JANESVILLE—For a four-story, 150-year-old building to pirouette on its foundation would be a nearly impossible architectural feat.
Yet, through a yearlong renovation inside and out the former Rock County Appliance building at 34-38 S. Main St. in downtown Janesville, owner Jim Grafft and his daughter Britten Langfoss have turned the building in an about-face.
They’ve done so without moving the property an inch.
A new, three-story annex on the building’s rear transforms the side facing the Rock River from a loading dock to a three-story entryway. A set of tiered balconies overhang an area that now is a city parking deck and overlook the Rock River and the west side of Janesville.
The entry sign below reads: The Venue. That’s the name of Langfoss’s upstart banquet and events hall inside the circa 1868 building.
The annex out front re-establishes the building’s river-facing side as the “new” front side of the building, even thought the exterior on the building’s Main Street remains structurally unaltered, and in fact, its ground-floor storefront has an anchor tenant.
Janesville-based musical instrument seller Voigt Music this week is opening a new, consolidated store in the building’s lower level.
The Rock River, and its ties to ARISE—the city of Janesville’s fledgling downtown riverfront revitalization plan unveiled earlier this year—gave Langfoss the impetus to spend a year renovating the interior of the downtown building’s third and fourth floors, which are dominated by an open-air balcony that encircles what was originally a Methodist Church sanctuary.
Langfoss, who will manage The Venue as a banquet and event rental space, held her own wedding in the building’s former sanctuary earlier this year. She already has six weddings booked in 2016, among a slew of other banquets and private events.
A grand opening and open house tours Wednesday from 5:30 to 8 p.m. will give the public their first glimpse of renovations at The Venue.
Prior to the building’s lower floors being used to house a JC Penney department store and later Rock County Appliance, the upper floors had been home of a Masonic lodge.
For decades, no one but curious visitors with connections to former building owners had set foot in the upper floors. Dust had collected so thick that Grafft said he used a leaf blower to evacuate the grime last March when exterior renovations had opened up part of the building.
So much gray and black dust blew from windows that day, Grafft said, the Janesville Fire Department rushed downtown, crews in full turnout.
“They thought the building was on fire,” Grafft said. “But it was just dust, 70 years of dust.”
Grafft declined to disclose how much he’s invested on renovations, and Langfoss wouldn’t discuss the status of historical tax credits she said last year the project could be eligible for.
Grafft has enlisted at least a dozen general and specialty contractors since November 2014 to replace and carpet flooring; wash, rehab and refinish woodwork; renovate bathrooms; and paint and restore brick and plaster walls, including the entire curved alcove behind the sanctuary’s altar.
The annex has its own stairs with window views of the river. An elevator moves guests and caterers or other event services to the upper floors’ three renovated event spaces, which include a former Masonic lodge billiard room and a large sanctuary that’s being renamed “The Bower City Ballroom,” a nod to an earlier nickname given to the city of Janesville.
The building has a warming kitchen and has had a total overhaul of its electrical and water utilities.
There are quirky details, such as the original metal medallions on the wood-beamed sanctuary ceiling. Langfoss, who studied architectural design in college, took pains to plan a retrofit that preserved the medallions, while outfitting them to work as air-return portholes for the building’s new heating and cooling system in the attic.
“It was small things like that. Hours of research,” Langfoss said.
Much of the building’s original historical design is preserved, which Grafft said was a goal when he’d bought the building in late 2013, after Rock County Appliance closed. He believes The Venue now is the city’s oldest commercial building open for public use, and, he thinks, a one-of-a-kind space.
“We knew it had to be saved and repurposed. This space is non-existent anywhere else. Even in its total disrepair, it was a gem,” Grafft said.
Grafft also owns the five-story former Monterey Hotel, another well-known property on West Milwaukee Street in downtown Janesville. The Monterey made headlines earlier this week when Grafft began demolishing the building next to it–the former Jeffris Theater.
That puts the Monterey back in the spotlight. The city and Grafft have had acrimonious dealings over that property, which has been vacant years, despite Grafft’s vow he plans to renovate it into apartments.
Langfoss said this week she doesn’t see a project moving forward at the Monterey in the near term, in part because she said the city hasn’t made serious overtures for incentives that could pay for a parking structure the Graffts say the Monterey needs for apartments.
The city, however, did grant rights for The Venue’s new balconies to overhang an alleyway considered city property. Grafft said he would not have gone ahead with the project without balconies.
Grafft said the Venue project, which he said he’s financed with only his own money, shows he’s serious about finishing projects he starts.
“We’ll complete and see through projects, but I do things long term. You’ve got to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s got to make economic and business sense,” he said.