Before we being this column’s journalistic tour through the five buildings that once housed my family’s Chinese Pagoda and Imperial Dynasty restaurants, I would like to express my gratitude for all the kind comments and missives I have received from you regarding my last column. I’m delighted that my words resonated with you, and may we all continue to hang on to hope and to care of ourselves and each other.
Steve has been talking about doors that are located in the Chinese Pagoda kitchen all week, and he has taken to calling them “the doors to nowhere.” I thought this week we could take a look at these doors. So let’s begin our tour in China Alley.
We stand on the west side of the Alley and face north, looking at the first building in from Green Street. We are in front of the old Chinese Pagoda restaurant, the building’s address is #2 China Alley. We will enter the building from the back door that faces the parking lot. We walk around the building on the Green Street side and note the exterior of the side of the building is covered with a layer of bricks.
We reach the back door and step into the building. Taking an immediate right, we are now in the Chinese Pagoda kitchen. There, on the west wall is a double door doorway, Steve’s “doors to nowhere.” But at one time they went somewhere.
The Sanborn Map Company was a publisher of detailed maps of cities and towns in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. They were used primarily as fire insurance maps. Old Sanborn maps show us that there were buildings in China Alley in the 1880s, but #2 China Alley doesn’t appear until an 1898 Sanborn map. Originally the building was a gambling house with an opium den in the basement and a rooming house on the second floor. We can see the original cornice along the parapet on the southeast corner and on the front of the building.
Still studying Sanborn maps, #2 China Alley was still listed as a gambling house up until 1913. In 1925, it was listed as vacant. The building sat empty for years. In 1937, continuing my great-grandfather’s legacy, my grandfather chose to expand the noodle house, and acquired #2 China Alley, moving the larger eatery to the corner location. The new restaurant was named the Chinese Pagoda. The dining room entrance was located on China Alley; family and workers entered through the kitchen door, located on Green Street.
Let’s return to the Alley and take another look at #2 China Alley. An Art Deco-style building, it has a flaring hip-roof awning over steps that lead into the basement on Green Street, and a pagoda-like awning with fish-scale aluminum shingles over a double-leaf door entrance. An Art Deco-style four foot diameter round window is on the southwest corner. A neon sign also located on this corner announces “The Chinese Pagoda.
In 1958 when my family opened the Imperial Dynasty restaurant, Uncle Richard’s design included cementing over the Chinese Pagoda’s historic brick, and a new brick veneer was added to the front and along the Green Street side, covering up the kitchen door. The new back of the house entrance was located facing the parking lot, the one in which we entered at the beginning of this tour.
I think the “doors that go nowhere” should be renamed as “portals to the past, pieces of the history of #2 China Alley.” If our hopes hold strong and we stay safe, careful of ourselves and others, perhaps the same doors will swing wide once again, open to the flow of the future and a better community for us all. A slight breeze whispers in my left ear. A friendly spirit from the past perhaps.
I’m sharing a recipe for Miso Chicken this week that speaks to me of past and future. I have a lot of history with this dish, as I’ve made numerous versions of the recipe over the years, and it is one of my favorites, one that I will return to again and again, as I will to the “doors that, for now, go nowhere” but hold passage to the past and the future.
Arianne Wing is the co-author of “Noodles Through Escargots,” and co-owner of the L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room and Emporium, benefiting the restoration and preservation of China Alley. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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