2 old buildings getting new life

bfortune@herald-leader.comNovember 7, 2009 

Two buildings that housed Thompson & Riley auction house and the company's real estate offices for many years are being renovated by Bob Cole, president of the Coleman Group, a commercial real estate and property management company.

Cole plans to adapt the two East Main Street structures, which together have about 9,000 square feet, to new uses.

Coleman Group headquarters will be moved into the rear of one of the buildings. In the front will be your SMARTOFFICEsolutions, a virtual office business Cole is starting.

The other building will be redone and leased.

The two structures are connected by a central corridor. An atrium covered by an 18-foot glass-and-steel roof will be in the middle of the corridor.

Four years ago, Cole paid $1.1 million for the buildings he described as "run down and dilapidated." On less than a half-acre of land, "It's probably the most expensive dirt that's been purchased in Lexington in some time," he said.

And that was before the $785,000 in renovations. "But I felt the buildings were important," he said. While he knew little about their history, "I didn't want to go in and tear them down. To me that would have been very sad."

Cole said he feels strongly that "reusing old buildings is what more developers need to do."

Thompson & Riley moved to 710 East Main in the late 1970s. Jamie Bates, the owner since 2000, announced last November that he was closing the downtown location, and he said the future was uncertain because of the recession.

Last year, Cole assembled a design team to develop a plan for "a more contemporary look and use" of the properties. "We looked long and hard at how to preserve them," he said.

For what it's costing for the renovation, Cole said he could have torn down the buildings and built a two- or three-story building.

"It was sad that the properties had been allowed to become so run-down," he said. "It's difficult to salvage them, quite frankly."

Cole is saving "as much as is functional." One dilemma was whether to save the decorative facade of one building that is covered with what looks like carved stone scrolls but are really cast concrete. "Probably they were covered because they were falling apart," Cole said. "Our architect said when they were covered up, more damage was done to them."

While gutting one building, workers uncovered a barrel-shape, wooden ceiling "that's as beautiful as the day it was put up," Cole said. The ceiling will remain, as will the building's original terrazzo floor "that is incredible."

Cole spoke of his partiality for buildings that blend the old with contemporary. That combination "gives such a warm, inviting feeling," he said. "To me they're the most beautiful."

As plans for renovation were being drawn up, Cole said, he had to balance his interest in preserving what was old, with creating an environment that today's consumer wants to use.

"Not to let my feelings about the property get in the way of it becoming a functional business location," he said.

Work is expected to be finished by year's end.

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251.

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