Riach Honda Building (Seattle)

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 11/06/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20659
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The Riach Honda Building was located at 1017 Olive Way on the southwest corner of Olive Way and Boren Avenue in downtown Seattle. For more than a century, the location was connected to the automotive industry. There were wooden garages on the site as early as 1912. In 1919 the Olympic Garage was operating there, and that year a Packard automobile dealership opened a building on the property. In 1930, a two-story building in Mediterranean Revival style occupied the site. It was remodeled in 1937 to house Central Oldsmobile, Inc., founded by John Riach (1895-1981). The dealership name was later changed to Riach-Central Oldsmobile. By the late 1960s Riach owned several nearby properties including 1711 Boren, which he used for parking and used-car sales. In 1970 Riach added a dealership to sell Hondas, called Riach-Central Honda. The Honda franchise (but not the land) was sold in 1986 to Brad M. Miller and Tom Nicholson, who updated the building's interior. In 2015 their Honda of Seattle relocated to a large property south of downtown, after the Olive and Boren campus was sold for $56.5 million to the Washington State Convention Center for a planned expansion.

1017 Olive Way: The Early Years

The property at 1017 Olive Way was connected to the automotive industry for more than a hundred years, although exact records are incomplete. Identified as Parcel #066000-1725, it measures 120 feet by 180 feet. In 1912, there were two wood-frame garages along Olive Way. A narrower building existed along Boren Avenue with an open area likely in the center of the parcel. As of 1919, Olympic Garage operated on the site.

That same year the architectural firm of Bebb and Gould designed a building to house a Packard dealership on the lot. British-born Charles Herbert Bebb (1862-1942) and his partner Carl F. Gould (1873-1939) were two of the leading Northwest architects of the day. The pair was prolific and their firm designed more than 200 buildings, from schools and hospitals to churches and businesses.

Born in England, Bebb had studied civil engineering at the Royal School of Mines in London, then moved to South Africa in 1877 when he was 15 to take a job on the Cape Town-Kimberley Railroad. He immigrated to the United States in 1886, first to Chicago and then to Seattle in 1890 where he found a job as an architectural engineer at the Denny Clay Company.

Gould was born in New York City to a wealthy family and educated at Harvard. He moved to Seattle in 1908 and teamed up with Bebb in 1914. Among his more notable designs were the University of Washington's Suzzallo Library, what is now the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park, and the Seattle Times Building at Olive Way and Stewart. A biography of Gould, who founded the University of Washington's School of Architecture, discussed his interest in solving architectural challenges related to the automobile:

"Clients gave him numerous opportunities to address the problems of selling, servicing, and garaging automobiles  ...  He created a style both spare and elegant for showrooms to display Packard automobiles (1919; Olive Street and Boren Avenue), and White autos (1922; Pike Street and Twelfth Avenue). About the same time he designed a similar building for Northwest Motors (1919). The showrooms were essentially plate-glass palaces with elaborate, glazed terra cotta entrances suggesting the sophistication of the potential customer, the elegant cars within, and the experience of operating an automobile. Terra cotta cornices tied the showrooms to the service sections, which were, like the show areas, commodious and expressive. The Packard showroom and service building survives as a Honda dealership, a testimony to the functionalism and adaptability of Gould's designs" (Booth and Wilson, 127-128).

Although Gould's biographers, writing in 1995, suggested that the building he and Bebb designed for Packard in 1919 somehow survived in what was by then the Honda of Seattle building, other records indicate that it was replaced by a new structure in 1930. At a minimum it had been significantly remodeled, because in early 1930 a two-story Mediterranean Revival building stood on the 1017 Olive Way property. The 1930s building was flanked by a one-story structure along the south on Olive Way and a smaller hipped-roof structure uphill on Boren Avenue. Camelo Cleaners occupied the corner spot at Olive and Boren from approximately 1933 to 1937. A small grocery store/market was also located there, as was a service garage. Tax records for 1938 showed that, as of 1925, timber magnate J. H. Bloedel had owned the property, most likely as an investment.

Seattle Embraces the Automobile

The emergence of the automobile in the first quarter of the twentieth century greatly changed how American cities and their commercial districts developed and functioned. The first automobiles were sold in Seattle by 1905, and the buying public openly embraced this new mode of transportation. In 1910, about 181,000 cars were produced in the United States; that figure jumped to more than 1.9 million cars a decade later.

