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He already ‘owned’ it, so why did this guy just pay $21M for First Hill’s Hotel Sorrento?

(Image: Hotel Sorrento)

Capitol Hill real estate investor and developer Mike Malone already owned the business around First Hill’s Hotel Sorrento, now he owns the building and the dirt below it — $21 million of it — and the high-rise rights that come along with the Madison property’s underutilized edges.

“I’ve spent 20 some years trying to buy the property,” Malone told CHS last week about the deal first reported by the Puget Sound Business Journal, remembering back on the 50 year lease he signed to operate the historic hotel.

“I thought, ‘Shit, I won’t even be alive.”

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But as the lease has was running down, Malone said the Burke family trust that has owned the property was finally ready to make the change.

Owning the building puts Malone’s Sorrento business in “a whole different light,” Malone said.

While Malone also owns Capitol Hill real estate development firm Hunters Capital, he won’t be redeveloping the Sorrento now that he’s plunked down $21 million for it. Instead, Malone says he can push forward on much needed structural upgrades and seismic work for the seven-story hotel that opened for its first visitors on First Hill in 1909.

The hotel’s parking garage, on the other hand, is “not historic,” Malone says, and zoned for high rise development. Its future is likely a new building, several stories high in a future project. Malone says he’ll need partners for that. He’s not a “high rise developer.”

The Sorrento’s 110-year history took a rough turn in the 1970s. That’s when Malone got involved, 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 in a 2014 interview with CHS.  “The place was a dive,” Malone said at the time, recalling the puka shell wallboard that covered up the distinctive Honduran mahogany panels in the Fireside Room. “It was a pimpy Trader Vic’s” he said.

(Image: Hotel Sorrento)

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 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 again in 2008 to 2009.

In 2014, the Sorrento rolled out another overhaul, food and drink upgrades, and fresh marketing. Meanwhile, new competition around Capitol Hill and First Hill is coming.

Today, the Sorrento is being readied for another one hundred years of business. More upgrades and construction work is to come but no closures are planned, Malone says, even with what is expected to be some intensive street work near the old hotel for the Madison Bus Rapid Transit project, work that is expected to begin next year.

Malone says he is, of course, “very pleased” to have the deal on the “wonderful, historic” hotel done and a longtime dream of fully owning the property come true but any sense of spiritual satisfaction gets, he admits, a little lost in the transaction.

“That is somewhat dampened by having to raise $21 million,” Malone said.

The Hotel Sorrento is located at 900 Madison. You can learn more at


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8 thoughts on “He already ‘owned’ it, so why did this guy just pay $21M for First Hill’s Hotel Sorrento?

  1. Many thanks to Malone for saving this piece of history. I’ve only been in a few times for lunch and drinks, but it is a favorite site and sight to pass by on walks around my neighborhood. Hopefully it means that the southwest roof corner will be able to be properly repaired and not just sured up.

    Now how do we save the Connolly house that the RC church is thinking of selling or redeveloping.

  2. It seems this building is loved by its old/new owner and is in good hands. I and many others appreciate the monthly ‘Silent Reading Party’ hosted in the Sorrento’s lovely Dunbar Room.

  3. I feel bad that the Sorrento Hotel staff never answer the phone. I’ve been calling them to make reservations over the past four years and the phone just rings and rings.
    It seems like they are missing out on a lot of business.