal of people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, buildings like the Miyasaki Bath House began to deteriorate after World War II.

Now, decades later, artist, builder and photographer Eugene “Jeep” Phillips has restored and renovated the local landmark, continuing its historic usage as a Japanese bath house. 

“It’s really a little bit of a treasure hunt because you’re exploring and finding new things, much more than a new construction job,” Phillips said regarding restoring historic sites. “Then you connect with the history and the past.” 

Stumbling Upon a Treasure

Phillips, who has experience restoring Victorian buildings in the Bay Area, said he discovered the site while “wandering” through the California Delta. His journey began after working on several large-scale projects at the annual Burning Man event in Nevada one year, after which he did not want to drive on freeways anymore because of all the traveling he did for the event, he said. 

When he arrived in Sacramento, Calif., Phillips said he decided to take Highway 160 along the Sacramento River because he had never visited the California Delta before. From there, he leisurely explored the area, visiting several towns along the way, including Locke and Walnut Grove and admired the old, abandoned buildings. 

About a month and a half later, Phillips returned to Walnut Grove where he found what remained of the Miyasaki Bath House. He saw that it was listed as a Japanese bath house that was on sale.

Phillips, who visited several Japanese bath houses during his visit to Japan, said this was an opportunity he could not pass up.

“This could be my only chance in a lifetime to become the owner of a Japanese bath house, so I couldn’t resist. I had to do it,” he said.

He then placed an offer among other bidders and conveyed to the realtor his appreciation for the building and his wish to restore and continue using it as a Japanese bath house. Daniel Szumski, the previous owner of the property, eventually chose Phillips to buy the site. 

Historically, the business was called “Miyasaki” after the family who owned and ran the original business, said Thom Handa. Handa’s mother Toshie Handa helped maintain the business for several years with her parents, Gunji and Kazue Miyasaki.

However, after Phillips bought the property in 2002, he and his wife Montserrat Wassam found a record in the U.S. Department of Interior historic registry that listed the shop as “Miyazaki,” Wassam said. In order to apply and comply with the grant they received for the project, the couple had to continue using this spelling with the business license and Website, even though they found evidence of the original spelling later during the restoration process. 

“We only noticed the very faint lettering for Miyasaki on the store window of what used to be the ice cream and candy store in the front of the bath house well into the process when it was too late to change,” said Wassam. “We had to work with something stable so we went with the historic registry spelling since we really had nothing else to work with at the time.”

Montserrat said she and Eugene honor and respect the Miyasaki family and “hold that title and spelling at the core of (their) hearts.”

Eugene Phillips worked on the site’s restoration during his free time until its completion around 2010. He got the business license on June 11, 2012.

 Photo on left was taken in 1982 by the person who bought the site before Eugene Phillips, Daniel Szumski. Phillips said the previous owner wanted to make a winery of the site. photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

Photo on left was taken in 1982 by the person who bought the site before Eugene Phillips, Daniel Szumski. Phillips said the previous owner wanted to make a winery of the site. photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

Learning History Through Restoration

When Phillips bought the property, the building was falling apart. The bath house room was completely exposed, the tubs were split open, the surface walls came off the building and a tree went through the ceiling, among other problems.

When looking at the building’s exterior today, however, Phillips said that most people ask if he did anything at all; he was able to re-use the original surface wall after he provided interior strengthening to the walls. 

“So it’s only a little bit in certain areas around windows and some places you can see a slight fattening of the frame, but beyond that it’s virtually invisible,” he said.

Phillips worked on the restoration project with his father Bill Phillips, who engineered the project. Not only were they able to make several improvements to the building’s structure, they also improved the use of shear wall to strengthen the building. By innovating the panel format differently, they were able to strengthen the building enough to withstand some of the strongest earthquake magnitudes, Phillips said.

“Being innovators and trying to find interesting solutions to problems, we were able to come up with new solutions and it worked really well. It’s kind of exciting,” Phillips said.

During the restoration process, Phillips learned about the building’s history not only from documents like photographs, but mostly from talking with the local Japanese American residents in Walnut Grove. He spoke with Yasu Kawamura, who was married to the Kawamura Barber Shop barber. She recounted stories of her visits to the bath house when she was younger. 

He also heard from other people that the front part of the building, now used as an art gallery, used to be a candy store. Visitors would say how it was “the best candy store” that had “the best shaved ice.” 

Phillips even had a visit from a Miyasaki family member around the end of May 2014. Kazue Shintani, daughter of Gunji and Kazue Miyasaki, moved to Japan for several years before returning to the U.S. to get married in Sacramento. She recalled living upstairs, which used to be a boarding house, and hearing the sound of people in the hallway. 

Phillips said her visit was a déjà vu experience.

Phillips was able to preserve most of the original layout of the rooms. In addition, he found a photo that showed where the archway in the bath house originally stood, and was able to restore the placement of the original archway in his reconstruction. 

Bath House, Gallery and Vacation Rental

the restored Miyazaki Bath House.

The restored Miyazaki Bath House. photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

Today, the bath house can be used for up to two hours for individual or familial groups. Phillips or Wassam, depending on who is running the business for that weekend, instructs guests about the traditional Japanese bathing routine and how to properly use the facilities. 

During the two-hour period, Phillips said the blinds are closed, the doors are locked and the guests are free to use the entire downstairs area. After bathing, guests can lounge in the gallery area, which features artwork by a new artist every month, according to the Miyazaki Bath House & Gallery Website. 

After each bathing session, the tubs, shower and the rest of the used area are cleaned in preparation for the next group. The clean water from the tubs is reused to water the plants in the garden, Phillips said. They drain any water with soapy residue. 

Two sleeping areas are available for vacation rental upstairs as well. The rates differ over the weekend and during the week, but each option also includes a two-hour bathing session. There is also a full kitchen, dining room and old world tea parlor upstairs, according to the Website.

The Pitch

In the future, Phillips said he hopes to create an apprenticeship program that draws interested people from the Japanese American community or other communities that want to learn about restoration. His goal is to seek public funding to restore four other buildings in Walnut Grove and make them commercially viable in order to “revitalize the community.” 

Currently, Phillips owns the old Japanese Methodist church and would like to restore it as a hostel. The other three buildings in his restoration plan include the Kawamura Barber Shop, the other bath house in town and one more building he has yet to determine. 

“If I could play a role in revitalizing this area using my skills as a teacher-planner and not as the guy-crawling-under-the-building sort-of thing, then I could teach my skills to other people to continue this rebuilding or restoring of the community,” he said.

For more information about the Miyazaki Bath House & Gallery, visit the Website at www.miyazakibathhouse.com, call (916) 776-4290 or e-mail info@miyazakibathhouse.com.

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