James M. Ryan was born on April 16, 1908, in Grant County, Wisconsin. His parents were L. J. and Mary Stevens Ryan. Ryan was educated in public schools in Great Falls, Montana, and at the University of Washington. While at the University of Washington he pledged the Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
From 1927 to 1929 Ryan worked in the rental department of West and Wheeler Real Estate in Seattle, moving to the rental department of John Davis and Co. (also in Seattle), where he remained until 1931.
On November 27, 1931, Ryan married Lillian A. Burns of Seattle. The couple moved to Portland, where Ryan took a position as manager of the Terminal Sales Building and the Mead Building. They had two children, Joanna and James B. In 1937 the Ryan family returned to Seattle and James Ryan began work as the assistant manager of the Dexter Horton Building, a position he held until 1941. From 1941 to 1953, Ryan served as general manager of Vance Properties.
The UW's Downtown Tract
In 1953 Ryan was named president of University Properties in Seattle, later known as UNICO Properties. University Properties was founded by real estate entrepreneur and theatrical producer Roger L. Stevens and a group of private investors to develop and operate the University of Washington’s Metropolitan Tract.
The Metropolitan Tract is a 10-acre parcel of choice real estate in the heart of downtown Seattle. The parcel was donated by Seattle pioneers Arthur A. Denny (1822-1899), Charles Terry (1829-1867), and Edward Lander 1816-1907). From 1861 to 1895 the original Washington Territorial University was located on this land. The boundaries of the University grounds were 4th Avenue to 5th Avenue between Union and Seneca streets.
When in 1895 the University of Washington moved north to its present location on the shore of Lake Washington, the school retained ownership of the downtown tract of land. Originally the Board of Regents planned to plat and sell the property. Eventually they decided to lease it as a whole. From November 4 to December 1907, James A. Moore leased the land. Moore then transferred the lease to the Metropolitan Building Company. The Metropolitan Building Company was required by the terms of the lease to make permanent improvements to the tract, i.e., to construct permanent buildings of high quality that would attract business and generate Seattle’s growth while ensuring returns on the University’s investment. During this time the White, Stewart, Cobb, Douglas, Stimson, and Skinner buildings were constructed, as were the Metropolitan Theatre and the Olympic Hotel.
When this lease expired in 1953, University Properties was formed and awarded the new lease on the Metropolitan Tract. In The First Century at the University of Washington, Charles M. Gates states:
“Management of the Metropolitan Tract had a tremendous importance ... the renegotiation was carefully studied some years before the old agreement expired, and new terms were agreed upon that smoothed the transition to the second lease period and minimized the deterioration of the property. The responsibility of the regents to the state was safeguarded and every effort was made to secure provisions which would continue the high-quality development of the tract and bring maximum returns to the University ... The University itself did not undertake the direct management of the property, but it did establish the conditions under which it would be operated. In return for such control the University pledged itself to invest a portion of the income derived from rentals in the improvement of the buildings” (p. 215).James Ryan was hired to manage this complicated process. In 1975 Ryan gave up the presidency of UNICO Properties and became the board chairman.
The IBM Building, the Uniguard Financial Tower, the Rainier Bank Tower and Rainier Square complex, and the Washington Building (later Puget Sound Plaza) were among the major downtown buildings that rose under James Ryan’s long tenure at UNICO Properties. The Rainier Bank Tower, designed by Minoru Yamasaki (who would go on to design the World Trade Center in New York City), was extremely controversial because of its unusual design (an office tower atop a tapered pedestal atop a block-wide shopping area).
In addition to managing the Metropolitan Tract, UNICO Properties built and managed its own development, Union Square. Ryan also served on a mayoral advisory board to develop what is now Westlake Park and Westlake Center.
To Develop or To Preserve?
As he reshaped the Seattle skyline, Ryan sometimes found himself at odds with historic preservationists. In 1974 preservationists battled to save the historic White-Henry-Stewart buildings and annex but were unsuccessful. Rainier Tower and Rainier Square rose in their wake. The historic Metropolitan Theater was razed during an expansion of the Olympic Hotel.
But sometimes Ryan took the preservationists’ side of the battle. In 1978 Ryan was part of a group of downtown corporations and business owners organized by Roger Stevens who rallied to save the grand Chinese-themed 5th Avenue Theatre from demolition. The group formed the non-profit 5th Avenue Theatre Association and underwrote a 2.5 million dollar loan to restore, preserve, and revitalize the historic venue. The theater was restored using this private money. The 5th Avenue Theatre is located in the Skinner Building at 1308 5th Avenue.
At the time, UNICO Properties vice-chairman was Roger L. Stevens. Stevens, at one time the owner of the Empire State Building in New York City, was the moving force behind the development of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Stevens encouraged and supported Ryan’s efforts to save the 5th Avenue Theatre.
Downtown Seattle Development Association
In 1978, James Ryan, William Street, Edward Carlson, Joe Gandy, and other downtown-area business leaders founded the Downtown Seattle Development Association. The organization was intended to promote the concerns of downtown business and property owners more specifically than was the scope of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to his work in Seattle, Ryan also served as a consultant to large developments in other cities, including the World Trade Center twin towers.
In 1979 the Downtown Seattle Association named James M. Ryan “Mr. Downtown.” The title recognized Ryan’s successful efforts to build and maintain a vital downtown area for the city. Polly Lane, real estate editor for The Seattle Times, stated, “Ryan says the success of the UNICO-UW relationship, which dates back to 1954, is due to a recognition that there must be a mix of types of tenants and uses in a 10-acre holding of its type in the center of downtown. For instance, though the Olympic Hotel site would make a profitable office building location, Ryan believes its use as a hotel, to provide meeting places and overnight accommodations for business customers in the area, is of more importance” (“City Will Give ‘Mr. Downtown’ Deserved Acclaim”).
A First Citizen
On December 21, 1980 the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors announced that James Ryan was the recipient of its prestigious annual First Citizen award. Ryan was presented with the award at a civic banquet at the Washington Plaza Hotel on March 6, 1981. The First Citizen Award recognizes outstanding personal contributions toward the enrichment of the Seattle community. In announcing the award, The Seattle Times noted that Ryan’s “main thrust has always been to enhance Seattle, though it’s always been his choice to turn down the presidency of the many organizations he served including the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the downtown association. ‘I’ve always felt I could be more effective in the background,’ he once said in an interview. But his colleagues say they never thought of him as being in the background because of his drive and leadership in getting things done for the community” (“Ryan Chosen as First Citizen”).
Ryan served on the Board of Trustees of the Central Association, United Way of King County, United Good Neighbors, and the University of Washington Alumni Association, and on the steering committee and Board of Directors for the Century 21 Exhibition. He was vice-president of the Seattle-King County Chamber of Commerce and president of the Building Owners and Managers Association. A member of the Board of Governors of the Washington Athletic Club, Ryan also belonged to the Seattle Golf Club, the Seattle Yacht Club, and the Rainier Club, which he served as president in 1964. He retired from UNICO in 1989.
James Ryan died on April 27, 1992, at the age of 84. Famed downtown restaurateur Victor Rosellini told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Ryan "protected that downtown like his family ... the great thing about him was his feelings for his tenants. He wanted them happy, and his handshake was as good as a contract” (“James Ryan, Mr. Downtown Seattle, Is Dead”).
A public memorial for James Ryan was held, appropriately, in downtown Seattle at the heart of the Metropolitan Tract, near the clock tower at Fifth Avenue and University Street. Ryan was laid to rest at Calvary Cemetery in Seattle.