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Friday, 02 October 2015 10:34

Living spaces crafted in renovated Edgerton tobacco warehouses

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High ceilings and exposed brick are two features of a former tobacco warehouse that developer Dan Rinehart is converting into loft apartments in downtown Edgerton. His first two warehouse-to-apartment projects on West Fulton Street are fully rented. About a hundred years ago Edgerton was known as “Tobacco City USA” and was home to about 50 such warehouses. High ceilings and exposed brick are two features of a former tobacco warehouse that developer Dan Rinehart is converting into loft apartments in downtown Edgerton. His first two warehouse-to-apartment projects on West Fulton Street are fully rented. About a hundred years ago Edgerton was known as “Tobacco City USA” and was home to about 50 such warehouses. Terry Mayer

JANESVILLE MESSENGER -- In a city that was the center of the tobacco industry in southern Wisconsin a century ago, local history isn’t forgotten. It’s just taking on a new shape.

A towering warehouse at 208 S. Main St. in downtown Edgerton that once held stacked pallets of tobacco leaves destined for cigars is being transformed into the residential Legacy Lofts, with apartments featuring exposed brick walls, solid wooden beams and 10- to 17-foot-high ceilings.

Renovation of the warehouse began this fall, and the first tenants are slated to move in by April 2016. 

Legacy Lofts is the third Edgerton tobacco warehouse-turned-apartment project for developer -- and taxidermist -- Dan Rinehart, owner of Rinehart Properties Inc. The first two buildings are located in the 300 block of West Fulton Street. The renovation of all three was more than a decade in the making.

In 2002, Rinehart had moved the taxidermy school begun by his father in the 1960s from Janesville to Edgerton. He wanted to expand into a taxidermy supply company as well and approached city officials looking for warehouse space for the business.  

They directed him to the Swisher International Tobacco Co., whose owners were looking to consolidate their business and sell several warehouses in the city.

During its heyday more than 100 years ago, Edgerton -- once dubbed “Tobacco City USA” -- had more than 50 warehouses. But over the years changes in everything from production to medical research on smoking affected the tobacco industry. More of the warehouses were vacant.

Swisher wanted Rinehart to buy eight of its warehouses. The structures were huge, ranging from 17,000 to 73,000 square feet, but in bad shape.

Rinehart toured the 63,000-square-foot warehouse that would become Legacy Lofts. Like a true taxidermist, he examined the structure’s skin and bones and envisioned a finished project.

“True, it had holes in the roof, it had brick walls falling down, but all I could see was the potential of the building,” he said.

He bought the warehouses and sold five of them, keeping the ones he thought had the most promise. Then he made sure they didn’t fall apart, which included spending stormy nights inside them with a sump pump and 30 kiddie pools to catch the rainwater filtering in from the leaky roofs.    

“I didn’t have the money to fix them, but I was just trying to save them,” Rinehart said. “The whole thing was holding on to the properties and stopping any deterioration with the belief that sometime down the road, we’re going to be able to do something with them.”

By 2011, he partnered with a developer, applied for a bank loan and started work on the first warehouse, turning it into 16 two-bedroom apartments.

The first project was a leap of faith, but after it was finished and completely rented out, the bank encouraged him to tackle the second building, he said.

Rinehart said the city of Edgerton’s help in terms of tax incremental financing districts for each of the three projects -- totaling $900,000 -- was invaluable.

So, too, was the city’s master plan to draw people downtown. Recent improvements to Edgerton have included a new city hall, an expanded library and a new community pool.

“All the foundations were actually invested before I started investing in properties and that helped a lot,” Rinehart said. “It takes a community with a strategic vision, and if you don’t have it, there won’t be the courage to do the projects like this. And there was a lot of courage shown here at city hall.”

“We were very hopeful 15 years ago when we set up the TIF district to try to do things downtown, and high on the list of what we wanted to accomplish was saving those buildings,” said Edgerton City Administrator Ramona Flanigan. “Certainly we had to wait for the stars to align, and that required someone like Dan and the market changes and the health of the TIF district, so a lot had to happen before everything fell into place.”

Two months ago, Rinehart Properties received a $489,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. for the third warehouse renovation.

Rinehart said the cost of the third project is $2.5 million.

The structure will feature studios, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, ranging from 750 square feet to 1,900 square feet.

Rinehart and his wife plan to move from Madison into one of the units.

He isn’t surprised his first two apartments are fully rented. Part of the appeal to renters, he said, is Edgerton itself, with a population of about 5,500, situated in Rock County and part of Dane County. Renters like the city’s location between Janesville and Madison, and easy access to the interstate, he said.

“And the truth was, we just had to build the right kind of place to attract people. If you build regular little cookie-cutter apartments, that just won’t work,” he said.

Legacy Lofts’ warehouse was built in 1913, a solid structure, fashioned of cream-colored bricks that were made in a nearby kiln. The walls measure four bricks deep. There are also arching 10-foot windows and massive beams of Wisconsin timber.

“You couldn’t build a building like this today even if you wanted to. The type of skills and craftsmen it takes to build this don’t exist anymore -- every brick, all the trusses laid by hand,” Rinehart said. “I have construction crews come in and (they) can’t figure out how this building was built before construction towers and cranes. It’s just a testament to the industrial revolution era in this country.”

Rinehart repurposes unneeded building remnants, like old window frames that are cleaned and used to frame poster-sized photos of the warehouses inside the new apartments. Or the steel doors of a basement boiler, bearing the name of the Kewaunee Door Co., that will be attached to the front of the new apartment.

Rinehart pointed to another piece of lingering tobacco history on the back wall of one of the warehouse apartments that faces railroad tracks: faint traces of a painted sign advertising cigars.

Rinehart said in renovating the warehouses, he learned much of Edgerton’s tobacco history, such as shortly after the 1913 warehouse was built, a crash in the tobacco market forced owners to use their new warehouse to store corn for a few years just to pay the mortgage on their property.

Or the fact that Edgerton’s tobacco farmers grew a leaf that was perfectly formed for hand-rolling the exterior of a cigar -- before hand-rolling gave way to mass-manufacturing and the advent of the cheap cigar.

“Tobacco, that market’s kind of waned a bit and moved away from Edgerton,” Rinehart said. “So where     does that leave these buildings? What does a community do when their heritage is based on something that’s gone away, yet left these monuments to its history? What do you do with them?

“We found the perfect use. It’s so awesome that we’re going to be able to save them for another hundred years.”

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