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

Corrigans_2 From left, Edwin B. Jordan, Leo F. Corrigan Jr., and Leo F. Corrigan Sr. map out new global projects. photography courtesy of the Corrigan family

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

Corrigans_3 The third generation at the family’s ranch in Ravenna. photography courtesy of the Corrigan family

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.”

Corrigans_4 Emerald Beach in The Bahamas (left) and 2000 McKinney in Dallas (right) photography courtesy of the Corrigan family

A SECOND SPLIT

The family launched a third-party leasing and management division, Corrigan Real Estate Services, in 1991, and a year later formed The Stoneleigh Group, a tenant rep firm. By this time, the third generation had begun assuming greater control. Leo III was running Corrigan Properties; David was involved to a lesser degree, says Frank Burke, longtime family accountant.

“It soon became clear that there were two different philosophies were developing and, again, a spin-off transaction might be the answer,” Burke says. “Despite myriad complications, we finally reached an agreement in 1996 to divide things into two separate corporations.”

In a decision based on chemistry more than anything else, Leo III and Alice took the helm of Corrigan Properties. David and Catherine assumed control of Corrigan Investments, which also included Corrigan Real Estate Services. A fifth sibling, Mary Corrigan Livingston, is making indepedent real estate investments. Despite the split, the siblings remain close. “Even though we’re all no longer a part of the same company, we’re still in this together,” Alice says.

The third generation credit their parents for the strong family bond. Unlike many other wealthy families in Dallas, the Corrigans maintained a simple lifestyle and were taught to appreciate the value of hard work. “We were raised to be very basic,” David says. “There wasn’t any flash.”

This was especially true at the family’s ranch in Ravenna, a tiny town near the Texas-Oklahoma border, where summers and weekends were spent digging fence posts or working as cattle hands. “There was no, ‘I’m the owner’s kid,’ kind of mentality,” says David. “We learned to work without complaining, just like everyone else. We didn’t get to come in late and leave early.”

He and Leo III started in the family business by hauling trash and cutting grass. When they first got office jobs, all of the siblings had to begin on the lower rung and climb their way up. Catherine, for example, worked in catering sales at The Stoneleigh for nine years before being named assistant manager.

Today, she and David have a ying-yang working relationship at Corrigan Investments. David handles tasks that relate to the physical aspects of a property; Catherine takes on marketing, interiors and organizational matters.

“We don’t have formal lists of who handles what; we operate as a true team,” says David. “There are no lines that can’t be stepped over.”

In 1997, they merged the third-party services company with Burns & Noble, a brokerage based in Tyler. Mark Noble, a partner in that firm, moved to Dallas and became president of the combined operation. Seven years later, in May 2004, the firm was sold to Colliers International, a giant that operates in more than 50 countries. David and Catherine retained a minority stake in the Dallas branch; Noble was tapped to run it as managing director.

Allen Gump, executive vice president at Colliers, says the merger was a good move for both sides. “We had some office, but mostly industrial. Corrigan had a lot of the things we didn’t—retail, property management and project leasing,” he says. “And we were very impressed with the Corrigans. The family is like real estate royalty in Dallas.”

MAJOR PROJECTS

David and Catherine own and oversee mostly retail assets, such as Lakewood Shopping Center and The Pavilion on Lovers Lane. Their first solo development was Pavilion TownPlace, a 236-unit luxury apartment complex built in 2000 on land that Leo Sr. purchased in 1945 (and which formerly housed Woodlane Apartments.) For now, the two plan to focus on projects in North Texas, Catherine says. “There’s enough to do here without reaching out too much,” she says. “In general, our portfolio is very stable. We’re continuing to improve upon what we have and be opportunistic when it comes to real estate.”

All five of the Corrigan siblings quietly support local philanthropic groups and serve the community. Last year, David was named chairman of the Dallas Regional Chamber. He also has long been involved with the Museum of Nature & Science and is a driving force behind its new facility in Victory Park. “Dallas has provided tremendous opportunities for our family, and we’re obligated to give back,” David says. “We can’t just sit on the sidelines.”

At Corrigan Properties, Leo III and Alice  oversee assets the family has owned for decades, such as The Shops of Highland Park, as well as major new projects. They’ve also diversified their interests to include non real-estate investments.

“We have put disciplined business plans in place, and it has worked out quite well,” says Leo III. “It goes back to our responsibility as a third-generation owner—that we don’t blow the wad.”

On the real estate side, the siblings have focused on two significant undertakings: 2000 McKinney in Dallas and Bayshore Town Center in suburban Milwaukee. Both involve buys Leo Sr. initially made more than 50 years ago.

In Wisconsin, a $300 million redevelopment of Bayshore in 2006 took it from a 450,000-square-foot mall to a 1.5 million-square-foot mixed-use complex. To help with the expansion, Leo III and Alice sold 60 percent of the project to New York-based Mall Properties Inc. and Columbus, Ohio-based Steiner + Associates.

In Dallas, Leo III and Alice partnered with Lincoln Property Co. to develop 2000 McKinney, also known as the Texas Capital Bank building. The 442,355-square-foot office tower was built in 2008 on 3 prime acres at Harwood Street and McKinney Avenue in Uptown, overlooking the Woodall Rodgers deck park that’s under construction. Leo Sr. first acquired the front portion of the parcel in the 1940s.

The Corrigans looked at developing the high-profile site more than 25 years ago, hiring Dallas-based HKS Inc. to come up with plans for the  land. But the project was put on hold when the Dallas real estate market crashed in the 1980s.

“Dad had the vision to assemble the remainder of the block in the 1980s,” says Leo III. “It’s another example of holding a piece of land for many years until the time was right to fully develop it. We didn’t want to put something inferior on the property or sell it for a quick buck.”

Leo III says he and his siblings are determined to preserve what has been built for future generations, and to instill in their own children a sense of service and giving back.

For his part, Leo Jr. says he’s most proud of the fact that his children are keeping things going: “It has been a rewarding experience to see the family continue what my father started with his meager beginnings. We have had a lot of ups and downs and slips and falls, but overall, it has been a roaring success.”

This article is an excerpt from the book Corrigan: The Family, The Projects, The Legacy.