He calls it a cosmic twist of fate: Andrew Conru, a Seattle entrepreneur who has made his wealth in adult online entertainment and a host of early web businesses, has purchased the Lusty Lady building in downtown Seattle.
Conru acquired, earlier this month, the former home of the famed peep show for $3 million as a “gift to the city,” he said in an interview Friday.
Conru, the founder of adult entertainment and social networking company FriendFinder Networks, plans to restore the vacant property, at 1315 First Ave., and use it to enliven the city’s downtown. “I want to create something that brings joy to the people of Seattle and perhaps be a destination to the millions who visit,” he said.
While the Puget Sound Business Journal originally reported that a “mystery” buyer wanted to turn the building into a museum, Conru is keeping his options open and wants Seattleites to vote on what they’d like to see in the space. “I don’t have that much [of] an ego to say that I know exactly what would be the best for the city,” he said. “We’re in the brainstorming phase right now.”
To this end, Conru has made a website (lustylady.com) where people can pick between options on hot-pink buttons displaying options like “Hotel,” “Strip Club,” “Restaurant,” “Museum” and “Retail Store,” or submit their own ideas. Conru said he doesn’t rule out a combination of some of the options, or something else he’s not even thinking of.
Conru said his purchase of the building, which sits across from the Seattle Art Museum, was informed by his love for the city, the building and its history. “I go to SAM,” he said, “and then you look across the street, and that building just cries out for help … I’m like, ‘Well, how can I help?’”
Since the Lusty Lady shuttered in 2010, the six-story building has sat vacant for more than a decade, save for a few pop-up art exhibits over the years, and had been on the market since summer 2021. Conru purchased the property from the Tolias family, who owned the building for decades. (A family member did not respond to a request for comment.) It was originally listed for $3.25 million.
Conru, an engineer and serial entrepreneur who’s been dubbed the “engineer of love” and is also an artist, has founded more than 20 internet companies, including mid-‘90s ventures focused on online shopping and advertising. In 1996, he started FriendFinder.com, a social networking site that morphed into a conglomerate of other dating and sex websites, including adult livestreaming cam and swinger meeting sites.
After he sold the company for more than $400 million in 2007, he remained involved, even throughout its bankruptcy process. He’s currently the company’s majority owner. While he’s since founded a nonprofit to fund startups and a contest for robot art, and emerged as a philanthropist (to local organizations like Gage Academy of Art and online nonprofit magazine Grist.org, he said), Conru’s kept a relatively low profile. He purchased the Lusty Lady building through an LLC that did not include his name.
Albeit a little reluctantly, Conru’s ready to take on a more public profile. He also wants to ramp up his philanthropy, he said. “I’m 55. By the time I’m 75, I want the majority of my wealth [to] be put back into the public. In order to do that, I have to start writing bigger checks and doing bigger things.”
The irony of his first big move being the purchase of a building that once hosted Seattle’s most famous peep show is not lost on Conru. “My company … among others, probably [contributed] to the closure of the Lusty Lady,” he said, referring to one of his online cam businesses.
The Lusty Lady (beloved for its cheeky, often topical puns on the marquee, such as, “Always open, never clothed”) was the First Avenue building’s most recent tenant, but the property was originally built as a hotel in 1890. Over the years, it’s been home to the Seven Seas tavern and amusement arcade, a shooting gallery, a cinema that showed adult movies, as well as low-income housing. It was home to the Lusty Lady peepshow from the ‘80s until 2010, when Lusty Lady — rattled by the recession and the rise of the internet — closed after a quarter century.
While the property stayed vacant, it remained in the public eye with high-profile redevelopment ideas, versions of which are again on the table now. In 2011, Seattle serial art entrepreneur Greg Lundgren, of classic Seattle restaurant Vito’s and the Museum of Museums, floated a plan for turning the Lusty Lady into a for-profit contemporary art center.
In the mid-2010s, Seattle development firm REVOLVE announced plans to transform the property into a boutique hotel — while keeping much of the historic facade and some elements of the interior intact — in collaboration with the Tolias family. But the project hit snags with contractor shortages and other delays.
“Initially, the family was planning to hold the land and be a partner in redevelopment. Ultimately, [the] family dynamic shifted, [the] market shifted, and we brought it out to market,” said Alex Muir, senior vice president of Lee & Associates, which brokered the deal for the sellers.
Like the Tolias family, Conru (a self-declared history buff) hopes to keep much of the original building intact. Because the unreinforced masonry building is in desperate need of seismic upgrades and its insides are largely gutted, a restoration will be expensive. Conru estimates it may cost over $20 million.
While architects are currently drawing up preliminary plans, Conru said, it could be years before construction can start due to permitting backlogs. “When I heard [that], my heart sunk. I’d love to get this thing out by 2026,” he said, adding that he’s hoping the city can fast-track the process.
As for the public input on the project, Conru said he’ll give more details in the coming months. He’ll make the final call, but said he’s “committed to ensuring that the community’s needs and desires are taken into account.”
This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.