A visitor walking into The Reserve in downtown Neenah would never guess that just a few years ago, the building was home to cubicles, worn-out brown carpeting, fluorescent lights and drop ceilings.
Today, it features wooden floors, gorgeous woodwork — including crown molding found above those drop ceilings — and plenty of natural light.
Developer Umer Sheikh recently completed the transformation of the 1909 building’s historic features, adding a few modern conveniences for its new tenants, including a brew pub, hair salon, photographer and marketing firm.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful building in Neenah and Neenah is home,” he says. “I love old buildings and that’s what we do — we take old buildings and bring them back to life.”
Sheikh isn’t alone. Across the New North, developers and architects are taking older downtown buildings, rehabbing them and giving them new life.
In De Pere, architect Chris Renier created a modern office space in a 100-year-old building while Smet Construction transformed a vacant downtown Green Bay building into Backstage at the Meyer, a banquet area for weddings, meetings and other special events or smaller performances, and second-floor office space for Breakthrough Fuels.
Adjacent to the Meyer Theatre, the new space for Backstage at the Meyer and Breakthrough Fuels required Smet Construction to complete a wall-to-wall renovation of the two-story building and added 2,500 square feet to each floor.
Natural light courtesy of large windows is used throughout the building while large pillars on the main floor were replaced with 60-foot steel beams, allowing construction crews to open the space up for tables and seating and in front of a stage, says Steve Payant, Smet Construction’s project manager for the building.
New brick walls line the first floor while on the second floor, the original brick walls and wooden rafters were revealed and left unadorned. In addition, a rooftop deck was added for Breakthrough employees.
While some of the building’s historic look remains, all of the utilities and mechanicals were torn out and replaced with state-of-the art plumbing, electrical and mechanical services, Payant says.
Architect Renier breathed new life into a 100-year-old downtown De Pere building for Bridget O’Connor and her business, O’Connor Connective. When working on a historic building, Renier says it’s all about removing items “that have been poorly added over the years and pare the space down to its original essence.”
During construction, which was completed last year, more than 10 dumpsters of construction debris was removed, leaving behind the building’s original brick and 20-foot wood beams. From there, Renier crafted the 2,800-square-foot building into a combination of open, flexible space, defined offices, a kitchen and conference room.
During the design process, Renier juxtaposed new materials with the original ones he was able to salvage. He says the project wasn’t a historic restoration so recreating what the building looked like when it was first built would not have been the right call.
He worked closely with owner O’Connor, incorporating her ideas of how she wanted the space to look.
“When working on a project like this, there were so many layers. It’s like a discovery process and as you go along, you make adjustments” in design and materials, he says.
While Renier worked with a single tenant for his project, Sheikh worked with multiple tenants at The Reserve, which was home to the Equitable Reserve Association from 1909 until it closed in 2012 following a merger with Modern Woodmen of America.
Sheikh, who also owns the Marketplace in downtown Neenah, says he and his wife, Trish Lison Sheikh, felt drawn to the building, which also includes a third floor ballroom.
“People used to have community events here, weddings or Equitable Reserve members could come for dancing. We hope the space will be used the same way,” Sheikh says of the restored ballroom space, adding that Future Neenah was the first group to use the space.
As workers began working on the building, Sheikh admits he didn’t know what they would find.
“It’s a great building, but then the 1960s and 1980s happened to it,” he says.
Once those layers were taken off, beautiful woodwork and tall ceilings were revealed. The original woodwork, including crown molding, was restored when possible and when it wasn’t, Sheikh had new pieces made to match. The original hardwood floors were also exposed and refinished.
Bringing a building up to code is always part of the project when working on an older building, Sheikh says. In the case of The Reserve (the name is a tribute to ERA), that meant a new elevator, adding a sprinkler system and building a new staircase from the third floor to the ground that serves as a second fire exit.
“Working on this building has been a labor of love,” Sheikh says.