The Sorrento Hotel, located at the northwest corner of Madison Street and Terry Avenue on lower First Hill in Seattle, opened just in time for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. Built by the Samuel Rosenberg Investment Company, the brick hotel was designed by architect Harlan Thomas (1870-1953) as a luxury hotel of seven stories in an eclectic Italianate style. Renowned until the end of the 1960s for its top-floor dining and lounge facilities with sweeping views of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains, The Sorrento has served both visitors and local people for a century. The hotel was significantly restored and remodeled in 1981 by Michael Malone and Robert Burkheimer with Bumgardner Architects. Additional restoration and remodeling in 2002 has helped the Sorrento Hotel continue to be the only historic Seattle hotel to serve continuously as originally intended since it was built. By contemporary standards, the Sorrento was "unusual and fantastic," according to architectural historian Heather MacIntosh ("Thomas, Harlan ...").
Building the Hotel
Samuel Rosenberg (1861-1916), of Kline and Rosenberg, Clothiers, participated in the successful Chamber of Commerce campaign to make Seattle the outfitting and jumping-off place for gold seekers to the Klondike during the Gold Rush of 1897. He served on the Chamber's Bureau of Information in 1897 and helped tell the world that “a ton of gold” had landed in Seattle. The Sorrento Hotel is evidence that this was a very lucrative business strategy.
In 1907 Rosenberg bought two lots on the northwest corner of Madison Street and Terry Avenue and proposed building a six-story “family hotel” to be called the Hotel Puget. Spear & Co. were to be the architects. But then he changed his mind. By April 1908, a new architect, the widely traveled Harlan Thomas, had taken over the project. The initial hotel design and development plans, as well as the construction budget, had been revised.
This was now to be a seven-story hotel with two wings at the west and north sides of a 70-foot-square landscaped courtyard. The interior was to include an octagonal-shaped main office lobby on the first floor with a ladies' parlor and reception rooms, an elevator and stairwell, and billiard and grill rooms. The top floor was to house the dining room and kitchen facilities, along with a sun room, tea rooms, and a Florentine loggia and roof garden. The guest rooms were arranged in suites with private baths and a view of either Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains (to the west) or Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains (to the east).
We don’t know who oversaw construction of the building, but we do know that an individual named Mark Odell was one of several contractors involved in the construction. Norman Lacey, who moved to Seattle in 1905, did the brickwork for the Sorrento Hotel. The hotel opened on May 30, 1909, two days ahead of the June 1st opening of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.
Of the completed hotel, architectural historian Norman J. Johnston writes:
[T]he seven-story Sorrento -- its grand corner entrance terrace contained by the hotel's patterned brickwork and richly terra-cotta detailed facades whose projecting framing piers, joined by flattened arches, were capped by gazebos with broad overhangs -- offered Seattle its first rooftop restaurant and brought a new sophistication in residential accommodations for locals and visitors alike. In other cases, but especially at the Sorrento, [Harlan] Thomas accepted familiar formal partis, but phrased them in a versatile design vocabulary that bespoke some willingness to explore innovatively rather than accept routinely the conventions of the day" (Oschner).
The Sorrento was elegant, service was excellent, the views were unparalleled at the time, and there was an elevator to the top floor, which was devoted to entertainment. One could reach the hotel on the Madison Street cable car, which climbed the steep hill from downtown. But the city was not ready for The Sorrento, according to the well-known Seattle real estate broker Henry Broderick (1880-1975). The hotel was a consistent loser when it opened, and Sam Rosenberg saw red ink on his ledgers for the first time in his long business career.
In 1910, according to some sources, Rosenberg traded the luxurious Hotel Sorrento for 240 prime acres of pear orchard in Southern Oregon’s Rogue River Valley and named them Bear Creek Orchards after the nearby waterway. But there is evidence that Rosenberg continued to be involved and interested in The Sorrento Hotel until he died in 1916. It was his sons, Harry and David Rosenberg, who used those acres of pears to build a mail-order fruit business (called Harry & David).
During World War I, The Sorrento became home away from home to many a military officer. From 1915 until about 1919 the hotel resident manager was Frank H. Holzmeimer. During the war years, the hotel, like many other local institutions, became involved in Red Cross support efforts. A room at the south side of the west wing was given over as a Red Cross headquarters where long tables were set up for making bandages. Special tea dances were held in honor of visiting officers and several admirals were regular hotel guests. The Sorrento began to be known as the place for military officers to stay while in town. In 1919, the hotel hired Emil Tarantuan, a Filipino elevator operator, who became very well known as he continued work at the hotel until the 1960s.
