San Juan building in shipping-shape
June 9, 2008 · Updated 6:45 PM
"Bainbridge's newest and arguably most spectacular office building is the product of sheer serendipity - being taken to the cleaners in the right way at the right time.I took some clothes to the cleaners, said John Ellis, building principal, and the woman at the counter said I had to pick them up by next week. I asked why, and she said the building was for sale. When I told my brother Ed that, he said, 'buy it.'So the Ellis brothers bought the old PFR drycleaners on the northeast corner of Winslow Way and Ferncliff Avenue in 1995. Today, construction crews are finishing work on the new San Juan Building on that site. Tenants will move in by the end of July.The Ellis brothers' separate shipping companies will occupy roughly one quarter of the 12,000 square feet of office space. The remainder of the commercial space is about 80 per cent leased.The top floor is a single condominium unit that will be occupied by the Ellis' parents, Ed and Mary.The dry-cleaning building that the Ellises bought won architectural awards in 1951 when it was built, John said, and the brothers originally hoped to preserve it. John turned the business portion of the building into his office, and he and his family moved into the adjoining apartment.Eventually, though, they determined that the building had been compromised structurally to the point that remodeling and expansion was impossible.The plans for the new building came from architect Charles Wenzlau, a San Francisco transplant who was then new to Bainbridge.My wife Barbara had gone to San Francisco with a group from St. Barnabas (Episcopal Church) to look at church buildings there, John Ellis said. Chuck had been the architect on one, and she met him. Then one day we bumped into him in our neighborhood here. So we started talking.Wenzlau drew up plans for a 14,500-square-foot office building that complied with the ferry-district zoning. But the size of the building spurred objections from the neighborhood.We sat down with the neighbors, without lawyers on either side, and hammered out an agreement, Ed said. It was a matter of not letting emotions get the best of them or us. What we ended up with is a little less commercially viable, but the main point was always to have a building for our businesses.The shingle-sided building has one of the most panoramic settings in the Northwest. The east-facing windows offer views of Puget Sound, downtown Seattle and the Cascades. The south windows showcase Eagle Harbor, the ferry terminal and Mount Rainier. From the lower floors, the western view is Winslow Way, while the top-floor residence has a view of the Olympics.The building has a 22-space underground parking garage.The current lineup of tenants includes West Coast Paper and DLI Engineering, which will have executive offices in the building. Both are large multi-office firms whose chief executives live on the island, John Ellis said.Bror Elmquist was the project manager, and Drury Construction did the building.The Ellises are carrying on a family tradition of maritime commerce. Their grandfather started working for the customs bureau in Port Townsend in 1909 when all the ships had to stop there, John said.After the family moved to Seattle in 1911, the Ellis' father started in the business with George S. Bush shipping. Then he established Cascade Shipping Company, where both brothers started working as young men.In 1974, Ed went to work for Sanko Steamship Company, a large Japanese concern, in Tokyo. He later moved to Vancouver, B.C., then to Seattle with Sanko.In 1996, Ed and partner Joe Onorato formed San Juan Navigation, which charters and operates ships.Most of our business is grain, Ed said. We run from the North Pacific to the west coast of South America, and from the Northwest U.S. to the Philippines. John Ellis started with Cascade Shipping in high school, then went on his own in 1984. His business, Pacific Rim Shipbrokers, finds ships for those with cargo and cargo for those with ships, he said.Despite the need to be on the telephone at odd hours to accommodate clients dispersed over many time zones, John is a fixture with the island's Improv comedy troupe, and is a regular performer with Bainbridge Performing Arts.With their multi-generational maritime background, one might think that the Ellises gravitated to Bainbridge because of the island's long and rich maritime history.But one would be mistaken. They came for golf.John and I came over on a sunny January day in about 1990, Ed said, and we drove by Wing Point golf course. When we went in the office, we learned that memberships were selling for $700, so we both signed up on the spot.That was immediately before Wing Point expanded from nine to 18 holes, he said. And at the time, members could take options on building lots in North Hills, the housing development surrounding the new nine. So both brothers bought lots, built homes, moved to the island and looked for an opportunity to move their offices to the island.The location is perfect, John Ellis said. We can be in our offices watching the ferry come and go, and not have to worry about being on it."