May 2004: Ken Alhadeff: Developer, Philanthropist
Conducted by Heather MacIntosh

In this interview, Ken Alhadeff, descended from a long line of Seattle developers, talks about the value of history and our city's historic buildings, and his firm's work on the Coliseum Theater (now the Banana Republic), and the Majestic Bay Theater project in Ballard.

KA: Our family came to Seattle right around the time of the Civil War. One of my great great grandparents was the first Jewish couple married in Oregon territory, so the history goes back generations. My great grandfather was in liquor distributing when it was legal and when it wasn't. And came from Poland on my mother's side, and then my grandfather on my fathers side at the turn of the century came from the island of Rhodes. My grandfather went away to college, to Exeter finishing school, and then he went to Brown University and was an accomplished football player and shot put thrower. When he was about ten his father gave him a day at the racetrack and he fell in love with horses.

When he got back to Seattle he got involved in real estate, in some of the major acquisitions and purchases and structures we would now call the existing downtown core. Our family was involved in the development of the Coliseum Theater which we still own to this day which was built in 1914, which has a very relevant place in the history of this place, of Seattle, and the country because it was the nation's first grand movie house.

Prior to that the grand movie theaters were converted vaudeville houses. And in the middle of the construction (of the Coliseum Theater), P. Marcus Priteca was the architect, the lead architect for Pantages, they realized that the movies were becoming very very popular and by minimizing the depth of stage and doing interior changes because of the lighting being low for a movie they could get 800 more people in there and spend a lot less money on the interior and so they'd build a movie theater that had no depth of stage and no ability to be used for vaudeville and it was the first grand one in America. And it now sits on the National Historic register.

The key thing with the adaptive reuse was to protect the beautiful exterior façade and terra cotta work which some consider to be the finest in this country. We were not able to save it as a movie theater, it was a 1700 seat single screen, one concession movie theater downtown, and quite bluntly, the artistic majesty of the place was on the exterior, not on the interior. So we were able to do that, and I was very proud and excited to be a part of that project.

HM: What do you imagine to be your legacy in Seattle's built environment, based on your family's legacy and how do you think that translates into your ethic today?

KA: So we added some buildings (to our portfolio) like the Broderick Building, and the MJA Building which is near the Broadacres Building which is where Nordstrom Rack is. And we've always had a great passion and reverence for the fabric and the energy of architecture as it relates to the American journey and the importance of it in that era, "who we were is who we are" has some relevance.

I just personally feel very passionate about the blending of form and function, and that the artistic nature of structure has something to do with the soul of it. It isn't just about how can we get the most square footage out of it.

Design, art and culture is a part of the fabric of the human soul. It has to do with our dignity and our sensibility.

But there's a balance in it. To be very honest, at this very time, we're about to have this building, that was built in the 1920s, with some terra cotta relief on it, the MJA building, we're looking for the opportunity to not have to keep that building because it's a teeny little building on a corner and on that site we would like to build a large building.

It's a balance. Every single old building can't be saved and in that case, we've done such a great job of taking care of it that they probably don't want to let us take it down. I've never found myself on the other side of saving a building. What our family has done is trusted our heart, as corny as that sounds, and our head to balance it.

If it was purely money, there is no question that the Coliseum Theater site on Fifth Avenue in downtown Seattle (would have come down), that 2 or 3 story building is a place where we could have put a 25 story office tower - we would have made millions and millions of dollars -- that just wasn't an option for us. Because that piece, that building is a cornerstone of a time gone by. But the building on Second Avenue isn't. It's not an all-or-nothing proposal how you blend historic Seattle.

Our family feels very passionately about the blend of real estate that we have the our responsibility to the social welfare of the community, the artistic community and social services, and providing access and opportunity for people to gather together to do that righteous work that we all can do. And it comes from a deep place in our heart. Our foundation and our family's mission is to bring out the light with the blessings we've been given, and use them as a platform on which to reach others, whether its homelessness project or sexual assault or honoring teachers. We try to stimulate the fire in the heart of teachers that goes out because of insensitive parents, frustrated kids, not enough money for books, too big classes, an uninspiring superintendent, but no one can take the fire away from those teachers if they don't let it go out because when they shut the door it's just them and the kids.

