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Originally published May 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 5, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Throughout Seattle, vintage condos conserve character

This 1930 building near Seattle Center retains such vintage features as arched doorways, divided-pane Palladian windows, glass doorknobs...

Special to The Seattle Times

The vintage brick buildings standing across the street from each other in the shadow of the Space Needle have survived Seattle's booms and busts, earthquakes and even the 1962 World's Fair that knocked down some of their stately neighbors.

Now they are surviving another threat — Seattle's hot real-estate market that could have led to them being razed for new, bigger condominium buildings.

But Seattle developer Ben Rankin, who grew up on the East Coast in a house built in the 1880s, didn't want to do that. Instead, he's restoring them to their former glory and turning them into condos.

"There are a lot easier ways to make money in real estate," said Rankin, who enjoys working on old buildings. "This involves a degree of craftsmanship and creativity. And it's just fun."

He's not alone. A growing number of developers throughout the region and across the nation are rehabbing historic-lookingbuildings and turning them into new condos with an old look.

It's a trend that has caught on strong in Seattle, with such places as the former Queen Anne High School, the Cobb Building downtown and the former Bekins storage facility on 12th and Madison being transformed into condos. There even has been talk of doing that to Seattle's first skyscraper, the Smith Tower office building in Pioneer Square.

"It doesn't surprise me," said Matthew Gardner, a Seattle real-estate economist. "In Seattle, we rather like these adaptive reuses. We don't like to throw things away. We like older buildings."

Major makeover

On one side of Warren Avenue North just up from Denny Way is The Pittsburgh, a 100-year-old two-building complex that's getting a major makeover to showcase its original Brazilian cherry floors, built-in bookshelves with leaded glass doors, solid-fir banisters and claw-foot tubs.

Across the street is Queen's Court, circa 1930, which also is being rehabbed to show off its stained-glass windows, crown molding, original glass fixtures and the little doors behind which milk bottles were placed inside insulated boxes.

"Each building is different," says Rankin, developer and co-owner of Pioneer Property Group, which is turning both apartment complexes into condominiums.

"The best buildings have both the great old details and still feel lively."

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Rankin, who also has been involved in the Seattle theater community, has four such vintage projects in the works — the two near Seattle Center, the Betsy Ross building in the Central Area and the Nord building in Pioneer Square.

Rankin declined to say how much he is spending on renovating older buildings.

But he said it can cost as much to refurbish one unit as a typical homeowner might spend to remodel a whole house.

For example, one glass door that is being replaced in the main hallway of the Betsy Ross will cost more than $4,500, Rankin said.

Changes lauded

When contacted about the changes at The Pittsburgh, a couple of former residents said they were pleased to hear the news.

"I'm glad to hear The Pittsburgh will be saved and that the building will get people in there who care about it," says Gary Crevling, 56, who lived there from 1983 to 1989."It suffered from years of neglect."

When Crevling first moved into his apartment, the ceiling, walls and the floor were all painted black.

He used six coats of paint to lighten it up and then refinished the floors himself.

Most of the residents of The Pittsburgh at that time were artists and musicians, many of whom still keep in touch, said Crevling, who was hooked on the building the minute he walked beneath the archway that reads "The Pittsburgh."

But he had to put his name on a waiting list and finally moved in two years later, paying $165 a month rent.

Cold days

The tenants often did their own repairs in the low-rent apartments, said Crevling, who now lives in the Green Lake area.

"The water pressure was so bad that I had to turn on the faucet in the morning to fill up the tub and then go back to bed," said Tom Dingillo, 62, who lived in the Pittsburgh from 1973 through 1986, where his rent increased from $150 to $250 a month.

Dingillo said he finally moved out when one chilly winter morning he could see his breath inside the apartment because the radiator had stopped working.

Fate of renters

What happens to the renters in an older building that is being converted to condos?

Most of the time, they have to move if they don't want to buy.

But not always.

"There are always a few people who need extra help, and a responsible developer finds out who they are and tries to assist them," said Rankin, who said he is allowing several elderly residents and those with special circumstances to remain in their units and rent at their original rate for as long as they need to.

State law requires developers to give tenants the opportunity to buy or at least 90 days notice before they have to move.

Seattle also requires developers to provide $500 in relocation expenses for those who earn less than 80 percent of median income in Seattle — about $3,475 per month for one person.

To many, though, converting older apartment buildings into condos is preferable to tearing them down because many people then own a part of it and are more likely to preserve it than if it were owned by a single property owner who controls its fate, says Lawrence Kreisman of Historic Seattle, a nonprofit group.

"We encourage adaptive use of older buildings," Kreisman says, "which is a far better and environmentally sound solution than demolishing them for new developments."

Eye for detail

But it takes some work, from fixing little things to big.

The plumbing and wiring in The Pittsburgh and Queen's Court have been replaced, and Rankin says that he becomes obsessed with the detail work.

"The more you do it, the more addicting it is."

He hired a local glass artist to match a missing piece of glass in a chandelier in the Queen's Court, rather than replacing the fixture.

There are other unique challenges to rehabbing old buildings.

Rankin found that potential buyers who toured Queen's Court expected to have washers and dryers in their units, something that he had not originally planned.

Parking also can be an issue with older buildings that have no off-street parking or garages, and are in densely populated neighborhoods, such as Lower Queen Anne.

Crevling said he memorized the schedule of Seattle Sonic home games to prepare for nights when finding a parking space would be difficult.

From storage to condos

Up at the corner of 12th Avenue and East Madison Street, near Seattle University, is a landmark building that once housed Bekins Moving & Storage, and later an athletic-supply company.

Outside are signs announcing that the old building is becoming Trace Lofts. The once-empty building is considered an "adaptive reuse" project, not a condo conversion.

"It was pretty likely that someone would have torn that building down," said Trace developer Ted Schroth, who started his career remodeling older houses on Queen Anne Hill. "And it would have been more profitable to do that, but saving the building was the right thing to do."

One thing he had workers do was remove and replace more than 450 damaged bricks on the building.

The basement is full of dusty tarps that cover objects from its 88-year history — dozens of Singer sewing machines from the 1920s with ornate foot pedals, steel rails from the long-gone Madison Street trolley line, original oak elevator doors and an enormous fire alarm.

Schroth, who bought one of the Trace units himself, is incorporating those items, once seen as junk and abandoned, into the building as sculptures and artwork.

Trace Lofts will have 42 units, some with original quilted copper and steel fire doors that will be on rollers and can be used to separate the large open rooms. Trace Lofts solved its parking problem by adding a new building called Trace North, creating parking for both buildings, along with 100 new units.

Schroth says that adaptive reuse of such abandoned buildings is important because it adds housing without taking anything away.

Plus, those old brick and terra-cotta buildings constructed generations ago with materials and skills hard to find today are something special, according to Schroth.

"You can't build stuff like that anymore," he says.

Seattle Times Business desk editor Bill Kossen contributed to this report.

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