Dallas has earned its place in commercial real estate history as the home to icons such as Trammell Crow, Henry S. Miller Sr., and Roger Staubach. But beyond those well-known personalities is one North Texas family that has operated under the radar for generations.
“Their story is largely untold,” says John Barnes, an executive who has worked for the Corrigans since 1962. “Although they’ve developed major projects across the globe and built up formidable assets, the Corrigans are a humble lot. They don’t seek the spotlight and rarely give interviews to the media. Generation after generation—and I’ve worked with four of them—those core values have remained solidly in place.”
It all began with the late Leo F. Corrigan Sr., an innovator who pioneered suburban strip shopping centers, boutique hotels, and mixed-use developments, and who amassed a fortune during the postwar boom years. (By the early 1970s, Corrigan reportedly owned more commercial real estate than any other individual in the United States.) His son, Leo F. Corrigan Jr., and son-in-law, Edwin B. Jordan, refined the portfolio and oversaw many of the family’s largest developments. Today members of the third generation—Leo F. Corrigan III, Mary Corrigan Livingston, David Corrigan, Catherine Corrigan and Alice Corrigan Carruth—are continuing with projects of their own, and the fourth generation is beginning to make its way into the fold.
For nearly a century, the Corrigans have quietly helped shape the city of Dallas. They’ve also owned landmarks such as The Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles and developed projects in Hong Kong, The Bahamas, Bali, and other exotic locales. Through it all, the family has survived internal conflicts and wild swings in the real estate industry to come out on top.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Leo F. Corrigan Sr. was just 16 years old when he stepped off a train and first hit the streets of Dallas in 1910. The former newspaper boy from St. Louis, Mo., had decided to seek his fortune by following his role model, Adolphus Busch. Corrigan had read that the beer baron saw so much promise in Dallas, he was investing more in the Texas city than in his brewery and other holdings in Missouri.
After selling ad space for the Dallas Dispatch for a few years, Corrigan took a job leasing downtown office space. He saved his commissions, eventually socking away enough to make his first buy: a parcel on Lemmon Avenue at Wycliff.
Today, Bob’s Steak and Chop House sits on the site; but at the time, it was a vacant lot at the intersection of two small paved lanes. Corrigan built a small row of adjacent shops, pioneering the strip-center concept. The success of the development soon led to more suburban projects.
He was roundly criticized by others in real estate for buying plots of land “out in the country” and for borrowing to finance his real estate ventures. Having little capital of his own, Corrigan would secure leases from merchants and use them as collateral for financing his developments. (Unheard of back then, this practice of pre-leasing is common today.) Corrigan also began mixing uses on the lots, combining small apartment complexes or hotels with retail. Again, others balked at his unconventional approach. But his success soon silenced the critics.
The developments began to multiply and get larger, driven by the postwar demand for housing. By the mid-1940s, Corrigan had grown to become the No 1 developer in the Southwest. He had 3,000 apartment units under construction and his North Texas shopping centers held more than 400 stores.
He plowed his profits back into the business, investing in downtown towers in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Atlanta. Corrigan had a particular impact on the skyline of downtown Dallas, building or buying seven office properties in the central business district: Corrigan Tower, Adolphus Tower, Wholesale Merchants Building, Gulf States Building, Tower Petroleum Building, and 211 North Ervay. At that property—well known in Dallas for its location in the center of the city and for its sky-blue metal panel exterior—Corrigan was able to secure high-dollar leases for the ground-floor retail space. “I never will forget it,” says Jim Gardner, chairman of Commerce Street Capital and longtime Corrigan family banker. “He made the ground floor produce more than the base [mortgage]. Rents collected for all of the other floors were a bonus.”
Corrigan also invested heavily in hotels, developing six boutique properties in Dallas—known as the L Hotels—and acquiring the famed Biltmore in Los Angeles. Closer to home, he bought The Stoneleigh, Maple Terrace and The Adolphus—an emotional high, as the hotel had been built four decades earlier by his idol, Adolphus Busch.
Corrigan doubled the size of The Adolphus, adding 460 rooms. He also had air-conditioning installed in each room and added a drive-in motor lobby and 600-car garage. He refurbished existing guest rooms and built a “sky suite”—an outdoor terrace on thet 25th floor.
