Bill Kadlecek was enjoying a cup of coffee in downtown Superior recently when he heard that Empire Block LLC was holding an open house. The event allowed members of the public to tour 15 restored historical apartments at 1202-1208 Tower Ave.
"They're redoing the downtown and I thought it would be fun to see what improvements are going on downtown here," Kadlecek said. "I thought I'd sneak in."
The Superior man, who taught for more than 30 years in Duluth, has a friend who is looking for an apartment geared toward senior citizens. Empire Block's market-rate apartments, which range in price from $1,250 to $2,200, were not in that category, but Kadlecek said they were worth a visit.
"It's beautiful," he said. "They've done a really nice job."
About 175 people toured the apartments in the 125-year-old building during the open house. Rental applications were taken as well.
"We got our final email from the city building inspectors (recently)," said Brian Hubbard with Empire Block LLC. "It's ready to go."
In addition to 15 market-rate apartments, the building houses four, possibly five commercial spaces on the ground floor. Empire Coffee is set to open in the 1204 Tower Ave., storefront later this month. Nicolet Law Office is leasing another space with a door off North 12th Street.
The three-year and more than $6 million restoration project did more than open up commercial and residential space in Superior's downtown. It brought back history.
Hubbard recalled walking through the upper floors with headlamps, cameras and tape measures to document all the historical features.
"When it was abandoned basically in 1985, that was the last phone book we found ... it virtually was untouched," he said.
According to the Empire Block website, "the Empire Block was built in 1891 and holds the Romanesque Revival architecture. The building was designed by Carl Worth and owned by Billings & Bailey of the Empire Building Company of New York. The Schmidt Bros. built the Empire Block for $45,000. It has housed various businesses throughout the years, including dentist offices, grocers, pharmacies, and the most recent, Lurye Furniture. The upper two floors were composed of varied office spaces and apartments. The apartments were vacated in the mid-1980s."
Hubbard said teams of contractors worked to make the space authentic, yet usable. Hence the doors along the hallway that lead to nowhere. If someone wants to restore the building to its original intent someday, the doors stand ready.
Woodwork was pulled off piece by piece, numbered and sent across the street to TW Wood Designs. It was refinished and reassembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Thad Whitesel created templates called knives to carve new pieces with the same 1892-era style and refinished some of the woodwork in place.
Old and new share space at the Empire.The floors feature 125-year-old wood, while new tile lines the walls and floors of the bathrooms. Brand-new kitchens were designed with quartz countertops and custom cabinets, tailor-made to each apartment's unique layout.
The tour revealed individual features in nearly every one - original corner closets, a green-tiled fireplace, French doors, skylights, a built-in hutch, balconies and sweeping views.
"Not a lot of people have been here at night," Hubbard said, but peering out at the skyline provides a sense of calm. "You've got the street lights lit and the Spirit Mountain lights and the bridge lights and stuff that you can see at night. It's different."
And yet, said his wife, Claire, it's situated in the heart of Superior's downtown.
The Hubbard family has deep roots in the construction industry, yet they found themselves blazing new paths as they restored the Empire Block. One hurdle was finding similar properties to compare it to for appraisal purposes.
National Bank of Commerce came through with financing, Hubbard said.
"You know they're supporting Superior and supported us," he said. "Otherwise it might not have been possible, to be honest with you."
Another key to the Empire Block's restoration was the 2013 reconstruction of Tower Avenue.
"It's changing the dynamic," Hubbard said.
Theresa Eral with Bachand Group Property Management, which is managing the property, said it's been fun to watch the building bloom back into life. She said that Bachand had received applications for the apartments even before the open house.
"The first one wanted to be here in November and it wasn't even done," Eral said. "He was ready to sign a lease. He just likes the area and knew the history part of it."
Residents should be proud of the way Superior is rehabilitating its downtown area to encourage people to live, eat, work and play there, Claire Hubbard said. The Empire Block is restored and poised to play its part.
"It's rewarding in the end, but this is just one phase of it," Hubbard said. "It needs to be a successful business that hopefully stands on its own. That's really what we want people to know."