Ron and Julie Wells are the husband and wife team and architect and interior design duo that founded Wells & Company, the award-winning development firm behind some of downtown Spokane’s most impressive restorations, including Steam Plant Square.
The couple have worked together restoring historic buildings since they met in Moscow, Idaho, in the 1970s. They moved to Spokane in 1983, continuing to reclaim historic buildings from ruin and disrepair and winning many awards in the process, including this year’s Mayor’s Urban Design – Creative Citizen Award. They spoke with the S-R at their recently renovated South Hill home.
S-R: How did you get started in historic renovations?
Ron: My dad and I renovated a house together when I was 17, after my mom died. It was a fun adventure to do that with my dad. We sold it and did another one.
Julie: My mother taught me to love old buildings. She thought people were crazy that lived in uninteresting buildings. I bought a nice old house in Boise in 1975, an award-winning project. I was 33 years old.
S-R: Why did you come to Spokane?
Ron: Historic buildings. We were looking for a bigger challenge. Moscow and Lewiston have a limited supply.
Julie: We loved the downtown and fell in love with the neighborhoods in Spokane. We think Spokane is such a beautiful place with nice people. I’ve never seen nicer people any place.
S-R: What has been your most interesting project?
Ron: The Steam Plant, without a doubt, because it’s so unique. It intrigues people and entertains people.
Julie: Spokane is so lucky to have that building. Most cities that had a steam plant, the buildings are gone or stripped out to the walls.
S-R: Where do you get your ideas?
Ron: The ideas come from the buildings themselves. The Steam Plant spoke to me about what it was, a collection of pipes and catwalks and boilers. I spent a cold day in there after we signed with George Carlson photographing it, seeing what’s there. I knew if we saved it, it would be unique and historic. But we didn’t know three boilers could become dining rooms. The more we spent time in the building the more I realized we had to save as much as we could.
Julie: A project like the Steam Plant isn’t planned in a month at a table. It is a process of inspiration. You dream about it and live it.
S-R: How have you seen your industry change in Spokane since the ’80s?
Ron: Downtown. A lot more people want to live downtown than was assumed. In 1998, an economic advisor said there would be negative demand and we’d lose units. I didn’t listen to him. It gives me satisfaction seeing downtown emerge. When we first moved here young people were getting out, and now they want to stay – and the ones that left want to come back.
S-R: Tell me about your latest renovation.
Ron: We’ve known Mary Jane Ferris for years. She agreed to sell (the Joel building, 165 S. Post St.) to us if we left the name Joel. Joel (Ferris) was a good 20th century gentleman, stately and courteous. So we named it The Lofts at Joel.
Julie: We are finishing apartments and renting them as fast as we can finish them. It’s a true loft with brick walls and exposed wood.
S-R: How is the market in Spokane today?
Ron: The rental market is better than the condo market.
Julie: People would like to live downtown but financing for condos is impossible.
Ron: I sold two condos in the last year. In 2006-2007 I sold 25 to 30. It’ll come back. It was a good market. Housing will come back. Financing will come back. It’s cyclical.
S-R: How do you manage working together with marriage?
Ron: You talk through the issues in a rationale fashion.
Julie: Ron does his thing and I do my thing. We work well together. We had different areas of expertise. I’m not active in the business on a day-to-day basis, but I’m active in decision making on big issues. We have a lot of family involvement. Our daughter, Tracey Stromberg, is a property manager, and both sons participate in decisions and are part owners. Sometimes we sit in this room and hash things out.
Ron: We meet with our sons for lunch every week and discuss the business.
S-R: What has been most challenging in the renovation business?
Ron: Joel’s and battling with the insurance for 24 months. When the Dorian’s part of the building burned (in 2008) we were ready to sell the first residential condos in five days. We had fire protection systems in place.
Julie: But the water damage was extensive. We had to start over.
S-R: What advice would you give to someone starting out?
Ron: When you can find work that is truly a passion, that is totally separate than having a job, you have something. Follow what you’re passionate about. I grew up, for some reason, renovating buildings.
S-R: What do you do for fun?
Julie: Gardening and travel and sampling nice wines that are reasonably priced. There is nothing like sampling wine in the garden. We also have a lot of family get-togethers. There are thirteen of us in the family group in Spokane.
Ron: For fun I worked in the office for half of Saturday because there were things I wanted to do, that I was excited about doing and couldn’t wait. I’m compulsive.