Vernon F. Pavey (b. ca. 1883), a local attorney and successful real estate entrepreneur, became involved around the time the Hotel Sorrento Company was incorporated in 1914. He lived in the hotel between 1914 and 1918 and by the early 1920s both managed and promoted it. He was responsible for lavish and lively promotional brochures about Hotel Sorrento that showed off the appointments of the premises and the select company of the residents, as well as publicizing the excellent dining facilities.
During the early and mid-1920s, the hotel served as the recreational and residential headquarters for ship’s officers involved in naval maneuvers on Puget Sound. In July 1923, Pavey was featured in a front-page article in the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce. The top floor dining, banquet, and ballrooms were noteworthy at this time. Vernon Pavey also owned and operated irrigated orchards and ranches near Richland and Kennewick in Eastern Washington, and fruits and vegetables produced there were served to patrons of Hotel Sorrento. Handsome special menus were published for elaborate multi-course holiday dinners that were served in the famous dining room with its original Mission oak furniture. Mr. Pavey again resided at the Hotel Sorrento between about 1923 and 1927.
Other managers include Julian G. Wright, 1910s; Stella M. Marston with her husband Merton H. Marston, 1920s; Mrs. Jay Allen and Harold E. Barrett, 1920s; Lyda Thompson (Mrs. George Thompson) and Jesse M. Jackson, 1930s; Howard Nyblin and N. E. Berry, 1940s; Gerda A. Berry, early 1950s; William H. Mainwaring until the 1960s; Saxon Lew, James Ward, and Max Lanke, 1960s; Marvin Burke, 1970s.
In November 1925, the Hotel News of the West reported that during the summer of 1925 Merton Marston and Mr. J. A. Audett took over the Hotel Sorrento and redecorated the interior with a complete new outfit of furniture. The top floor was remodeled with installation of modern kitchen and food preparation facilities and hardwood floors were added for dancing in the ballroom. The Sorrento also hired a new hotel chef, Urben Mezzetti, who had worked with Boldt’s Restaurant in Seattle and at the Arctic Club.
Surviving the 1930s
On December 19, 1931, the Town Crier featured The Sorrento on the cover and reported that the famous hotel would be managed by W. S. Sanders, the manager of the nearby Rhododendron Apartment Hotel. Sanders would oversee both, described as two of the city’s exclusive apartment hotels. J. A. Audett continued to superintend the dining and catering services. Art Apgar, a chef known throughout the Northwest, was retained to run the hotel kitchen. The Town Crier included advertisements for the Hotel Sorrento, noting the American Plan and the availability of two- and three-room suites and promoting the view dining room. The Sorrento did not add kitchens to the apartments. One was expected to take advantage of the excellent food service.
The hotel changed hands once again in October 1937, when it was purchased by the Hotel Sorrento Operating Co., which had been operating it under a lease agreement. The new ownership group was headed by Jesse M. Jackson, president; Leslie H. Jackson, vice president; and Fred J. Wettrick, secretary. Jesse Jackson subsequently served as hotel manager. Sometime prior to 1937, the L-shaped rooftop loggia that wrapped around the south and west end of the west wing, described earlier as a Florentine loggia and roof garden, was removed, The open balcony on the west side was partially removed and the penthouse area was expanded to be flush with the main west side.
Meanwhile, nearby Seattle College (now Seattle University) had moved back to the neighborhood and was suffering serious growing pains. In the fall of 1938, after a 2,200 percent growth over five years, College President Father Francis Corkery, SJ, leased an entire wing of The Sorrento Hotel as a women’s dormitory.
The Air Force/Boeing Years
During World War II, the hotel again became living quarters for members of the United States military. Housing for military personnel was in great demand and members of the Army Air Corps Ferrying Command were given the opportunity to reside at the hotel. Various flight crews regularly stayed at The Sorrento while on duty delivering Boeing B-17 bombers to air bases around the United States.
During the mid-1940s, the original top floor dining space was known as the Aero-Marine Club. Washington State liquor laws of the time allowed liquor to be served only in private clubs, so the “club room” was the bar. Dining facilities were relocated to the first floor “Grill Room.” In 1943, and again in 1946, building-permit records reveal that remodeling was done to “the club.”
