With CHS visiting the restoration of an auto row building and considering the role hotels might play in the future of Pike/Pine development, we thought it might be wise to check in with an area old-timer to learn a little more about the hospitality industry from a historically important veteran of the industry. Long before boutique hotels became the chic choice for lodging, well before the public truly appreciated the value of historic preservation, First Hill’s Sorrento Hotel has made a home for guests visiting the core of Seattle.
Opened in 1909, the seven-story hotel on the west slope of Pill Hill is the longest-operating hotel in Seattle and still one of the coolest. The building’s heritage and character will soon bring the Sorrento some federal recognition as it is added to the National Register of Historic Places.
“Any day now,” said Michael Malone, the developer behind some of Capitol Hill’s recent revivals such as the Elliott Bay Books and Poquitos buildings. Malone and a business partner bought the Sorrento in 1980, rescuing it, he says, from a period of neglect and negligible performance.
Back then, “the average room rate was $25 and the occupancy rate was 20%,” Malone recalled as we chatted recently in the hotel’s signature Fireside Room, an octagonal lounge near the front entrance. The dismal number serves as a reminder that, while the Sorrento is now firmly in its second century of operation, it almost didn’t make it past the first.
“The place was a dive,” said Malone, who still cringes at the puka shell wallboard that covered up the distinctive Honduran mahogany panels in the Fireside Room. “It was a pimpy Trader Vic’s.”
A $4.5 million renovation restored the elegance and charm that once drew well-to-do families such as the Guggenheims and Vanderbilts and reportedly a visit from President Howard Taft in the hotel’s early days.
But the year-long restoration project didn’t restore business — at least not right away. Just as the Sorrento reopened its doors in 1981, the U.S. economy sank into recession and dragged the hospitality business down with it.
“It was very tough. I would have wavered had it been my [main] business,” said Malone, who made his fortune in music distribution. Surviving that downturn proved to be valuable experience because it would happen again and again, at varying degrees, in the ensuring decades, including most recently in 2008 to 2009.
In the last two years, though, business has returned as the local economy has grown and delivered visitors to downtown. Randall Obrecht, general manager, said the occupancy rate for Sorrento’s 76 rooms now stands in the mid-70% range, a healthy level. However, Malone noted that room rates (anywhere from $175 to $275/night) have not bounced back due to increased competition. Thousands of hotel rooms have been added to the downtown Seattle market in recent years.
Fortunately for the Sorrento, located at Madison and Terry, its proximity to downtown and unique character help it stand out among its competitors. The Italian-inspired façade and the old-world charm within continue to draw a diverse crowd year-round.
Obrecht noted that the clientele ranges from the older couples drawn to the hotel’s history to the medical professionals visiting one of the nearby hospitals to the Capitol Hill hipsters who drop in for a drink at the bar or to attend special events such as “Silent Reading” when guests gather in the Sorrento to read silently while downing Manhattans.
A second renovation in 2002 added 21st century amenities such as wireless internet access. Interior designers were also brought in to create deluxe guest rooms and luxury suites. While no major changes are planned in the near future, Obrecht said regular maintenance comes with operating a 100 year-old structure.
“You have to stay on top of it and do preventive work,” he said. “You have to stay ahead or it will get ahead of you.”
So how far will the Sorrento make it in its second century? Malone said he knows the land underneath the hotel is worth a lot of money but he’s not interested in that as much as making sure the Sorrento has a place to stay in Seattle’s past and present.