Ford County’s oldest commercial building being renovated

PAXTON — With their 11-foot ceilings and 8-foot windows overlooking downtown Paxton, the apartments on the second floor of Remembrance Hall should go quickly once they are ready for occupancy, Royce Baier expects.

Prospective tenants have been asking about renting the not-yet-finished apartments for months, according to Baier, who has owned the historic three-story building at the intersection of Pells and Market streets for an estimated 20 years.

For the past year or so, Baier has been completing an extensive renovation of Remembrance Hall’s first and second floors, giving new life to what he has been told is Ford County’s oldest commercial building, dating back to 1867.

The apartments represent the most involved — and most expensive — part of the project, as Baier is installing new windows, foam insulation, drywall, electrical wiring and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, along with bathroom and kitchen areas, on the long-vacant second floor.

By spring, Baier hopes the renovation will be complete and the apartments — a pair of one-bedroom apartments and a pair of two-bedroom apartments — will be available for rent. And while a newly renovated living space should seem attractive to prospective tenants, along with tall ceilings and windows, perhaps an even bigger draw will be what aspects of the building’s second floor Baier hasn’t changed.

“I’m keeping as many original things as I could,” Baier said.

Left untouched in one apartment: The remnants of an old elevator that was last used to move tires to Remembrance Hall’s second floor when a Firestone store occupied the building.

“We’re just leaving that,” Baier said. “Everyone says, ‘Why are you leaving it?’ And I say, ‘Well, why not? It’s a good conversation piece.’”

In another apartment: An old ticket window that had been used many decades ago when an opera house was in operation on the building’s third floor. The ticket window’s wall has “a whole bunch of stuff written on it,” and the window and wall will be left untouched and preserved with plexiglass, Baier said.

Each apartment also features its original wood trim and wood floors. Baier said he will be sanding and resurfacing the floors in upcoming weeks.

“It should look pretty cool,” Baier said.

150th celebration planned
Baier is a historic preservationist who serves as president of the Paxton Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Paxton’s past. So it should come as no surprise that the 64-year-old lifelong Paxton resident is doing just that when it comes to one of the city’s most historically significant structures.

Initially, Baier wanted to have the work at Remembrance Hall done by the end of last year, when the building turned 150 years old. That, obviously, did not happen, but Baier still hopes a 150th birthday celebration can happen soon — once the two-story renovation is complete.

“Hopefully this will all be done by spring and we’ll have a big open house,” Baier said. “The public will be invited, and we’ll have food and they can tour the apartments and go up to the opera house (area on the third floor). I mean, it’s pretty significant, being a 150-year-old building.”

Dreaming big
When Baier bought Remembrance Hall in the mid-1990s, he had planned to bring new life to the entire building. Initial renovations to the 3,400-square-foot first floor allowed for a banquet hall to open there, but it closed about five years later. Taverns then occupied the first floor until 2016, when Shooky’s closed.

Since then, the entire building has sat vacant, with Baier using that opportunity to finally turn the 3,400-square-foot second floor into a usable area. The second floor has not been in use since around 1960, when it coincidentally housed apartments, Baier said.

“They were pretty crude,” Baier said of the original apartments.

The third floor — which long ago occupied an opera house — is expected to be renovated, too, in upcoming years, Baier said. Baier said he is still exploring what to do with that floor.

His dream project?

“(Local historic preservationist) Judy Jepsen-Popel suggested that I restore the opera house, and I had really never thought about that,” Baier said. “You know, sometimes something is right in front of you, but you don’t see it. So I thought, ‘Well, I could do that — just kind of clean it up and restore it and put the stage back in it.’ But I don’t know.”

If not an opera house, the third floor could possibly become apartment space. The problem with putting apartments there, however, is that an elevator would probably be required to meet fire codes, with a price tag of at least $100,000.

Looking for first-floor renter
The north half of the first floor, meanwhile, is already completely renovated. Its new tenant — Edward Jones, an investment brokerage firm — moved in and opened an office in that space last week, Baier said.

Baier is also nearly done renovating the south half of the first floor and is now looking for a suitable tenant to occupy that 1,700-square-foot space. What use it sees remains to be seen.

“Edward Jones has given me a list of things that they don’t want for neighbors. The list is so long that it would have been easier for them to just tell  me what they do want for neighbors,” Baier joked.

So far, no one has expressed interest in renting the south half of the first floor.

“It’s really weird,” Baier said. “The first couple of years after the tavern went away, I took 12 or 15 people through there who wanted to buy the building or rent it. Where did they all go?”

The two occupants of the first floor of Remembrance Hall will have space available for signage on the building’s facade, which was redone last year to give it a historic look. Newly installed “gooseneck” lamps hanging from the facade will light up each sign, Baier said.

“Two of the (five) sections (of the facade) will be for Edward Jones, and then whatever goes on the south side will have two of the other sections,” Baier said, noting one section of the facade will be left blank.

‘The time was right’
Baier said he was inspired to spruce up Remembrance Hall because of the “renaissance” being seen in recent years in downtown Paxton. That includes the addition of a couple of new restaurants just doors down from Baier’s building.

Also, it became apparent that finding renters to lease downtown apartments should not be a problem.

“Anybody who’s got an apartment above their building downtown, they’re rented,” Baier said. “They’re all rented. So I just thought the time was right.”

Baier said that prior to the renovations taking place, he had considered selling it, but no one offered enough. He said he still may consider selling it to the right buyer — one who intends to use the entire building, not just the first floor.

“If there’s such a thing as a prime location in downtown Paxton, this is the intersection right here,” Baier said, “and there’s no reason that this whole building shouldn’t be utilized. It’s a hell of a building.”

Baier said he feels Remembrance Hall is important to the future of the downtown, and having it fully occupied is, too.

“I think it’s about damn time,” Baier said. “I mean, what a waste — what a waste to have a building like this sitting here and the second and third floors aren’t being used.”

Location (3):Local, Paxton, Ford County

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