Judy in the sky with diamonds - Dallas high-rise specialist enjoys the view from the top
By Cheryl Hall
Published 11-05-2000

Before the New York developers of The Vendme even bought the land for their 21-story luxury residential project along Turtle Creek, they knew who they wanted to handle its marketing. When it comes to selling expensive high-rise homes in Dallas, Judy Pittman is the undisputed queen of the skyline. "Dallas doesn't have mountains or an ocean, but it has a magnificent skyline. It's like a jewel box that twinkles at night," says the 59-year-old Realtor, ensconced in her lavish 23rd-floor penthouse in The Warrington, just up the street from where the cranes are building the $125 million Vendme. "We have wonderful sunrises and sunsets. You watch the city wake up and go to sleep. You see the storms roll in and feel the power. The sense of sky is magical. It creates so much excitement and makes you feel alive." Judy Pittman has just given her best sales pitch. And it often works. She delights in showing off high-rise properties in the evening so prospects can watch the city sparkle to life. "Once they see it at night, they all want to sign up," she says gleefully. "So I just whip out that contract." So far this year, the president of Judy Pittman Inc. has sold more than $100 million in residential real estate - most of that in the posh high-rises along Turtle Creek - and has earned several million dollars in commissions for her company and three assistants. As the exclusive broker of the ritzy Vendme, Mrs. Pittman has found buyers for 70 of the 119 units that start at $300,000 and won't be ready for occupancy until spring of 2002. Six of the dozen two- story penthouses - which cost $1.2 million to $4 million for a raw shell - are already spoken for. "It will be one of the finest buildings in America. Private elevators, high ceilings, fireplaces, marble baths, Kohler fixtures," she says, ticking off her favorite amenities. "This level of quality all costs many dollars per square foot more to construct." She prefers to talk about selling points rather than knock neighborhood competition, because she sells a lot of that, too. Mrs. Pittman has done countless resales in The Mansion Residence, The Claridge and her home turf at The Warrington, usually representing both buyer and seller. "Judy's in the unique position of controlling the high-end condo market in Dallas," says John Conroy, partner of New York-based Metropolitan Development Group, which is building The Vendme. "That's good for her, and good for us." And that's quite a lofty rise from her lowly days in 1985, when Mrs. Pittman had just one resale condominium to show in The Warrington - and it wasn't even her listing. She sat in the lobby and collared potential buyers after they had visited the new-unit sales office upstairs. "I was Cinderella with the crumbs," she says, now looking like the princess with the shoe that fits. "As people were about to leave, I'd say, 'Excuse me, there is a resale available if you'd like to see it.' I started with that one vacant unit." When condo wasn't cool Mrs. Pittman began pushing the high-rise way of life when "condo" definitely wasn't cool. The mere mention of the euphemism for "unsellable" was enough to make most people cringe. And "high rise" conjured retirement home. "Horrible times," Mrs. Pittman says, with a shudder. "Nobody wanted them. I can't tell you how hard I worked." She sold to her former high school chums, even her sister, telling them to lease a high rise for a year and buy it if they liked it. Certainly, some of her success is tied to Dallas' booming housing market and a growing acceptance of towered living. But even competitors credit her efforts, which include spearheading the annual beautification drive that landscapes the medians and flowerbeds along the creek. "Judy built an acceptance of the high rise and the Turtle Creek area that paved the way for our success at The Mayfair at Turtle Creek," says Kyle Crews, a real estate marketing consultant who helped sell out that project. He's been active in the Uptown high- rise and mid-rise market for years. "I break out in a sweat when I think about the old days. The fact that we survived to enjoy these days is a miracle." Judy Pittman now resides in the 4,500-square-foot, two-story penthouse that once belonged to Texas Instruments founder and former Dallas mayor Erik Jonsson. Her elegant furnishings, befitting of a centerpiece in Architectural Digest yet somehow homey, take a back seat to the smashing view of downtown, Uptown, McKinney Avenue and Highland Park. She can see the corner of Moody and McKinnon streets where her father was born in 1902 - now a thoroughfare near The Crescent. The surrounding area is teeming with new development. "It breaks my heart that my parents aren't alive to see all that's going on in Dallas," she says. "They adored this city." Judith Agnes Goff grew up in Preston Hollow, the pampered baby of four daughters born to Amy and Bobby Goff, a former general manager of the Dallas Eagles minor league baseball team. "Daddy must have been terribly disappointed when I came along, the fourth girl and still no boy," she says with a laugh. "I'm the most uncoordinated, unathletic human in the world. But he used to say, 'You need fans just as much as you need players.'" Her father also encouraged her to "Try to bat 1.000. Try to be a home-run kid." After graduating from Hillcrest High School in 1959, Judy headed off to East Texas State University, where she earned her teaching certificate. "My daddy had a rule that all four of us girls had to get our degrees and teach school for at least one year so we could be self- sustaining in life," says the former speech and English teacher at Lake Highlands Jr. High School. Drawn to real estate She was drawn instinctively to real estate, spending weekends canvassing neighborhoods and looking at the for-sales. She'd