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Six Seattle Real Estate Dynasties


We've covered the real estate dynasties of several markets (New York, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, MiamiLA and DC), and it was only a matter of time until we looked to the Pacific Northwest. Here are some of Seattle's oldest real estate families.

The Smith Family


Year Founded: The third-party management firm Martin Smith Inc was founded in 1974 when Martin Smith departed from Henry Broderick, though family history goes back to its arrival in Seattle in 1868. 

Founder: Martin Smith

Famous Properties (as Urban Visions): 888 Second Ave, a 77-story mixed-use tower with 400 residential units and 930k SF of office and/or hotel with a retail base; Millennium tower @ 715 2nd Ave S, a 20-story office building leased upon completion to tenants such as Goldman Sachs and Voyager Capital; and 1001-1052 6th Ave S, an over seven-acre campus development with more than 1.2M SF of next-generation office space.

Famous Members: Family history goes back many generations and is punctuated by leadership roles. Leonard P. Smith (here) and his wife landed in Seattle in 1868 to begin their life anew in the Pacific Northwest. By 1880, Leonard was elected the 12th mayor of Seattle.

Where are they now? Greg Smith began working with his father Martin in 1980 and then went on to found Martin Smith Development Corp in 1997, where he served as president and CEO. In 2004, Greg founded Urban Visions and now leads as CEO. Broderick Smith, Greg's son, serves as a VP for Urban Visions.

The Kemper Family


Year Founded: Legh Richmond Freeman settled in Yakima in 1884. His son, Miller Freeman, arrived in Eastside from Seattle in 1927 and went on to start Kemper Development Co.

Founder: Freeman family roots in Bellevue reach back several generations. In the post-World War II era, Kemper Freeman Sr. put Bellevue back on the map with a 16-store shopping center that would eventually house Frederick & Nelson, Marshall Fields’ first US shopping center department store and later, JCPenney (1955) and Nordstrom (1966). In 1972, Kemper Freeman Sr. would go on to serve two terms in the Washington House of Representatives.

Famous Properties: The Bellevue Collection, home to Bellevue Square, Bellevue Place and Lincoln Square. Bellevue Square, formerly a 16-store open-air shopping center, has been transformed into a premier retail destination. The Lincoln Square Expansion Project, currently underway, is a 1.5M SF mixed-use development including luxury hotel space (the W Hotel set to open in 2017) and 31 stories of office space.

Famous Members: Miller Freeman and Kemper Freeman Sr. helped breathe economic life into Eastside, transforming it into the business hub that it is today. Miller Freeman was politically active in the area, pushing for such projects as the floating bridge linking Bellevue to Seattle as well as the development of the shipping canal that would connect Puget Sound to Lake Washington. Beyond the development of Bellevue Square, Kemper Sr. is also noted for his persistence in the development of Overlake Medical Center — Bellevue’s first hospital.

Where are they now? Kemper Freeman Jr., chairman and CEO of Kemper Development, transformed his father’s 16-store Bellevue shopping square into the iconic Bellevue Square. Two daughters — Amy Schreck and Suzy McQuaid — joined the family business and serve as vice chairs in Kemper Development. Kemper’s grandson, Howard McQuaid, serves as VP of leasing and development.

The Wright Family

Founder of Howard S. Wright Company

Year Founded: 1885

Founder: Howard S. Wright (here), an entrepreneurial cabinet maker, founded Howard S. Wright Construction Co in 1885 in Port Townsend, WA. The company would move from the Olympic Peninsula to Everett before landing in Seattle in 1929. Eventually taken over by Howard H. Wright and brother-in-law George Schuchart in the late 1930s.

Famous Properties: Grand Coulee Dam; HSW built the Space Needle for the Century 21 Exposition for which they were the primary builder; Columbia Tower; the Wright family invited Northwest artist Dale Chihuly to present a collection of his work in an effort to reinvigorate the Seattle Center (another product of the Century 21 Exposition), resulting in the iconic Chihuly Garden and Glass.

Famous Members: Stuart Rolfe (brother-in-law to Howard S. Wright III) manages Wright Hotels Inc, which owns Cedarbrook Lodge. Howard S. Wright III and four other family members have ownership of Chihuly Garden and Glass, the Space Needles.

