UW 150: Downtown Real Estate Helps Fund University

Dec 14, 2012

In Downtown Seattle, near where the Fairmont Olympic Hotel now stands, history was made back in 1861. The University of Washington was founded at this spot by a small group of local boosters, with the blessing of the Territorial Legislature. Seattle pioneer Arthur Denny donated the land. A single hall was built that housed the UW during the school's early decades, but the UW outgrew its first campus, and had to move and leave behind the old downtown site.

When the UW moved to its current campus in 1895, the regents put the downtown land up for sale to raise money for the school. But the country was in the midst of a multi-year financial crisis called "The Panic of 1893." It was the biggest economic collapse of the 19th century. Banks failed and railroads went bankrupt. Millions lost their jobs, and the money supply dried up.

And so the downtown land sat vacant, but the UW still needed money for the new campus. But, because of the tough economy, a buyer could not be found.

This was fortunate, however, because within a few years, the Panic ended and the economy recovered. By the turn of the 20th century, America and Seattle were booming once again, and the old campus had become valuable real estate.

And this time, rather raise money by selling the land, the UW struck a deal with James A. Moore.  Moore was a Seattle real estate developer, and the man who built the Moore Theatre and several other buildings around the city.  UW decided to lease the downtown land to Moore so that he could to put up buildings and generate revenue for the school. But the aging Moore struggled with the project, and the promised income for the UW never materialized.

One man who came to Seattle in those booming years was an energetic young Yale-educated attorney known as J.F. Douglas. In 1907, Douglas contacted James Moore. The two men met, and Douglas offered an unsolicited set of 21 specific steps he thought would help move Moore's downtown development project forward.

At a luncheon in 2003, Jim Douglas, the late son of J.F. Douglas, described what happened next.

"Mr. Moore listened to this presentation and finally said, 'Mr. Douglas, why don't you form a company and buy the lease from me?'  Well, there were a couple of problems in that.  One was at that time his net worth was $5 and a gold watch, and the watch was in the pawn shop rather frequently," Douglas said.

But J.F. Douglas knew an opportunity when he saw one. In just 60 days, he raised enough money buy the lease from James Moore. And unlike Moore, Douglas didn't waste any time developing the property.  But the first step he took was to get professional help with design -- not just for a single building, but for the entire 10 acres.

Jim Douglas said that his father reached out to a well-known firm. "So he called in a firm, Howells and Stokes, one of the outstanding architectural firms of the country at that time," Douglas said. "He gave them the assignment of laying out the property for its eventual development."

This sophisticated approach to urban planning -- to come up with a design for entire blocks of buildings -- was unprecedented in Seattle, and just about everywhere else at that time.  But the 10 acres of vacant land in the middle of a growing American city was also very unusual.

Before anything was even built, the Howells and Stokes plan was displayed at exhibitions around the country. Critics hailed it as a masterpiece. One expert described the scope and scale of project as the creation of a new "city within a city."

Douglas took the plan and went to work, lining up investors and building some of Seattle's most enduring early 20th century landmarks: the Cobb Building, one of the first anywhere to be designed especially for medical and dental offices; the Olympic, still Seattle's grandest hotel; and the Stimson Building, with the city's most distinctive performance venue, the Fifth Avenue Theatre.

It took about 20 years to build most of the buildings. The project began producing revenue for Douglas and for the UW almost immediately, and the downtown land remains a gold mine for the school. As of 2012, it generates about $8 million of net revenue in support of the University every year.

For people who pass by this spot in Downtown Seattle by vehicle, there's only one visible reminder of the neighborhood's 1861 roots: those green and white signs on the corners that say "University Street."