Dallas developer Larry Hamilton makes his mark by creatively repurposing vacant high-rises for downtown residential-retail living, helping to make the urban core a destination for people looking for the amenities of city life.
It was a mark he had wanted to make in Denver, where he founded Hamilton Properties Corp. 41 years ago. But by the time he was ready to buy a big building and partake in the downtown Denver revitalization fury of the early 1990s, the dwindling supply had priced him out of the market.
So, he came to Dallas in 1996, prospecting for empty, architecturally interesting — and affordable — buildings. At the time, little was going on in the central business district.
“It was like stepping back in time,” said Hamilton, the company CEO who opened a Dallas office in 2000 and finished phasing out his Denver office in August. “We had seen the gentrification of downtown Denver. Prices had gone up. We came here, and all of these beautiful older buildings were vacant, but [we thought] the architecture was priceless, near irreplaceable. And we could get them on the cheap.”
He said buying a warehouse in Denver at the time could cost $40 to $45 a square foot, while promising, old, restorable buildings in Dallas would set you back only $7 or $8 a square foot.
And that’s what he paid — $2 million -– in 1997 for the former home of the Republic National Bank headquarters, later renamed the Davis Building, in honor of the bank’s longtime chairman. The 20-story structure was one of the tallest buildings in Dallas when it debuted in 1926.
It was one of the very first big-building conversions to apartments in downtown Dallas. It also was the first for Hamilton, who had focused mostly on smaller suburban office developments during his two decades in Denver.
Hamilton and his son, Ted Hamilton, president of the firm that he joined in 1996, reopened the Davis in 2003 as a mixed-use complex of 183 loft apartments above 50,000 square feet of first-floor retail with a 607-space parking garage.
The Davis building, which now is owned by Dallas billionaire Tim Headington, set the tone for the kind of creative historic preservation Hamilton intended to bring to Dallas. The building’s interior had been demolished, leaving exposed sections of brick under missing chunks of plaster, as well as exposed electrical conduit and water piping along the walls and ceilings.
“It was kind of in a ruined state, and we left it that way,” Larry Hamilton said. “So you get the juxtaposition of new and old. We had new kitchens and cabinets and bathrooms, but the walls are in their primitive state.”
The same approach characterized the repurposing of a warehouse in the 90-year-old Santa Fe Terminal Complex in downtown Dallas as a hotel under the Aloft Hotels brand. It was the first of the chain’s 50 hotels that was not newly built.
“It really captured the DNA of the brand,” Hamilton said, noting that Aloft has since recycled many historic buildings into hotels. “This is the look they were trying to achieve. They changed their direction.”
The firm would repurpose five more building properties.
The latest was the recession-stalled transformation of the original 45-year-old Ramada Inn building in The Cedars area just south of downtown Dallas. It re-opened in March as the 12-story, 237-room Lorenzo Hotel.
In all, Hamilton Properties’ projects total 1,011 apartments, 430 hotel rooms, 108,000 square feet of retail and more than 2,000 parking spots, adding a total value of $312 million, according to the company’s website.
Hamilton Properties quickly built a reputation in Dallas.
As former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller put it — in a comment displayed on the Hamilton website — “Larry and Ted Hamilton have single-handedly made it possible for us to use the words ‘downtown’ and ‘hip’ in the same sentence.”
It’s been a long journey for Larry Hamilton, who had no early desire to be a developer. Born and raised in Chicago, he was a history major at Ripon College, a liberal arts school in Ripon, WI, birthplace of the Republican Party.
While there, he also dabbled in theatre, where his claim to fame was his friendly association with Harrison Ford, a philosophy major who later dropped out and found solace in the Star Wars movie franchise.
“I actually directed him in the Upper Class Talent Night,” Hamilton said.
Decades later, seeking investors in Dallas, Hamilton would pitch each of his first three building projects to Ford.
“But we never heard back from him,” Hamilton said with a laugh.
After serving two years in the Army, Hamilton returned to Ripon College as its assistant to the vice president of finance, where he was responsible for doling out federal funds to all Wisconsin colleges.