Where are they now? Balfour Beatty acquired Howard S. Wright in 2011. Now headquartered in nearby Portland, Howard S. Wright is one of the oldest continually operating building contractors in the west. Howard S. Wright III, the founder's great-grandson, went on to found Seattle Hospitality Group, which runs 600 programs for corporate and other clientele — contracts include the Seattle Seahawks and UW.

The Clise Family

Six Seattle Real Estate Dynasties

Year Founded: 1889

Founder: Raised on a homestead farm in Ellenboro, WI, JW Clise (here) would eventually relocate to Seattle with his wife, Anna, and infant daughter Ruth on June 7, 1889, precisely one day after the Great Seattle Fire devastated much of the city’s downtown. Seeing opportunity among the ruins, JW established himself by finding investors to help rebuild Seattle. One notable investor, Lyman Smith, would work with JW to negotiate all of his western real estate purchases and investments. The Smith investments in Seattle would ultimately lead to the Smith Tower, an icon in the Seattle downtown.

Famous Properties: Amazon and Clise go hand-in-hand. Clise sold three blocks in Denny Triangle in 2012 to and a fourth, adjacent block in 2014. Clise co-owns the Westin Building Exchange (along with Digital Realty Trust) on 6th Avenue. Clise also owns 616 Battery — home to the landmark Pink Elephant Car Wash and the Securities Building, one of the company’s first developments.

Famous Members: Charlie F. Clise kept the business going during the Great Depression. With purchases in the Denny Regrade, he put together one of the largest and most coveted tracts of land in a major US city. Alfred Clise, Charlie's son, is responsible for developing five downtown office buildings totaling more than 1M SF. Chairman and CEO Al Clise took over from Alfred in 1993. Al is responsible for redeveloping the Westin Buidling into the Pacific Northwest’s top-notch data center.

Where are they now? Four generations later, Clise Properties owns and manages over 2.3M SF throughout the Puget Sound Region. Clise is working on plans for a 12-story data center at 6th Avenue and Bell Street, next to Amazon’s South Lake Union Campus. If approved, the facility could be completed by 2016. Similarly to what is being done at the Westin Exchange, the data center would export up to 12 MW of heat used to warm the Amazon campus.

The Sellen Family


Year Founded: 1944

Founder: John Sellen

Famous Properties: WaMu Tower, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Red Square Quadrangle at UW, Watermark Tower, Fairmont Olympic Hotel.

Famous Members: Rick Redman (John H. Sellen’s stepson, chairman emeritus); Scott Redman (Rick Redman’s son, president - here); Bob McCleskey, CEO; Wilf Wainhouse, COO.

Where are they now? Sellen Construction is home to about 1,000 employees. The company generated some $456M in revenue in 2014 and was projected to earn $700M by the end of 2015. Sellen is busy transforming Seattle with projects in the Denny Triangle (including Amazon’s new HQ) and Pike Place Market (the Market WaterFront will connect downtown to the waterfront). Rick Redman is the stepson of founder John Sellen. Scott Redman is Rick’s son.

The Merrill Family


Year Founded: 1890

Founder: Richard Dwight Merrill began a timber operation rooted in sustainable forestry practices (not the norm for the time). Eventually, the family branched out from the timber industry to diversify the R.D. Merrill Co, which now includes Pillar Properties and Merrill Gardens.

Famous Properties: R.D. Merrill’s history includes the redevelopment of Merrill Place in the mid-1980s. Pillar Properties, in a partnership with Daniels Real Estate, led development for Stadium Place in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, one of the largest transit-oriented developments on the West Coast.

Famous Members: Bill Pettit (president & COO of R.D. Merrill Co, with oversight of Merrill Gardens and Pillar Properties) and Billy Pettit (SVP) of Pillar Properties; Charles Wright, chairman of R.D. Merrill & Meriill Gardens.

Where are they now? Charlie Wright, fourth-generation Merrill family member, runs the privately owned, family-run company R.D. Merill. Pillar Properties has received multiple awards including being named 7th Fastest growing Private Company in WA State and one of Washington's Best Workplaces in 2015.  The company owns eight apartment buildings throughout Seattle (and Bellevue — the Meyden opening February 2016) strategically located in unique urban areas. Merill Gardens has its own fair share of awards having been awarded “Family Business of the Year” three times by the Family Business Institute.