Friday, April 18, 2014

Old Post office stamped for second life

By ABBY ECKEL, Herald Staff Writer | 2/14/2014

Its Greek-like columns outside and once-beautiful marble flooring inside are the way Jim Lewis always will remember the old Federal Post Office at Second and Hickory streets in Ottawa, he said.

Lewis has fond childhood memories of spending many days hanging around outside the post office, waiting for his dad to get off work, he said.

Its Greek-like columns outside and once-beautiful marble flooring inside are the way Jim Lewis always will remember the old Federal Post Office at Second and Hickory streets in Ottawa, he said.

Lewis has fond childhood memories of spending many days hanging around outside the post office, waiting for his dad to get off work, he said.

“My father and grandfather were letter carriers at the post office,” Lewis, Lawrence, said. “I sat on that back dock a lot waiting for [my Dad] to get off work.”

Not only does the former post office hold a special place in his heart, but so do the surrounding properties, he said.

“Mom would drop me off at the dock if she was gonna go to work, and I’d wait for Dad to get off and I’d sit on the old dock and look across the street at what was a Minnick Motor Company. My [wife’s father] worked over there and now Dengel’s uses it to store caskets,” Lewis said. “The post office was also so magnificent, and my dad spent the rest of his career working there ’til they moved to the new post office location [at 401 S. Hickory St., Ottawa].”

The old post office building on Second Street has been vacant for decades, Lewis said. In hopes of one day being able to restore it back to the way he remembered it, Lewis bought property next door.

“I bought the lot next to the post office because it was vacant, but it was the first Bell telephone building,” Lewis said. “I bought [the property] at a tax sale and had it torn down hoping one day I could get my hands on the post office and be a part of its renovation.”

Lewis’ dreams are finally coming true. Lewis, along with Scott Zaremba, owner of Zarco USA, Peach Madl, owner of the Plaza Grill and Cinema, Andrew Madl, Peach Madl’s son, and Jeremy Rodrock and his wife, Baldwin City, recently acquired the old building and are now working on plans to renovate it into an event space, Lewis said.

‘AN IMPRESSIVE BUILDING’

The building opened in about 1915, constructed out of Virginia granite over the course of three years, Zaremba said. It was a unique structure, he said.

“You cannot economically build a building like that today unless you’re Warren Buffet or something,” Zaremba said, laughing. “To have one of those structures in the community we can save — and its proximity to where it is downtown and other amenities we can bring to downtown over time and have something you look at and go ‘Wow, that’s just an impressive building.’”

Zaremba, Lewis, Rodrock and the Madls have all crossed paths for business purposes in one way or another throughout the years, Zaremba said. Zaremba partnered with Peach Madl on gathering the history of the Plaza Grill and Cinema, 209 S. Main St., Ottawa, and making it a tourist attraction as being the oldest cinema in the world.

 The two also partnered to put Sandbar Sub Shop locations in Zarco stores.

With the old post office building’s beautiful exterior, and soon-to-be beautiful interior, Zaremba said, the space next to the old post office owned by Lewis will provide a perfect venue option for outdoor events.

“[Lewis] was hoping to be able to save [the former telephone building], but that left us a great space to the west of the post office to be able to set up tents and have receptions and events in that area and gives us a nice spot there,” Zaremba said.

With a historic attraction like the Plaza Grill and Cinema right around the corner, Zaremba said, he hopes by restoring the old post office, it will not only bring more people to tour Ottawa, but help others to also want to revitalize the community.

“You start looking at that history of more than 100 years in the post office, which has been vacant for 18 to 20 years, and see its potential,” Zaremba said. “Combining [the theater and old post office] together and get more business that could come to town and create a niche for people to come see it — that travel and tourism in the state is going to be a big thing.”

‘BABY STEPS’

The building previously was owned by Jeff Altendorf, who purchased it in 2005 with plans to renovate it, Lewis said, but Altendorf soon realized the fixer-upper project wasn’t a one-man job.

After speaking with Altendorf, Lewis knew it wasn’t a project he could conquer on his own either, so when Peach Madl asked him to go in on purchasing it, he knew the wait was worth it, he said.

“Now we have an architect working on some designs of what we can do,” Lewis said. “The first thing to do is clean up the rotten wood floor in there on top of the concrete. It’s going to have to be scaled down to just raw stone and brought back up and once the stone is cleaned up — I remember it in its glory days, and it was an absolute beautiful building.”

The lobby is the heart of the building where alluring marble peaks through debris of wood pieces and chunks of old tile. Lewis said he’d like to keep the marble and polish it back to its original look.

Along with plumbing and electrical upgrades, the building is filled with asbestos, which will have to be taken care of carefully, Lewis said. Whatever renovations are needed will take time, as Lewis and the other investors try to preserve as much natural beauty as possible, he added.

“I told them we need to take baby steps,” he said. “Whatever we do, make sure it’s done right. It’s going to be a long affair.”

A LEGACY

His home may be in Lawrence now, Lewis said, but his heart has been and always will be in Ottawa.

“Another reason my wife and I are involved [in the post office’s renovation] is to give back,” Lewis said. “We were born and raised here, we got our high school education here and I think any time you have an opportunity and can give back and help preserve something, it’s a thing you should do.”

Lewis said the makeover of the old post office is just what the community needs.

“I look at Ottawa as a vibrant town,” he said. “It’s got a lot going for it and the downtown itself — how it’s come up and you look back... and how all these buildings have come back and a lot of them are still here — if we can preserve this one, it’s going to be a magnificent thing to do.”

Ottawa has something special to offer, Zaremba said, and it’s just a matter of getting people to see that.

“The history we have in the community and the history that has happened in the community is something we need to keep alive and show the next generation what’s happened,” Zaremba said, “and create something to revitalize downtown. I think there’s a niche in Ottawa and something special to have people come to the community. We think all those things put together will be a great improvement and driver for people to come to the community and it’s a positive thing.”

Sure, Lewis said, he could show his kids and grandchildren pictures of the building where he spent so many of his childhood days looking across the street at the old auto shop, but he’d much rather be able to take them there to see for themselves.

“I can tell them about the post office, but now I can show them and they can get the feeling,” Lewis said. “It’s like Peach says, it will be a part of our legacy.”

comments powered by Disqus