Sam Israel was the largest private owner of properties in downtown Seattle and in Pioneer Square, a slum landlord credited with preserving much of Seattle's architectural heritage because of what has been termed his benign neglect. In addition to the 40 properties he owned in Seattle, 14 of which were in Pioneer Square, he had acquired land in Seattle neighborhoods, on Mercer Island, and thousands of acres in Grant, Snohomish, Whatcom, Jefferson, Kitsap, and Grays Harbor counties.
It is in Seattle where he earned the name slum landlord because, except for the roofs of his buildings, he made no repairs. Tenants were informed upon renting that any repairs or upgrades would be their responsibility because he was charging less than the market value. Year after year he bought property, some on contract with a small down payment on each piece and some with cash. At his death in 1994 these valuable pieces of Pioneer Square property stood for the most part in their original historic state.
Sam Israel was born on March 4, 1889, on the Island of Rhodes to Sarota (Sarah) and Yitzhak (Isaac) Israel. They were a Sephardic Jewish family that emigrated to Seattle in 1919. (Sephardic Jews are descendants of Jews from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East. The Island of Rhodes is located in the Aegean Sea near Turkey and was a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912, when Italians controlled it. In 1948 it was united with Greece.)
Yitzhak Israel had been a merchant on Rhodes, a wholesale distributor of olive oil, charcoal, and cigarette paper. Sam Israel attended the Alliance School, sponsored by the Italian government, until he was 13 years old. He knew Ladino, Greek, Italian, and Turkish and was apprenticed to a Greek shoe maker. The family left to avoid conscription into the army following the departure of two older sons.
Once in Seattle, they settled in the Central Area near other Sephardic Jews in a home at 1907 East Spruce Street and worshipped at the Ezra Bessaroth Synagogue newly built in 1916 at 15th Avenue and Fir Street. (The congregation had previously worshiped at Washington Hall which was designated a Seattle Landmark in 2009. In 1958, the congregation moved to the new Ezra Bessaroth Synagogue in Seward Park.) Sam Israel, who had arrived at about age 20 with $900 from his earnings in Rhodes, bought a house at 1805 E Spruce Street.
The Shoe Business
Sam Israel started a shoe business producing custom-made shoes, but soon found little profit there so switched to repairing shoes. His firm, Rotary Shoe Repair, was located at 224 Madison and later, by the early 1930s, he had established his Wing Foot Shoe Renewal business at 1609 3rd Avenue. By this time he had already acquired property in Pioneer Square.
He had started bringing in shoes from army bases to repair so when the United States entered World War II, he negotiated a contract with the military to repair boots from Fort Lawton and Fort Lewis. Truckloads of shoes were sent to his shop, then known as the Wing Foot Boot and Shoe Renewal at 3rd Avenue and Lenora Street. The contract stated that he was to receive $1 for each repair. He sent invoice after invoice, but was never paid so had to borrow money from the bank to pay his 20 employees.
After the war he was reimbursed several million dollars. This was indeed a coup and he began increasing his real-estate portfolio. He trained his brothers, Jack, David, John, and Morris, to be shoe repairmen and they all opened up their own shops.
Purchasing Real Estate
Sam Israel began purchasing real estate in the 1920s, with the intent to always buy and never sell. His impetus for buying land came from the history of Jewish persecution and the inability of Jewish people to own land. He bought land with almost religious fervor and almost never sold although he was known to exchange property, not at a loss.
"Jews couldn't buy land for many years." he said, "By nature, Jews protect themselves. It was a curse of God that they should be strangers in every land but the promised land" (Seven).
In fact, Sam Israel sold only two of his properties, one to the architect Ralph Anderson, who bought the Union Trust Building, and the other located north of Pioneer Square.
Listed below are some of the Pioneer Square buildings that Sam Israel owned at his death in 1994:
Drexel Hotel 519 3rd Avenue
Yesler Buildilng 95 Yesler Street
Butler Block 601 2nd Avenue
Collins Building 520 2nd Avenue
Northern Hotel 169 1st Avenue
Blumenthal Building 122 S Jackson
Corona Hotel 604 2nd Avenue
Schwabacher Building 165 1st Avenue
Washington Shoe Building 400 Occidental
Osborn Ulland Building 308 3rd Avenue S
Hartford Building 600 2nd Avenue
U.S. Rubber Building 319 3rd Avenue
Mottman Building 307 3rd Avenue S
Scientific Building Occidental and Jackson
On Mercer Island: Bare Necessities
In 1927 he bought waterfront property at Faben Point on the west shore of Mercer Island. He had spotted the property to be sold at auction during one of his hikes around the island. In the 1930s he began living in the modest -- to put it mildly -- home he built there.
This residence contained only the bare necessities of life and the grounds were littered with useless items such as a World War II army ambulance, a VW bug, jeeps, and a passenger bus. The sparse furnishings in the house included an orthopedic bed.
It was this property that prompted his nephews to seek an incompetence ruling in 1990 when Mr. Israel was negotiating to sell it to a developer, an action that flew in the face of his credo to buy and never sell.