In 1950, the hotel was sold to Cross Roads Inc. and through the following decade it seems to have had a number of owners. Apparently many fewer permanent residents lived in the hotel. During the early 1950s, the club room became known as the “Top of the Town” or “Top O’ the Town,” and by the end of the 1950s there was a piano bar on the south end with sweeping views of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains and a formal dining area and banquet rooms to the north serving prime rib and special baked potatoes with side dishes.
Through the 1950s The Sorrento continued to provide housing and services to Air Force officers, Boeing military, and civilian visitors, as well as providing entertainment and dining facilities for local residents. Spending a wedding night or two at The Sorrento became a tradition for some.
During this time, entertainment was lively. The wife of an employee (the souorce does not give her name) described some highlights:
“There was Betty Hall Jones with her big bag of hats. For nearly every song she sang she put on a different hat. Betty sang a lot of calypso wearing her fruity hat. For birthdays she sang with this cake hat and glowing candles on her head. . . Mercedes was a classy lady who also played piano and sang. She sang some soulful blues ... . Then there was Johnny Maddox who played piano. He played great ragtime music. He pounded those piano keys so hard he would tape the ends of his fingers. "Twelfth Street Rag" was a favorite along with "Down by the Riverside" (Sorrento).
Mercedes (or Merceedes) Welcker (1913-2000) was a popular local entertainer who played piano and sang at The Sorrento and, eventually, on KING-TV. She recorded popular records at Linden Records, just up the street from The Sorrento. Welcker created a marching song, both lyrics and music, for the American Women for Defense during World War II, published about 1942.
In 1961, this lively era at The Sorrento came to an end when the “Air Base,” a small cocktail lounge off the main hotel lobby, closed down. Air Force personnel had regularly stayed at the hotel while attending the Boeing Bomarc Training Program for the previous nine years. They had tacked some $300 worth of dollar bills and foreign currency to the ceiling and decorated the room with Air Force trophies.
The 1960s and The Dunbar Room
The 1960s brought new ownership to The Sorrento. Coast Investment Company bought the hotel (Monty Moeton, John F. Biehl, and George J. Mortenson & Associates), but leased it back to John A. Metzger. Metzger continued to operate the hotel for the next 16 years.
The hotel was extensively remodeled under the direction of architect Richard E. Lytel. The Top of the Town restaurant was re-established and the first floor “Grill Room” space became the Dunbar Room. Many interior spaces were redecorated, the ground floor windows were altered, and salvaged bronze ornamental lanterns were added on the east side, where the entrance to the first floor restaurant is located. A new generation of local people and guests came to enjoy The Sorrento.
On March 28, 1969, the Seattle First National Bank building was dedicated. At 50 stories, the skyscraper at 4th Avenue and Madison Street began the trend to build much higher buildings along Seattle's downtown north-south axis. Over the next decade, tall buildings blocked The Sorrento's spectacular western views.
In 1980, Michael Malone and Robert Burkheimer launched a major renovation project, designed by Bumgardner Architects. The Sorrento reopened in December 1981 with a redeveloped courtyard including a circular drive and landscaping by R. W. Chittlock. The original 154 guest rooms were redesigned to create 76 guest rooms and suites. The Dunbar Room became the Hunt Club. The former “Top of the Town” became a private banquet facility. The original entry and lobby areas were carefully preserved. The original octagonal main lobby, now known as the Fireside Room, was restored including the Rookwood tile work, originally by artist John Wareham, restored by local tile expert Marie Glass Tapp. The hotel desk appears to be the original as well.
Then in 2002, the hotel embarked on additional renovations, including technology upgrades such as complimentary high-speed wireless Internet access in all rooms and throughout the hotel. Interior designers Charles Gruwell and Cheryl Neumann created 34 deluxe guest rooms and 42 luxury suites including a 2,000-square-foot penthouse suite. Meeting rooms, the Hunt Club, and the Fireside Room were refurnished and redecorated. The project was featured in “A Sorrento Revival” published in Architectural Digest in September 2003.
The Sorrento Today
The Sorrento Hotel is a century old and currently (summer 2008) being considered for City of Seattle Landmark status. One can have Afternoon Tea there, in the octagonal Fireside Room, or in the evening, listen to some of Seattle’s local musical talent. The Hunt Club continues the tradition of fine dining. The hotel website has an animated online guest book that features many visitor memories.
The Sorrento Hotel continues as one of the most luxurious full-service hotels in Seattle, just as it was when it opened.