buy a house, spruce it up and sell it to augment her teaching salary, which was never more than $4,500 a year. In 1971, her first year in full-time real estate, she earned $19,000 and thought she'd died and gone to heaven. That year, the 29-year-old formed a real estate company with Berta Patterson in Preston Royal. For the next nine years, she sold houses in Preston Hollow and Highland Park. "It was nothing like it is today," she recalls. "I was a normal real estate agent in normal times." Deeply religious, she attended Mass every evening at Holy Trinity Catholic Church. "I used to bargain with God all the time," she says with a laugh. "When I was working on something, I'd say, 'Please let this work. If this works, then I'll do this for you.' Like he really cared. I'm sure he had other things like the Vietnam War on his mind." In 1980, Judy married her best friend, Bill Pittman. Father Pittman also happened to be her priest. "We had the Walt Disney version of The Thorn Birds," she says with a girlish blush, adding that Bill got blessings from the church and her mother before shocking Judy with his proposal. "My first response was, 'I don't know if I could ever call you by your first name,'" she recalls. "I also said, 'I've never thought of you as a man.' He was just my closest, dearest friend. My life began when I married Bill Pittman." The newlyweds headed off to Bay St. Louis, Miss., where Bill was going teach at nearby St. Stanislaus College. He'd been the pastor at a church near there and one in New Orleans and knew the lay of the land. Judy was going to tend their beachside cottage. "But the stress of no stress got to me," she says. She wanted to open a Hallmark store and persuaded Bill that a card shop wouldn't be too commercial for his priestly psyche since people bought greeting cards to be nice. Judy also persuaded Hallmark that the rural Gulf Coast town of 5,000 could support an upscale gift shop. She flew to Dallas and bought all sorts of figurines and finery at the Market Center, thinking she'd bring a touch of Neiman Marcus to Bay St. Louis. But reality struck at the local Jitney Jungle grocery store when everyone else in line bought provisions with food stamps. "I was the only one who paid with cash, literally," she says. "I thought, 'Oh, boy. I'm in trouble.' At times we took layaway for paper plates. We were in a poor area." She made a second buying trip to Dallas, scouring the market for merchandise that cost her 50 cents to $5. "I bought a ton of those little Lucite boxes and painted names and daisies on them," she says. "I went from selling $250,000 homes to selling $1.25 cards and painting plastic boxes." Despite early missteps, Pittman's Hallmark Shop flourished, and Hallmark asked the couple to open a second store in a shopping center in nearby Gulfport. A third store followed with plans for a chain of small-town specialty boutiques. But in 1984, her mother's health began to fail. Judy bought a one- bedroom condo on the viewless backside of The Warrington so she could come home to check on her. The next year, it was the failing health of her former partner, Berta Patterson, who asked Judy to take over the real estate business. "I thought, "Well, maybe I can do both the real estate and the shops." After more than two years of crazy back-and-forth commuting, she and Bill replanted themselves at The Warrington, selling their three stores. Bill started a Dallas branch for Daytop Foundation, a nonprofit drug-rehab organization for teenagers, while Judy was determined to sell the lifestyle she'd grown to love. Two years later, when Peter Kurts came knocking, that's exactly what she did. Selling The Claridge In April 1990, the new Australian owner of The Claridge asked Mrs. Pittman to take over selling the 18-story condo building that was still 75 percent empty five years after its completion and nearly a decade after preconstruction sales began. "I had no contract," she recalls of her handshake agreement with Mr. Kurts. "It was a $35 million project - sink or swim. Talk about going to church to pray to light those candles." On Aug. 30, 1993, she sold the last unit in The Claridge and turned her focus on The Mansion Residence. She sold out that project out in 1997. She's handled nearly every resale in all three high-rise projects, as well as marketing Place des Vosges, a luxury zero-lot line development of $2 million to $4 million homes. "I practice what I preach. I've got all my money invested in this street," she says, motioning down to Turtle Creek. In addition to her abode, she owns four high-rise condos in the three luxury projects. David Morris and Terry Sweeney recently completed their sixth real estate deal with her - this time buying a zero-lot home with a pool. "She's a helluva lot of fun to work with, No. 1," said Mr. Morris, an executive with a cruise line. "Then there's her complete focus and follow through. She's always available, whether it's midnight or 4 in the morning." But isn't that a little weird? "Yeah, it's obsessive," he says with a shrug, "but it's what makes it work." The pair was part of a round robin of seven transactions that took place while the Dallas Cowboys played in the 1996 Super Bowl. "I'm going like lickety-split," she says, mapping the series of deals that had people all over town buying and selling high rises and houses. "I got home at about 9 o'clock and someone here wanted to look at another apartment in the building. I said, 'Let's go right now. I'm on a roll.' I sold it and did the contract before the night was over." But memories of the tough times reside in the back of her mind. "I still hustle. I don't ever take success for granted. You rest, you rust," she says. "I don't have a crystal ball. I don't sell investments. And some day you may see me standing on the street corner with a sign saying: 'Will trade a high-rise for a meal.' I believe that. "I've seen what can happen."