Two long-vacant Midcity buildings have new owners and are on their way to becoming studios for local artisans.
The Book Exchange building on South 19th Street, just south of North Boulevard, now has a second story and will become a studio and warehouse for furniture maker Andrew Moran.
Meanwhile, the so-called coat hanger building on South 22nd Street, north of Government Street, is being converted into a studio/workshop for John D. Blake.
The two men don’t know each other, but their projects are only a few blocks apart and each was attracted to their building for the same reasons.
“I wanted a place that, when you walked in, it had character,” Blake said of the former Acosta Cleaners, recognizable by the large coat hanger over the front door.
Blake, 35, said the building’s steel windows, solid foundation, concrete walls and steel-trussed ceiling will make a perfect home for DBA Blake Design, where he’ll take concrete and steel and make custom furniture, fountains and patio accessories.
“I like old stuff,” he said of what attracts him to buildings like his. “Just because of the way they’re built … things are just built differently. There’s just a little more craftsmanship.”
Blake said he couldn’t see himself in the suburbs in a 40-by-80 metal building with a roll-up door.
“It just felt like a space where I could be creative,” he said. “It’s just different.”
Over at the Book Exchange building, Moran, 25, said his approach to the exterior will be to leave as much of it intact as possible, blending the new second story aesthetically as best he can.
“I don’t want to destroy the history and make it look like everything else,” he said, “so I’m not doing much to the outside.”
Moran said the 1,100-square-foot second story will be a loft when he builds it out later, while the 3,100-square-foot downstairs — which may be two buildings — will be used to store the cypress slabs and other hardwoods he pulls from swamps and bayous to build benches and tables.
Moran and Blake said they were attracted to Midcity because of the uniqueness of its buildings, and neither was afraid of the work they’d have to put in to open their studios.
Moran said he bought the building on a Friday in February and was in it the next day, removing dirt from inside of it.
“The dirt was up to here,” he said, holding his hand more than a foot off the ground along the wall.
“When I say it was a jungle in here …,” he said, making a circle with his thumbs and index fingers barely touching. “There were trees this big around.”
Without the aid of any machinery, Moran filled six 30-yard dumpsters with dirt, trees and debris.
But going into older buildings makes sense financially, too.
“You think of building something like this today — just the slab would cost me 30 grand,” Blake said, noting the shell would cost $100,000.
In buying and renovating, Blake estimated he’s spending half of what it would cost to build such a building himself.
“If you look at the cost of doing this new, I came out ahead in buying a dilapidated old building just because of how the building is made.”
It’s more than economics, however. Moran’s parents had a furniture shop nearby on Government Street for years, and he built his first table for them there when he was 12 years old.
Blake, who is originally from Jonesboro, has lived in Baton Rouge since attending LSU. He said he really can’t see himself anywhere else.
“This is just kinda my part of town,” he said.
Both men have had incidents common to property owners moving into a transitional neighborhood. Moran had someone tag the front of the building with graffiti; Blake noticed evidence of someone camping out in the brush alongside his building, and worse.
“Three days after I closed on the building someone came in and set it on fire,” he said, pointing to the singed walls in the corner. But with the building built like it is, the fire really didn’t do to much damage.
“It’s basically bullet proof,” he said. “It’s a solid, solid building.”
Moran and Blake acknowledged there are security concerns, but neither is particularly troubled by the neighborhood. It’s worth noting, however, that neither operation will have a traditional retail storefront, opting instead to rely on clients meeting there by appointment.
Moran bought the Book Exchange building from Circa 1857, which brought the corner of Government and S. 19th to life several years ago with a sprawling artisans market. Just across the street, the new Dufrocq Elementary school continued the process.
The area, Moran said, “is definitely coming up.”
“I get a lot of slowing down,” he said of the cars that passed the construction work. “… and the eyes.”
Blake said he gets asked what he’s going to do with the coat hanger, with one Midcity building owner telling him he wants it if Blake takes it down.
“It’s so different and unique that you’re just scared to touch it,” he said.
Moran said he hopes to be in his building by sometime in November. That, coincidentally, was the same month Blake had initially planned on. However, he said the recent travails of the stock market have likely delayed that for him.
Still, he’s happy to “peck away” at the renovation process and bring DBA Blake Design to life.