For much of the first half of the twentieth century, Seattle was home to two Auto Rows that housed nearly all the car dealerships in the region. Dozens of auto-related services, such as repair shops, automotive glass dealers and parking garages, moved into surrounding neighborhoods. The first Auto Row, beginning in 1906, was located on or near Broadway and along the Pike-Pine corridor. The second Auto Row developed mainly along Westlake, north of Denny Way, beginning in the mid 1920s.

Auto Row businesses introduced their own special design features, which included elaborately decorated brick or terra cotta facades, large showroom windows, sash garage doors, and ramps or elevators to handle cars and freight. The result, as described in a 2002 historic property survey:

"Solid fireproof structures of concrete or brick, often two to four stories, with a large showroom and offices on the first floor and parking on the upper floors accessed by concrete ramps (or, sometimes, large elevators) ... Major dealerships competed to impress potential customers, hiring well-known architects and investing in terra cotta cladding, expansive windows and intricate ornamentation" (Sheridan, 27).

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many auto dealerships were forced to close or sell used cars. When prosperity returned to the nation after World War II, dealers wanted more space so they could stage large outdoor displays and not be confined to small indoor showrooms. That signaled the start of the migration of auto dealers from the downtown central core.

Central Oldsmobile Opens on Olive Way

From 1920 to 1937, the major Oldsmobile dealer in town was Tyson Oldsmobile Company, founded by Charlie (also spelled Charley) Tyson on October 13, 1920. The dealership changed locations several times; in 1937, it was located at 12th Avenue and East Pine Street.

On November 15, 1937, a second Oldsmobile dealer, Central Oldsmobile, Inc., opened its doors at 1017 Olive Way. This dealership was founded by John Riach, a veteran car salesman who had worked at Tyson Oldsmobile since it opened and was then sales manager there. To prepare for the grand opening, the Mediterranean-style two-story building was extensively remodeled, incorporating larger windows and connecting it to the hipped-roof building uphill on Boren. A second story was added to the one-story building along Olive Way. The Seattle Times provided extensive coverage of the new dealership the day before the opening, including photos, feature stories, bios of the key managers and sales staff, and congratulatory display ads placed by colleagues and well-wishers.

J. Lister Holmes, Architect

That November 14 The Seattle Times included an architectural rendering of the new Central Oldsmobile dealership captioned "Building prospectus drawn by J. Lister Holmes, Architect" ("Establishment Efficiently Staffed"), giving rise to the assumption that Holmes prepared the design of the 1937 dealership.

J. Lister Holmes (1891-1986), born in Seattle, received civil engineering training at the University of Washington in 1911 and then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania where he earned a graduate degree in architecture in 1913. Early in his career, around 1920, Holmes worked as a designer with Bebb and Gould, whose firm had designed the 1919 Packard dealership on that same site. In 1922, Holmes established his own firm where he focused initially on commercial buildings, small hotels, and single-family residences.

By the mid-1930s, Holmes began to branch out. One of his most well-known projects was the Washington State Pavilion for the 1939 New York World's Fair. In 1940, he was chief architect on several large public-housing projects with the Seattle Housing Authority. Out of this work came Yesler Terrace, Gatewood Heights, and Seward Park. After World War II, he continued to work on large projects, including municipal buildings, schools, and the Ida Culver House for senior citizens. His career started to wind down in the 1960s. He died in Seattle on July 18, 1986, at the age of 95.

John Riach: Seattle's Dean of Oldsmobile Dealers

For more than 60 years, John Riach was one of Seattle's most well-known automobile dealers. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, he immigrated to Victoria, British Columbia, with his parents when he was 17. During World War I, he was wounded overseas while serving with Canada's 59th Gordon Highlanders.

Riach arrived in Seattle in 1919 and took a job at a Willys-Overland dealership, located at 12th Avenue and East Pine Street on Seattle's first Auto Row. (Willys-Overland would become famous several decades later when the company built some 360,000 jeeps for military use during World War II.)

In 1920, the dealership became Tyson Oldsmobile Company, founded by Charlie Tyson. Riach's role with the company quickly expanded. Originally hired as a bookkeeper, he went on to become an office manager, secretary, treasurer, sales manager/general manager, and vice president.

Riach founded Central Oldsmobile in 1937 while employed as sales manager at Tyson. When Charlie Tyson died in December 1941, Riach bought out his share and became president of Tyson Oldsmobile. Just a few months later, in early 1942, he changed the Tyson dealership name to Riach Oldsmobile.

