PAXTON — Of the 40 or so people who toured the newly renovated second floor of Ford County’s oldest commercial building on Thursday, not one of them had to duck when walking up the stairs leading to it.
The removal of a low-lying wooden beam that made navigating the stairs a bit tricky in the past was one of the first improvements they must have noticed.
But it certainly wasn’t the last.
"Everybody, they were just in awe," said the building’s owner, Royce Baier, after giving tours of Remembrance Hall’s second floor to members of the Paxton Area Chamber of Commerce and others.
Baier, who has owned the historic three-story building at the northeast corner of Pells and Market streets for an estimated 20 years, hired contractors and did much work himself to complete an extensive renovation of both the building’s first and second floors over the past two years.
The first floor of the 152-year-old building was renovated last year, with three new tenants — the Paxton Area Chamber of Commerce, Kief Realty and Edward Jones — finding a home there. This year, Baier hopes the second floor will be filled with new tenants, too, now that its renovation is finally complete.
The second floor features four newly renovated apartments — a pair of one-bedroom apartments and a pair of two-bedroom apartments — each with 11-foot ceilings and 8-foot windows overlooking downtown Paxton.
The apartments represented the most involved — and most expensive — part of the renovation project, as Baier installed new windows, foam insulation, drywall, electrical wiring and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, along with bathroom and kitchen areas.
‘This was a huge project’
Baier was not willing to disclose just how much he spent on the second-floor work — "I can’t tell you that because you’d think, for sure, I’m crazy," he said — but he did say that the amount ended up being "three times what I wanted to" spend.
"(My wife) Sheila told me about three months ago, she said, ‘You’ve got to stop the hemorrhaging,’ and I said, ‘Trust me, if I could stop it now I would,’ but I said, ‘We’re that close to being done,’" Baier recalled.
Now that the work is done, Baier admittedly feels relieved.
"This was a huge project," said Baier, a local historic preservationist who heads the nonprofit Paxton Foundation. "This was the biggest project I’ve done. My house (the historic Middlecoff Mansion on East Pells Street) was big. The (renovation of the former) sheriff’s residence was big. The (Ford County Historical Society’s) museum (in the old water tower downtown) was big. But this was the biggest project I’ve ever done."
Baier said the apartments are now available for rent for monthly fees ranging from $700 to $1,000, plus utilities.
Signs of the past
While there are plenty of things that are new in each apartment, many signs of Remembrance Hall’s past remain.
Left untouched in one apartment: The remnants of an old elevator that was last used to move tires to Remembrance Hall’s second floor when a Firestone store occupied the building.
In another apartment: An old ticket window that had been used many decades ago when an opera house was in operation on the building’s third floor. The ticket window’s wall has poems, messages and names written on it, some dating back more than a century, and it has been left untouched and preserved, Baier said.
New life in an old building
Baier, a 65-year-old lifelong Paxton resident, bought Remembrance Hall in the mid-1990s. At the time, he had planned to bring new life to the entire building.
Initial renovations to the 3,400-square-foot first floor allowed for a banquet hall to open there, but it closed about five years later. Taverns then occupied the first floor until 2016.
The 3,400-square-foot second floor, meanwhile, had not been in use since around 1960, when it coincidentally housed apartments, Baier said.
The third floor — which long ago occupied an opera house — continues to sit vacant but is expected to be renovated, too, in upcoming years, Baier said. Baier said he is still exploring what to do with that floor.
"I have two thoughts," Baier said. "One would be to restore it to an opera house and put the stage back in. The other is to put in one big apartment."
The problem with putting apartments on the third floor, however, is that an elevator would probably be required to meet fire codes, with a price tag of at least $100,000.
Living a dream
Baier said it was his "dream and my goal" when he bought the building to "utilize all three floors again."
"When Remembrance Clark built this building in 1867, they used all three floors," Baier said. "I mean, what an asset this (building) should be to the community. This shouldn’t be sitting here vacant. Now, we’ll have tenants up here, and we’ll have more people downtown; we’ll have more people going to the grocery store, more people eating at the restaurants. I mean, it just brings more life to the downtown (having this entire building used). When the third floor is done, the building will be alive again."
Baier said preserving Paxton’s historic buildings holds a place in his heart, as his work on Remembrance Hall shows.
"I was born and raised here," Baier said. "This is my hometown, and I just have that close of feelings about it."
Public invited to open house
While Thursday’s open house was for chamber of commerce members only, Baier said he is planning to hold a public open house of the apartments from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27.
A billboard advertising the apartments will be installed on Remembrance Hall’s south side, along Pells Street, Baier said. Tentatively, it is expected to say: "Remembrance Hall Second-Floor Historic Adult Luxury Apartments / 1- and 2-bedroom / For rental information: 217-379-3200."