Sam Israel's 1960s: Grant County and Soap Lake
In the 1940s Mr. Israel began buying large amounts of property in Grant County including a ranch in Soap Lake, a favorite gathering place for Italians, Greeks, and Jews from Seattle. The area was particularly pleasing to him because its waters had been a comfort to his mother, who suffered from arthritis, and the area, with its arid climate, also reminded him fondly of the Island of Rhodes. A view from his ranch, as far as the eye could see, showed land belonging to him. He also owned most of the property on Main Street in downtown Ephrata.
He moved to Soap Lake in 1961. Living a reclusive life on his ranch, which was surrounded by "No Tresspassing" signs, he kept a shotgun handy in case of intruders. He dressed like a bum, wore flannel shirts and tennis shoes with no socks. He drove a jeep with cobwebs in the corners and milk cartons for seats.
With an annual income of $650,000, he chose to live off of his social security, but continued to buy property and kept tabs on Seattle by phone. He loved going to auctions and the ranch was littered with old vehicles, mail delivery trucks, road graders, and bull dozers he bought. His pack of dogs ran freely on the ranch. He bought a herd of Hereford cattle from the Boeing family; because he didn't believe in butchering, they eventually died of old age.
Sam Israel lived in a migrant shack until his sister, Bona Hasson, persuaded him to move into the former caretaker's house with its two bedrooms and a kitchen-living room. She would visit him often from Seattle with her car filled with baked Sephardic foods. Because he refused to leave his animals, she and her husband sacrificed their Seattle comforts to move into Mr. Israel's house and take care of the cattle and dogs in order for him to make his one and only visit to Israel in the 1970s.
In 1997, Central Washington University completed an archeological investigation on the officially named Sam Israel Site, an area at the north end of Soap Lake. This was an important study in the Grand Coulee and Columbia Plateau, with faunal analysis.
The Samis Foundation
Sam Israel was a self-directed man who wanted to do things his way and so in 1979 he set out to write provisions for his Samis Foundation. He soon found out that the papers would have to be written by an attorney. In 1987 the foundation was created. From his vast fortune he designated all to go to the foundation except for an amount to care for his sister until her death in 2001. Specific directions for the foundation were that money was to go for Jewish education, for emigrants to settle in Israel, and for archeology and environmental exploration in Israel. The foundation has granted more than $35 million and continues to increase both its income and Sam Israel's legacy.
The trustees of the Foundation are appointed for life or until they resign or are ruled incompetent. There must always be one rabbi as a trustee, who is to pick his successor. After Mr. Israel's death, the trustees recognized the need for professional advice and so they had the University of Washington's Center for Community Development and Real Estate assess the portfolio. Under Bob Filly, all of the properties were categorized by location and a plan was made indicating those which should be kept, those which were losers and should be sold, those which should be retained for the future and those which should be developed. Filly also advised Samis to hire an experienced, full-time executive to manage the portfolio.
The Samis Land Company, which manages and develops property for the Samis Foundation, hired William Justen to handle the real-estate portfolio. He was former director of the City's Department of Construction and Land Use and has handled several major projects from converting Lake Union's steam plant into the ZymoGenetics research lab to helping restore Pike Place Market.
Some of the buildings that the Samis Foundation has improved are the Scientific Building, the Hartford Building, the U.S. Rubber Building, and the Mottman Building. The Northern Hotel, Collins Building, and the Washington Shoe Building, among others, have also been renovated. Samis bought the Smith Tower in 1997 at auction and restored it. A few years later it was sold.
One example of a Samis grant is the one given in 2009 to the Jerusalem College of Technology to assist Ethiopian immigrant students attending the institution.
A Generous Eccentric
Despite his personal frugality and strange ways of living, Sam Israel exhibited some heartwarming characteristics. When one of his young relatives was experiencing teenaged angst, he brought him to his home on Mercer Island and drove him everyday across the bridge to Garfield High School until he was able to go back to his family home.
In an effort to teach economy to a group of children in Soap Lake, he gave each $20 and opened bank accounts for them explaining that if they let the money stay in the bank without touching it, they would end up being rich like him.
He built a camp for Boy Scouts on his property, lectured at schools and churches on Judaism and bought a bell for a tower at an Ephrata Methodist Church. His low rents in Pioneer Square enabled many artists and small businesses to thrive.
Ruby Montana, one of his tenants in Pioneer Square, said that she owed her business career to Sam Israel because he encouraged her to quit her teaching job at Roosevelt High School and devote all of her time to her collectables business.
He paid off the mortgage on Seattle Hebrew Day School and made an initial investment in Mercer Island's Northwest Yeshiva High School, the only Jewish high school in the Northwest.
Hobbies and Interests
Mr. Israel led an interesting life. In the early years he was very athletic with a wonderful physique. He skied, swam, and taught boxing at the YMCA. On two occasions, he climbed Mount Rainier with his only food being chicken drumsticks.
He was musical, playing a banjo and a mandolin. As a member of a band, he played gigs at the Orpheum Theatre. He had a great gun collection and was an avid game hunter. Photography was another one of his hobbies and he excelled in making movies of his Sephardic friends. His still photography was exceptional with some hanging in businesses in Ephrata.
Sam Israel suffered a stroke in 1989 and was moved from Soap Lake to Seattle. He spent the last five years of his life in the Caroline Kline Galland Home in Seward Park, a Jewish retirement facility.
Sam Israel died on June 11, 1994. He was buried with other members of his family in the Sephardic Brotherhood Cemetery in north Seattle.