Riach was a gifted salesman and a savvy businessman. In 1973, Seattle Times automotive-news editor Blaine Schulz noted:

"One of the deans of the dealership business in the Seattle area, having been in the business over a half century, Riach has always had a keen eye for people who can sell -- people who show management ability. In the dealership business, he said, 'you've got to be able to pay your bills.' Many an employe[e] has learned that lesson, and learned it well, from Riach" ("John Riach, Dean ...").

In 1964, Riach consolidated his two car dealerships at Olive Way and Boren Avenue, although he continued to own the property at 12th and Pine. He renamed the business Riach-Central Oldsmobile.

By 1973, Riach was winding down his professional career. He spent his winters at a cabin he owned on the island of Maui, Hawaii. The other half of the year he worked at the dealership as vice president in charge of the leasing operation. Schulz wrote:

"As one of the old-line auto families still in business in Seattle, Riach's name ranks with Savidge, Hawkins, Nelson, Norton, Huling, Malone, Belcourt and Rahe for tenacity ... Riach remembers with great affection the influence of S. E. Skinner, the big man from General Motors who 'built Olds up' ("John Riach, Dean ...").

Donald Riach Grows the Business

John Riach and his wife Maude (1897-1996) had two children: son John Donald (1924-1997) and daughter Mona (1926-2011). Donald Riach, who went by his middle name, graduated from Lakeside School in 1942 and, like his father, served in the military. During World War II, he earned a Bronze Star in Europe with the U.S. Army's 13th Armored Division. He attended the University of Washington where he received a business degree in 1949. He joined his father's car dealership firm that same year and never looked back. He eventually became president and general manager of the firm.

In 1958, the Riachs added a Rambler dealership, Riach Rambler Company, located in the Riach Building at 12th Avenue and East Pine Street, where Riach (formerly Tyson) Oldsmobile was then still operating.

"'We would like to stress,' said Donald Riach, president of the company, upon accepting the franchise, 'that we are not changing products, but adding the Rambler to our present line of Oldsmobiles.' A separate company has been formed to sell and service Ramblers and though the two companies will be housed in the same building, separate sales and service organizations will be maintained" ("Riach Pushes Sales Plans ...").

The Riachs continued to expand, purchasing several more properties at the intersection of Olive and Boren. One property at 1711 Boren Avenue was an irregularly shaped rectangular lot that occupied about half the block. On each side were surface parking lots that housed the Riach used-car inventory. This property was previously owned by Safeway and had been used as a grocery store since 1950. It was altered in several ways to accommodate Riach's specific needs. The building was remodeled so it could comfortably store cars, and the customer parking lot was converted into a used-car lot with offices. The property gave the Riach dealership three high-visibility corners on Olive Way and Boren Avenue.

In a 1966 interview with The Seattle Times, Donald Riach reiterated his interest in remaining in downtown Seattle:

"We have been in Seattle since 1920 and at our present location since 1937. We have sold a lot of automobiles in that time and are now selling more than ever before. This is why we moved to complete our downtown center and become virtually an automobile city within the city.
"This gives us an opportunity to show to the best advantage ... our new Oldsmobiles, including the exciting 1966 Toronado, a large area for a display of our used cars, a large area for storage for new and used cars and an opportunity to give greater service facilities for thousands of customers" ("Riach Moves Used-Car Lot ... ").

Riach Adds Honda Dealership

In 1970, the Riachs were approached by the Honda Corporation and invited to become a Honda dealership. They agreed, calling the new dealership, which made its home on the Olive and Boren campus, Riach-Central Honda.

The Honda Corporation had just entered the U.S. automobile market the year before, making Riach Honda one of the first Northwest dealers to sell the small, economical Japanese-made cars. The fact that a well-established and highly successful car dealership such as Riach jumped into the Honda market helped pave the way for the Northwest community's acceptance of these compact foreign cars. In a 1980 interview, Donald Riach identified a key factor in that process:

"Foreign small cars weren't all that popular at the time, recalls Don Riach ... Drivers were afraid to operate little vehicles on roads dominated by big American models. So sales began 'very quietly.' Then came the energy crunch of 1973-74 and Honda's introduction of a much improved, small, fuel-efficient model called the Civic. Riach's Honda sales shot up and have continued strong since" ("Downtown, Family-owned ...").

