Regal Restoration

Editor's Note: Landmarks & Leaders is a monthly column that explores influential buildings and leaders in the commercial real estate industry.

The regal Dexter Horton building was built in 1924 to pay tribute to one of Seattle's founding fathers and later house his noteworthy banking company, SeaFirst, which he launched in 1929. From the beginning, the building's white terra cotta exterior, ornate interior details, rich marble and terrazzo finishes represented the best in turn-of-the-century charm.

But by the time The Carlyle Group and Goodman Real Estate acquired the 15-story, 319,000 sq. ft. property in 2000, it had become governmental ugly, with dropped ceilings, fluorescent lights and beige painted walls. The partnership paid the City of Seattle $46 million for the building, which sits on the edge of the CBD at Second Avenue and Cherry Street in Pioneer Square. The city had occupied the Dexter Horton since 1979 and bought it for $19.9 million in 1988, but sold the building 12 years later with the plan to make a five-year staged move to another downtown office tower.

Grand beginnings

Goodman Real Estate, led by Seattle investor John Goodman, is known for taking on complicated, historical assets. The company's plan for Dexter Horton was to reposition and retenant the building. “It has been part of the fabric of downtown since the 1920s,” says George Petrie, Goodman's president. “We wanted to restore it to its original grandeur. Previous owners had covered up much of the architectural detail. We bought it with the idea of fully renovating the exterior and interior, knowing we had a five-year window.”

Built for about $600,000 in 1924, the Dexter Horton building was designed by prominent Pacific Northwest architect John Graham Sr. (His son, John Graham Jr., later became a well-known architect in his own right, designing Seattle's Space Needle and other big projects.) It was constructed by Morgan Carkeek, a stone mason whose company had rebuilt much of Seattle after the Great Fire of 1889.

In February 2001, just as Goodman's renovation was about to get under way, the area was hit with another disaster: a major earthquake. The seismic jolt caused no structural damage, but created large cracks in the plaster that meandered throughout the building.

Revealing the silk purse

Dallas-based Turner Construction Co. was tapped to handle the repairs and restoration. Matt Parent, construction manager at Goodman, oversaw the $34 million project.

“It was so vanilla, in quite sad condition, really, with bland paint and cheap carpet throughout,” he says. The acoustical ceiling tiles were removed to reveal the ornate plaster detail beneath. The marble and terrazzo floors were refinished, and even the entry carpet was replaced with one that matched the original with the Dexter Horton logo. “The idea wasn't to give it a new look,” Parent explains, “but to return it to its original glory, the way it was in the 1920s.”

Besides cosmetic changes, upgrades included new electrical, fiber and building systems, as well as perks such as locker/shower facilities and a bike room. The improvements, along with the building's E-shape, which allows for plenty of natural light and offers magnificent views of the Olympic Mountains, Puget Sound and downtown Seattle, helped attract new tenants.

The lease-up didn't happen overnight, says Dan Dahl, first vice president at CB Richard Ellis. “It took some time,” he recalls. “We essentially had to rebrand it and overcome the stigma of formerly being a government building.”

Among the first to sign on for space was Corbis, Bill Gate's digital imaging company. The group leased 82,000 sq. ft. and made the Dexter Horton building its flagship location, Dahl says. “[Corbis] moved from a suburban building in Bellevue,” he says. “They thought being in the Dexter Horton building could help them hire and retain people, especially some of the younger, creative talent.”

Earlier this year, with the property 95% leased and the city set to vacate its last floor in December, Goodman put the landmark up for sale. The firm found a buyer in July, LaSalle Investment Management on behalf of Prudential U.K., which paid roughly $81 million for the property.

“We followed the business plan we put in place,” Petrie says. “Market conditions dictated the speed and terms at which we released the building. But for us, ultimately, it was about maintaining and enhancing the cultural fabric of a building that has long been a part of downtown Seattle.”

Christine Perez is a Dallas-based writer.

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