The way we tried to translate that into our buildings that way is that we respect the people who work in them and we try to make them safe, and we keep them in good repair and keep them seismically upgraded so that they'll be safe. When I look at the cost of upgrading the building versus the revenue stream, what I really think about are the children of the people who work in my buildings. If I had to look in their eyes the day after an earthquake, would I be able to look at them?

HM: So you're more of a philanthropist/humanist than a real estate developer?

KA: Real estate is a vehicle that provides the resources. if you take a philanthropic view of your business, you're business will succeed, because I believe in the long term value of doing things the right way.

Majestic Bay Theater in Ballard

KA: About 1998, I was really feeling a calling to be back in a publicly presenting business, like the racetrack. The racetrack was a place where we served the public. We opened the doors, and we showed. And we had no business without the talent. And I knew that for my children, they were missing something very important. I didn't want children to grow up sitting and reading … I wanted them to feel the fabric of business.

I've always enjoyed films, I'm not a fanatic, but they're a window to life and can inspire the soul and entertain and teach and they are what they are. And as a little boy growing up in Seward Park I would tredge out to the American theater and the Columbia and in those days they would give us a dollar and I could take a friend, we both got in for a quarter, and we could both get in for a quarter, and we both could get a bite, popcorn for five cents, Coke for five cents, Dove Bar for five cents, we'd have a heck of a day for a dollar.

So my vice president said there was this old theater in Ballard. It was all boarded up, so we took a look at it, and we found out some fascinating things very quickly. It opened up in 1914 as the Majestic, in 1928 it became the Roxy, in 1947 the Bay, then she closed in '97 according to the UCLA film library, she was the longest running movie theater.

So that immediately struck to my heart and it also became very clear that Ballard really loved it. One of the old wonderful places hidden in Seattle where people can reach others… just had that kind of feeling … after a time I just said, "let's do this." And I didn't know enough about the industry to know that you just don't have single screen theaters anymore, that its all controlled by mega companies, and without doing multiple screens you can't succeed, I didn't understand that.

Well we found out really quickly that from a design standpoint that that building was falling apart. The boards were actually rotten and the building wasn't safe. Then I had to decide that if we built a new building, would it still have the historical relevance. I came to the conclusion that since there had been a physical theater in the middle of the block, a movie house there, 90 years almost, that yes (it would). If we moved it a mile away, no.

So we originally were going to build one screen but we found out very quickly that without more than one screen we wouldn't get rotations of movies and the movie would be there for two months - so we started to build the design where I simply wanted yesterday's format with tomorrow's technology. I didn't want to build a new building to look like an old building, but I wanted to build a new building that had the elegance, style, grace and energy that went beyond pure function.

Four or five restaurants have opened since we opened, Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. On a successful weekend we're bringing 5-7,000 people into downtown Ballard. We're looking for the opportunity to replicate this in other Seattle neighborhoods at a little larger scale, but maybe not as elegant because I can't to be honest, I can't afford to do that again, but with a traditional marquee, and with a real movie theater feel, not like a box in a mall. There's a place for this kind of presentation.

My granddad told me, "you're shoes might be alligator, but you only wear one pair at a time. It's not about how much, its about how. And more isn't better. Better is better.

We've got to have the courage to protect what's significant and the vision to make room for the future. That's usually where there's the dilemma. We have people who say we should protect every old building. Then we have people that say we need to build for the future. What we need is the blend. Seattle needs to celebrate its past and prepare for the future.

The beauty of the Coliseum is that it's a vibrant functioning building that was built in downtown Seattle in 1914. If the rule was you had to keep it a movie theater or nothing, it would be a nothing. The exciting story there is that she was reborn. The subplot there is that that someday, just maybe, she'll be a grand presenting hall again. We did what we needed to do to keep that dream alive.

We just have to figure out our priorities. Every time we do the kind of work that Historic Seattle does, we're putting our heart ahead of our pocketbook. That's what it's about. In almost every case, you just have to let it go. We ask, what does it mean to us? What are our values?

That's what it's all about.

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