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First Hill’s hotel elder statesman: Facing downtown competition, Sorrento has history on its side

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. 

“We weren’t immune,” said Malone.

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. 

“It’s simple supply and demand,” said Malone.

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.

“This hotel is a love and a passion,” he said.

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10 thoughts on “First Hill’s hotel elder statesman: Facing downtown competition, Sorrento has history on its side

  1. There used to be a swanky bar/restaurant on the top floor called “Talk of the Town” (I think. It’s been a long time) in those days, it had amazing views of downtown and the Olympic range,

    Seattle’s hotels had a lot of top floor restaurants up through the 80’s. They are almost all gone now, along with the live music they all had.

  2. I believe it was called “Top of the Town” and yes, it was a really swanky place with a spectacular view. I remember going there for special occasions back in the late 1950s and 60s.

    This is yet another example of the wonderful contribution Michael Malone (Hunters Capital) has made to Seattle, and especially Capitol Hill, in preserving some of our beautiful older buildings. He deserves some kind of medal!

  3. What a nice job Bernard did on reporting the history and facts of this Grand Old Dame of Seattle’s fine hotels.
    The pictures were great! Good work, again by the CHS BLOG, always
    bringing interesting news and information to our Community!
    Thank you.

  4. I have fond memories of walking downhill on Madison, as a student nurse at Swedish Hosital, hoping to someday be a guest of the beautiful Sorrento Hotel. That day has come with my delight and enjoyment. The beauty of the building is only exceeded by the caring and professional staff. This is Seattle history at the best.

  5. Top of the Town and other spaces on the 7th floor are still there! They are used for banquet events now (weddings, anniversary parties, private dinners, holiday parties, etc).

    Live music is in our fireside lounge every Friday & Saturday night – come check it out!

  6. Michael Malone was awarded the 2011 Spirit of the Hill award by the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce in recognition of his community contributions to Capitol Hill. He and Hunter’s Capital have done great work in preserving the Hill’s character and spirit.

  7. My 3 granddaughters an I enjoyed an overnight stay at the hotel last summer. We took the bus in from the suburbs, dropped off our bags and headed for the wheel, SAM and the gum wall at Post Alley (supper ick). The hotel was comfortable and the pool was fun. I hope they bring back the restaurant, it’s needed.