To help attract guests, Corrigan hired top entertainers to perform at the hotel’s supper club, including Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, and the pianist Liberace. Elaborate ice shows were performed on a rink in The Century Room. The Adolphus soon became a popular stopping point for celebrities, including Queen Elizabeth II, a photo of whom still hangs in the hotel’s lobby.
In a 1957 article in The New York Times, Corrigan’s holdings were estimated to have a value of up to $750 million—about $5.7 billion in today’s terms. Corrigan grew his portfolio by being a bold investor. In a rare 1960 profile in Time magazine, he talked about his penchant for taking risks. “If you don’t have a hell of a lot of nerve, the boys in the know will always scare you to death,” he said. “There are 40 ways to get into trouble in my business, and I’ve discovered that there are also 40 ways to get out of it.”
REFINING THE PORTFOLIO
North Texas civic leaders took note of Corrigan’s achievements and named him the first president of the Dallas Central Business District Association, where he was instrumental in creating a vision for downtown Dallas.
His faith in the city was unwavering: “Dallas has the greatest potential in the Southwest,” he once said. “It’s on its way to becoming one of the greatest American metropolitan cities.”
Leo F. Corrigan, Jr. joined his father in the business in 1948 after earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Southern Methodist University. By this time, Leo Jr.’s brother-in-law, Edwin B. Jordan, had been on board for seven years. (Jordan married Leo Jr.’s only sibling, Louise Corrigan, in 1941.)
“Ed was monumental in establishing the business; he kept track of all of the details,” says Leo Jr. “Dad was a very demanding person and, though he mellowed over the years, he had a volatile temper. It seemed like every day he and Ed would have a big blow up, and I was in the situation of having to stand between the two of them.”
By 1969, the disagreements between Leo Sr. and Jordan came to a head, and responsibility for managing the family’s assets was split between the two. Ownership of the properties didn’t change; everything continued to be held under a trust established to benefit the nine grandchildren of Leo Sr. (the four children of Ed and Louise Jordan and the five children of Leo Jr. and Marilyn Corrigan).
Jordan formed Intercity Investments and oversaw all of the properties he jointly owned with Leo Jr.—mostly multifamily assets, as well as the Stoneleigh Hotel, Maple Terrace, and Terrace House. That left Leo Jr. to manage the core Corrigan Properties assets—those in which Leo Sr. was exclusively involved, such as The Adolphus and Emerald Beach, a hotel property in The Bahamas. Leo Jr. had overseen development of many of the family’s projects, including Emerald Beach—which was no easy task. “Every time it rained, the telephones and the power went out,” he says.
Getting to and from the island was also tricky. “One time, Wylie Johnson [longtime Corrigan attorney] and I were both coming back from Nassau and the plane was sold out. He and I bought one seat in coach and took turns sitting.”
Like his father, Leo Jr. was heavily involved in banking. In 1951, he was named to a junior board of directors at Texas Bank & Trust—the first board of its kind in the nation. The other board members were Henry W. Bass Jr., Hammond Coffman, Jack C. Vaughn, and Clint Murchison Jr.
But unlike his father, Leo Jr. was a much more cautious investor. “If my father liked something, he bought it,” Leo Jr. says. “One time he took me to look at a building in downtown Dallas. He was thinking of buying it but wasn’t sure about the rents it could get. We went over there and walked around outside to see how [worn] the sidewalk was. My father said, ‘I don’t need counts to tell me traffic is high.’ He operated strictly on his gut.”
That brash approach helped amass a fortune, but it also created some problems. Not every investment made money. The responsibility of refining and preserving the family’s real estate portfolio fell to Leo Jr.
His father didn’t like to sell and abhorred paying taxes, but Leo Jr. knew that sometimes it was best to cut your losses. This was especially true with the hotel properties, which were sold over a period of about 20 years, ending in 1993.
Ownership of the family’s assets were split between the Jordan and Corrigan camps in 1984, nine years after Leo Sr.’s death. The process had begun in 1979 but was held up by the courts and internal disputes.
“Being tied up in litigation saved our bacon,” says Leo III, who today heads up Corrigan Properties. “While everyone else was borrowing 120 percent of what their properties were worth [prior to the Dallas real estate crash of the early 1980s], we couldn’t do anything but manage the things we owned.”