Reuse of historic U.P. buildings preserves sense of place

Seeing an old building come back to life is kind of like seeing leaves appear on the trees in the spring after a long winter of dormancy. Too many times old, abandoned buildings don't get a chance to "leaf out" again, and simply become sport for the wrecking ball and demolition crew.

Here are some building rehabilitation projects in the region that are either finished or in the planning stages.

From the Back Door Bar to a dance studio/bar
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The Back Door Bar in Sault Ste. Marie was a popular nightclub in the area for many years. A fellow named Jan spun records and then CDs in the bar for decades and they often hosted bands, including on one occasion Henry Lee Summer.

The two-story building is located on Ashmun Street, the main street in the "Soo." By all outward appearances, it's a solid looking building. Local historians have yet to confirm the year it was built but current owner Ashley Corbiere tells me her 90-year-old grandma recalls it being a JC Penney's department store when she was a teen. It has also been a Gambles store, and the upstairs was once the headquarters for the Knights of Columbus.

While it was still the Back Door Bar, Corbiere started renting the spacious upstairs for a  dance studio, now called the  Allure Dance Company. It wasn't long after her business was well established that the owner of the Back Door came knocking to tell her he was going to sell the place.

"I was afraid someone would come along and raise the rent, tell me to get out, and I would have nowhere to go," says Corbiere. Fortunately, the owner was also giving her the first crack at buying the place. Corbiere, who had worked in a bar for several years before opening the dance studio called on her former employer, Laura (Kemfert) McKay, to see if she was interested in going into business, keeping the bar going downstairs and the dance studio up top.

They opened the bar, now called Three One Three on Ashmun, in February of this year, after several months of renovations. They are currently working with DDA director Justin Knepper on a grant to renovate the facade, which also will cover other historic buildings downtown.

Sundberg Building goes from condemned to reused

Talk about knocking on heaven's door. The Sundberg Building in Negaunee was on death row when a movement began just a few years ago to save the old structure, which was built in 1890-91. Even now, it can't be saved entirely; it's in that bad of shape.

Mike Lempinen, architectural designer with John Larson Architects, says the design they've come up with will keep the front of the building as is, a two story-structure; the rear of the building, which is beyond repair, will be turned into ruins in the style of the Greeks, with an open air patio.
The project has gotten a big boost from Jim and Ann Kantola, who matched a $5,000 grant awarded from the Michigan Preservation Fund to the Lake Superior Community Partnership Foundation.

The effort to restore the building is more about preserving a piece of Negaunee history than economic development.

"It's about saving our collective history, it's about preserving our culture," says Vikki Kulju in an article in the Marquette Mining Journal. "It's about preserving all of the stories and the hard work that went into developing Negaunee and building Negaunee to what it is. We want to take that one step further and take the Sundberg building and bring it back to its glory."

The original building was home to three retail stores on the ground floor, and the second floor consisted of office and apartment space. It was a bustling time for Negaunee during the early years of the Sundberg Building, when the population hovered around 9,000 people, nearly double what it is today. Like most buildings in a downtown district, the Sundberg Building was used for a number of different things, including a post office, a theater, an auditorium and most recently, as a furniture warehouse in the 1980s and 90s. The building has been vacant since the early 2000s.

Re-use of Lloyd buildings for waterfront living

The city of Menominee was able to preserve a couple of gems that sit on the waterfront while adding more housing for city residents. I spoke with Nancy Douglas from her fourth floor apartment in one of them, known as the Lloyd One building. Douglas and other tenants of the building enjoy a fantastic view of Lake Michigan from their apartments.

Douglas works for the Menominee Business Development Corporation as a liaison between the state and the developer for the project, the WODA Group, the general contractor for the project. She says they've done marvelous work on the Lloyd One building and are beginning work on the adjacent Lloyd Two building.

"We were really lucky to find them," she says of WODA. "They're really spectacular at historical restoration." The Lloyd One building consists of 44 apartments plus underground parking.
These two historical buildings were built at the turn of the century,  and served the community well. Lloyd One, built as Marshall B. Lloyd's Wonder Store, housed retail stores and in later years was the home of the Fish Net Twine business. The old timers still refer to the Lloyd Two building as the Odd Fellows building, according to Douglas.

Douglas says the buildings are a part of Menominee's historic district. She says the Lloyd One building is a Michigan State Housing Development (MSHDA) backed project, and Lloyd Two is an Michigan Economic Development (MEDC) blighted building project. She adds the city stepped up to provided a tax abatement for Lloyd Two as part of the Obsolete Property Renovation Act (OPRA).

Calumet Visitor Center offers symbol of historic preservation

The building formerly known as the Union Building is steeped in history. Past uses for the building are well documented by the Keweenaw National Historical Park. It opened in 1889 after two fraternal groups--Free and Accepted Masons and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows--formed the Union Building Association and raised money for its construction. Over the years many notable events took place within these walls, which is also well documented in local archives.

The three-story building was a bustling hub of activity. Over the years the ground floor was rented to commercial tenants and at various times housed a bank, post office, printing company, beauty salon, and other entities. According to records, the Masons and Odd Fellows used a separate entrance to reach the upper floors, where they "held meetings and practiced rituals." Many other fraternal and ethnic groups rented the upper floors as well;  regular meetings were held by the Knights of Pythias, Ancient Order of Hibernians, and Daughters of Rebekah, among others.

The repurposed building was reopened in 2011, and not only serves as an information center for visitors to the area, but as a living, breathing symbol of the area's history.

Neil Moran is a freelance writer/copywriter living in Sault Ste. Marie.
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