“I thought I was on a career path to become a college president,” he said.
Hamilton’s first shot at a development project came while he worked for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education in the early 1970s. He was “a bureaucrat” put in charge of plans to build the Auraria Campus on a 44-block site in downtown Denver, where two universities and a college would be relocated onto one campus to boost operational efficiencies.
A feasibility study assumed all buildings on the site would be demolished, including a block of 15 Victorian homes built by early Denver settlers.
Hamilton opposed the broad demolition and succeeded in preserving and repurposing 20 to 25 of the buildings, including all the historic homes, now called Ninth Street Park, most of which now serve as school offices. Later, a nearby home where future Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir lived briefly as a teenager was relocated to Ninth Street, where it’s a tourist attraction.
Hamilton’s first development had turned into a $100 million project.
His next break was for a job with noted mall developer Gerri Von Frellick whose major shopping centers include Big Town Mall in Mesquite.
“It’s fun to build something, to get a sense of closure,” Hamilton said, something he felt he wouldn’t experience as a career government employee.
Then-Denver Mayor Federico Pena appointed Hamilton to a committee that created a redevelopment plan for downtown Denver in 1984. It guided the revitalization that caught fire in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Denver was similar to Dallas in that, historically, the downtown hardly had any residential,” he said. “What residential there was were these cheaper hotels. There weren’t any affluent people who lived in downtown Denver in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s.”
Ted Hamilton said that when he and his father came to Dallas, they had a little advantage in that they had seen “all these other downtowns revitalized and we knew it was going to happen. ... We were seen as the experts from Denver.”
But their first project was a challenge. “We tried everything on the Davis Building,” Ted Hamilton said. “First it was all apartments. Then we tried to do the ‘uncorporate’ thing and wanted to try it half hotel and half apartments. We even had a partner out of New Orleans, but we just couldn’t get it done.”
Furthermore, it took four years and “a hundred lender tours” of the building to get a construction loan.
Hamilton Properties’ biggest project was Mosaic, a mixed-use development carved from a full city block consisting of two vacant office buildings of 33 stories and 21 stories, and an eight-story parking structure, built for the Fidelity Union Life Insurance Co.’s headquarters more than a half century ago.
The 440 loft units, 19,000 square feet of retail and 660 structured parking stalls and amenities including drive-in theater movie screens opened in late 2007 at a total cost of $107 million.
Hamilton hired three designers to create three different design packages for the Mosaic including cabinets, backsplashes, tiles, paint colors, floor finishes and other elements. Each design palette was featured on every third floor.
“That’s very ‘uncorporate.’ No big developer would take the time to do that,” Ted Hamilton said. Also, large, “real funky” displays of modern art were installed in the elevator lobbies of each floor, he added.
Among the other touches, gobo lights on each apartment door project the room number onto the hallway floor. Gobos are pieces of flat steel or glass in a lighting fixture that project an image.
The design strategy “varies from building to building,” Larry Hamilton said. “The idea is to take the historic character and keep that and exploit that, but adapt it to today’s needs.”
Their latest project, The Lorenzo, a boutique hotel with its name spelled out in giant block letters running up its exterior, features an eclectic mix of paintings, woodwork, modern art displays, room styles, colors and quirkiness (like a 30-foot image of a pair of eyeballs peering down from the 12th floor) that call out to millennials.
He commissioned Shaw Carpets to create a unique print featuring Hamlet’s to-be-or-not-to-be soliloquy, for each room.
The final touch on the Lorenzo is yet to come.
Hamilton has plans to commission a 42-foot-tall umbrella sculpture to be installed on a median on Akard Street next to the hotel. The plan is awaiting final approval from the city.
He’s inspired by Artist Keith Turman’s two-ton sculpture of a British bowler hat on a giant coat rack placed in a vacant grass lot just a block away from the proposed umbrella installation.
“We wanted something that was iconic and vertical,” Hamilton said.
While the Lorenzo — which towers over The Cedars neighborhood south of downtown Dallas — makes an especially bold statement, Larry Hamilton said, “All of our downtown projects kind of appeal to younger people. We’re shooting for something hip and cool.”