Take a peek inside the redevelopment of the historic Farmington State Savings Bank building

There’s a lot that goes into redeveloping a historic building like the Farmington State Savings Bank, which first opened in 1922.

There are the fun parts, like discovering historic artifacts behind old walls, and there are the practical parts, like bringing things up to code.

Sometimes the two converge.

Take, for instance, the seemingly mundane plan to knock out a portion of wall in the basement, creating passage to a stairway for egress. As it turns out, that pathway will go right past an old room stuffed with boxes and old bottles.

Though they may be empty, those old bottles have a lot of Farmington history inside.

Matt DeSantos, president of GLP Financial Group"It will go past what used to be a legit speakeasy back in the 1920s. It was real. They had a dumbwaiter in there, ornate ceiling work, old school alarms in the doors," says Matt DeSantos, president at GLP Financial Group.

It’s the kind of discovery that makes a project like the Farmington State Savings Bank so enjoyable for the company. GLP Financial Group purchased the building at the beginning of the year and has been working on it ever since. It will eventually become home to their new headquarters.

The plan is to restore the exterior of the building to its original 1920s façade while completely renovating the interior, creating state-of-the-art offices within the walls of a historic building.

"Especially in older, smaller communities, many times there are only a handful of prominent buildings like these left. They’re built very well and many times more than today," says Kevin Biddison, president of Biddison Architecture, the firm hired for the project.

"To keep the historic character and give them new purpose is really the responsible thing to do, if you can make that happen.

"It’s important not to lose that old downtown feeling in downtown Farmington."

It’s not an easy task. Nor is it cheap.

For every wall removed, a new discovery. And for every new discovery there’s the potential for having to spend more money.

But for DeSantos and CEO Alex Kocoves, it’s been a labor of love. While they have spent their careers in the financial industry, this is their first time diving into real estate development.

"It’s been a lot of learning and finding the right partners for us, like Ronnisch Construction, Kevin Biddison’s architecture firm – being able to trust who you’re working with. The city is a big part of this. They’ve helped us immensely," DeSantos says.

"Though it takes up a lot of time, it’s been an interesting process. We’ve been enjoying learning as we go."

Alex Kocoves, CEO of GLP Financial GroupThe company views the project not only as a benefit to itself but to downtown Farmington as a whole.

"The whole idea is that this is a great community down here, the people are great. It has all these attributes and now it’s a matter of putting more life into it," Kocoves says.

"This is like our home and we want to make our home and neighbors prosper."

A tour of Farmington's past and future

Walking into the Farmington State Savings Bank today is walking into a cavernous shell stripped bare. With phase one of demolition complete, the second floor has been removed. So, too, has the ceiling, revealing steel beams and wooden rafters.

"The fact that it was an old bank, we were hoping that we’d find a pot of gold coins, but we didn’t. It would’ve been nice," Kocoves says.

Though empty, the building in its current state reveals its future. The ceiling will be left open; the beams will be polished and rafters will be sanded and stained. The interior will be somewhat of an open concept office space, with each floor visible from the next. A catwalk entrance will reveal the basement while a rebuilt second floor juts out from above.

Employees will primarily work on the first floor, where the windows will be enlarged to let in more natural light while also revealing the office to passers-by. An old vault will be made a conference room.

A look at the second floorThe second floor will have DeSantos and Kocoves’s offices and also a conference room. A back wall will be demolished to connect to an apartment on the property, which will be used as a lounge area.

Tearing down one wall revealed ductwork leading to a forgotten cupola. The ductwork will be removed and the cupola will be restored as a skylight.

"The whole idea is natural light," Kocoves says.

Even the basement will have natural light. Two old stairwells that connect the basement to the sidewalk – one since removed and paved over, the other blocked off – will be re-opened to allow light into the basement, where there will be the call center and training and IT areas. An old vault will be used as a room for servers. The historic door from a second vault will be repurposed into a wall as a nod to the building’s past.

It's bigger than a single building

Kevin Biddison is the architect responsible for the design of the reimagined Bank building. In fact, it’s his own office in downtown Birmingham, where he repurposed an old post office, that DeSantos and Kocoves drew some of their inspiration.

"That’s something that I really enjoy, taking an old shell of a building and to build an environment inside and open them up, to give them a new lease on life," Biddison says.

Layers of paint will be walnut shell-blasted to reveal the original stone facadeThat "old shell" will be brought back to its original grandeur, thanks to a unique paint-stripping process devised to protect the original stone walls. After years and years – and layers and layers – of paint on the exterior of the building, it will be a method of walnut shell-blasting, not sand-blasting, that will be used to safely strip the paint off what is either limestone or granite. The owners won’t know which until the paint is gone.

Yes, that’s right. Sand can damage the stone walls so blasting walnut shells against the side of the building will strip off the paint without any undesired side effects.

"We learned this, too," Kocoves says.

A tour of the building’s exterior gives way to GLP’s other buildings on site. That’s because GLP didn’t just purchase the former bank but a total of four downtown buildings: The bank and three commercial buildings adjacent to the property. Current tenants include Kitchen Creations, Neu Kombucha, Plus Skateboarding, and several more.

There are also seven occupied apartments within the bank building itself. The eighth will become the aforementioned office lounge.

"We’ve definitely learned a lot about real estate and development," DeSantos says. "I tell Al, it’s about 50 percent of my job now."

It all comes together to form GLP’s bigger vision for downtown Farmington. Phase one of demolition gives way to a second phase of construction set to begin after Labor Day. The company hopes their new home will be ready sometime next spring.

And while phase two is their focus, Kocoves says that building more apartments could become an eventual phase three.

And beyond that?

"Would we ever open up a new speakeasy? Maybe," Kocoves says. "That might be phase four."

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
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