When the Robneel went up for sale last spring, Chris Poynter and his parents knew that the building had potential. But they weren’t prepared for what they found inside.
“We walked up that staircase and our jaws dropped,” Poynter said. “This place was like a time capsule.”
Eight upstairs apartments opened onto a two-story lobby on the second and third floors. There was a grand wooden staircase illuminated by a skylight and windows on an interior air shaft.
Much of the Robneel’s historical material was intact, including original woodwork, floors, cabinetry and tin ceilings on the first floor, which originally housed a grocery and furniture store.
“We found so much fun stuff in the basement, like 50-gallon tubs of lard and old appliance parts,” said Poynter, who grew up in Paris and now lives in Louisville, where he is the mayor’s communications director.
Beside the basement staircase, there is a huge steel safe containing records from Bourbon Lodge No. 23 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which owned the building for decades.
The club, which has dwindled to a handful of men, sold the building to the Poynters for $111,000 on the condition that they be allowed to continue meeting in their lodge hall in a 1949 rear addition.
“The key thing for them was they wanted the building in somebody's hands who was going to do it right,” Poynter said.
Over the next seven months, the family invested $300,000 and a lot of hard work in the building. Poynter’s father, Darrell, and carpenter James Stivers did most of the work with help from more than a dozen local contractors and suppliers.
Poynter’s mother, Debbie, designed the interiors and filled the lobby with Kentucky art, including Bourbon County landscapes by Paris photographer Bobby Shiflet.
Chris Poynter came home on weekends to work. “There were 11 coats of paint on these,” he said, pointing to ceramic tile around the coal fireplaces in each apartment.
Plaster walls and ceilings were redone with drywall. Original heart-pine floors were refinished. Each apartment got a new kitchen, bathroom and HVAC system, although the old steam radiators were saved for decoration.
“We kept every architectural detail we could,” said Darrell Poynter, who spent six weeks restoring the building’s wooden windows, nearly half of which still have the original wavy glass. “You couldn’t replicate this building today. I don’t think you could find the craftsmen, and if you could, it would cost a fortune.”
The Poynters say restoring the Robneel was a labor of love. It also was a good investment. When the building reopened with a ribbon-cutting and open house on March 4, it was fully leased. The first floor now houses Mark Mattox Real Estate and Just Simply Southern, a gift and clothing boutique.
Chris Poynter said 35 people applied for the eight apartments, which rent for $695 to $950 a month. “I could have rented eight more if I had them,” he said.
Daron Jordan, Paris’ new city manager, is among the tenants. He and his wife began moving in the moment the open house ended. A rental truck with their belongings was parked in a nearby lot. “We walked in and saw the craftsmanship and the work they had done and just fell in love,” he said.
Jordan hopes to encourage more projects like the Robneel. Paris, like many Central Kentucky towns, has a wealth of beautiful commercial buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries that are rundown and ripe for renovation and reuse.
In addition to architectural charm, many of these buildings hold fond memories for local residents. At the Robneel’s open house, several people shared their stories of the building.
“It was my first ‘big girl’ apartment,” said Melissa Willoughby, who lived in the Robneel for three years. “Everybody thought I was crazy, because it wasn’t nice like this. I think people lived here then because it was cheap rent. I had to move when the heat quit working.”
Now, she said, “It’s gorgeous. If I didn’t have my dog, I would move back here.”