By the end of the 1970s, Riach's Honda dealership was doing very well and the company became the number-two Honda dealership in the country, outsold only by Don Lucas Honda in Santa Clara, California.

"Last year, when some dealers were just holding the fort and others were struggling to survive, Riach-Central grossed more than $22 million in revenues from all divisions -- new and used cars, parts and service. The firm sold about 950 new Oldsmobiles and 1,800 Hondas in the year" ("Downtown, Family-owned ...").

Honda Dealership Sold

John Riach remained active in his automotive business, with the title of chairman, until his death on October 6, 1981, at the age of 86. His obituary mentioned he was a member of the Rainier Club, Seattle Golf Club, and Seattle Yacht Club, and that he was a 32nd-degree Mason.

In 1986, Donald Riach sold the Honda dealership to Brad M. Miller and Tom Nicholson, both of Boise, Idaho. The sale did not include the land, which the Riach family retained. The new owners wanted to purchase both of the Riach dealerships, keeping the Honda business at 1017 Olive Way and relocating the Oldsmobile franchise elsewhere. But Oldsmobile had different ideas.

"The new owners had planned to spin off the Oldsmobile dealership into a separate company at another location because of the difficulty in servicing two different types of cars and customers, Miller said. However Oldsmobile decided it wanted to find another dealership" ("Downtown Car Dealership is Sold").

Don Riach died on March 24, 1997, in Maui from complications of pneumonia. He was 72 years old and had lived on Mercer Island for 30 years. A University of Washington Husky football fan, he was also a boating enthusiast. He spent much of his leisure time on his farm on San Juan Island called Cassieford. The farm was named for the farm in Scotland where his father had worked as a teenager before he immigrated to North America.

Honda of Seattle

In 1986, new dealership owners Miller and Nicholson retained the architectural firm of Loschky Marquardt & Nesholm to remodel the interior of 1017 Olive Way, keeping its concrete and masonry exterior intact. George Loschky, Judsen Marquardt, and John Nesholm founded their firm (later called LMN) in 1979 in Seattle. The project's consulting engineers were Andersen Bjornstad Kane and Jacobs of Seattle. Ferrell-Penning, based in Lynnwood, Snohomish County, north of Seattle, was the general contractor.

In 1986, the 1017 Olive Way building consisted of a basement, first and second floors, and a roof with a small penthouse in the northeast corner. The first floor housed a new-car showroom, offices, and parts department, with a service area at the back. A second outdoor exit was added to the building. The dealership retained its original mill construction and wood-plank floors. With construction of the Metro Bus Tunnel Convention Place Station in the late 1980s, an alley on the western side of the building served in essence as a private access drive because it ran along the station's retaining walls. A 2011 description in an auto-industry publication noted:

"In the underground parts warehouse, heavy timbers that support the building are exposed. A 22,000-square-foot service department on the second floor -- accessible by means of a spiral ramp -- houses 30 cramped service bays that are pointed any way they can fit" (Rechtin).

In the busy downtown setting, logistics for the movement of cars could be tricky:

"Hondas waiting for service are parked off-site, blocks away. The service department's one exit is onto a busy street that usually only allows right turns. Because of the street layout, an eight-block loop is required to return a finished car to the dealership driveway" (Rechtin).

Despite the challenges, Honda of Seattle remained at 1017 Olive Way for nearly 20 years until March 2015, when the dealership moved to a new, six-story, 400,000 square-foot facility at 1925 Airport Way S, in the SoDo area south of downtown, sharing the building with Toyota of Seattle. Both dealerships were owned by Miller-Nicholson Inc.

Company president Brad Miller cited three reasons why he chose to relocate to SoDo: easier access to I-5, more visibility, and closer proximity to a Mercedes-Benz dealership. "Miller said car dealers have tight margins and can't afford expensive downtown properties and the corresponding taxes. That has put him on the prowl for a new location for the past decade" ("Auto Dealers Find Refuge ...").

Before the move, in 2014, the Olive and Boren campus, then owned by the Riach family trust known as Cassieford Co. of Auburn, had been sold for $56.5 million to the Washington State Convention Center. The sale enabled a $1.6 billion expansion of the convention center to go forward. One reporter noted at the time of the sale that, in addition to a planned 200,000-square-foot expansion over the Convention Place Station, "building under the Cassieford properties would create another 100,000 square feet, for a total of 505,000 square feet" including the existing 200,000 (Stiles). As of fall 2018, the convention center expansion project was slated for completion in 2021.


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