Like Rome, Seattle is built on seven hills, rising eastward from Puget Sound and Elliott Bay. Up along one of these hills stands another Italian reference: Sorrento Hotel. If you’re smart enough to stay in this establishment while visiting the Emerald City, you’re guaranteed a memorable experience and many nights of blissful sleep.
After exploring downtown Seattle almost every day for a week, the nightly hike up the dozen steep blocks to Sorrento Hotel following yet another outstanding meal at one of the waterfront restaurants was a great way to burn off some of the calories I had just consumed. It was also a pleasant way to fatigue myself just enough to start relishing the thought of a luxuriant slumber (as long as I utilized a pair of earplugs: The hotel is on one of the busiest conduits to downtown, and the windows aren’t soundproof).
The Sorrento Hotel made history with a bang when it opened in 1909 as Seattle’s first boutique hotel, with President William Howard Taft as its first guest. The Vanderbilts and the Guggenheims were patrons in 1922, when a six-course Thanksgiving dinner cost $2. Other notable guests over the decades have included Lillian Russell, Robert Goulet, and Kelly Clarkson. I was happy to add my name to a rather prestigious register.
Fortune ranked the Sorrento as one of the “10 most remembered hotels in America” — a distinction I fully appreciated from the second I arrived. I stepped through the gates into the circular drive around the fountain, gazing up at the seven-story Italian Renaissance hotel, the architect’s nod to his inspiration, the Vittoria Hotel in Sorrento, Italy. Passing under the porte cochere, I was quickly made welcome by every staff member who greeted me — the valet, the concierge, the receptionist.
My bright and airy junior suite — easily half the size of my entire apartment in New York — made me feel even more welcome and pampered: two sofas and a coffee table, two dressers, a king-size bed with goose-down pillows and 400 thread-count Egyptian cotton linens, a desk and chair, a 42” flat-screen television, and a Venetian marble bathroom. I could have easily become a recluse for a few months in this gracious space, but the rest of the hotel needed some exploring.
Throughout its history, the Sorrento has undergone multiple extensive renovations under half a dozen different owners, yet, despite reconfigurations and repurposed usages of the interior spaces and a tremendous reduction of its original 154 guestrooms to 76 larger rooms and suites (no two of which are alike), it retains its original elegance.
The hotel was commissioned by Samuel Rosenberg, a clothing merchant who couldn’t run it at a profit despite its grandeur, excellent service, and incomparable views. So he sold it after only a year, purchasing some pear orchards in Oregon with the proceeds. He eventually left those orchards to his sons, Harry and David, who turned them into a multi-million-dollar mail-order fruit business that still bears their names today.
During the First World War, the Sorrento joined the war effort, surrendering a room as a Red Cross headquarters where bandages were made, and military officers began to stay as guests. Following the war, the hotel retained a military connection when it served as the headquarters for ship’s officers involved in naval maneuvers on Puget Sound.
In 1938, the president of Seattle College (now Seattle University) leased an entire wing as a women’s dormitory. The Second World War brought the military back. Members of the Army Air Corps Ferrying Command resided at the hotel; flight crews who were delivering Boeing B-17 bombers to air bases around the country checked in as well.
In the postwar years, the Sorrento provided housing and services to Air Force officers and Boeing military personnel. Civilians began to flock back after that, including local newlyweds who started a Seattle tradition of staying there for a night or two before embarking on their honeymoon.
But that’s all part of days gone by, and a hotel can’t rely solely on its historical laurels. Today, after further renovations in the 1980s and 2000s, the hotel is as charismatic as it ever was, and it is successfully combining its glorious past with its refined present, including all the little extras that make a hotel truly memorable: complimentary car service to points downtown and complimentary lemon-water in the lobby for days when I hiked back up, a hearty breakfast of pancakes with huckleberry mascarpone and a peanut butter and honey smoothie with milk and bee pollen in the Hunt Club, speedy valets who retrieved my rental car, daily delivery to my room of the Seattle Times, and “Sorrento Nights” of literary readings and musical performances in the octagonal Fireside Room, with its original fireplace framed by glazed sea-green tiles and a mosaic of the Italian countryside.
The Sorrento Hotel is an important part of Seattle history, and by checking in for a night or two (or nine), you can become a part of that history, too.