by Ann M. Colford

Spokane preservation pioneers Ron and Julie Wells are known for their tireless efforts to restore and maintain the city's historic structures. Now a second generation is emerging - former Wells and Company employees Len Urgeleit and Chris Batten have formed RenCorp, a development and property management firm specializing in historic properties. Both men played key roles in the Steam Plant Square project: Urgeleit served as construction manager while Batten handled leasing and managed the company's residential properties. Now they bring their skills to The Gables, a 1909 Kirtland Cutter brick-and-stucco row house on West Broadway.

The exterior once again resembles the original drawings unearthed by Batten in his research at the Spokane Public Library's Northwest Room and the archives of the MAC, but the interior is a different story. Less than two years ago, the building was condemned by city officials. Despite its ragged condition at the time, Batten and Urgeleit recognized its history and its potential.

"Chris and I fell in love with the building years ago," Urgeleit recalls. "Brick row houses like this are fairly unique for Spokane, with the Tudor Revival styling."

After reading about the building's misfortunes, the partners approached the owners.

"Their options were basically to leave it sit, or to renovate it, or they had developer who wanted to buy the block and tear it down and build new construction on the site," says Urgeleit. "We proposed that we do the renovations - put in our hands and let us take care of everything, including listing on the historic register. Luckily, they decided to team up with us."

In return for their sweat equity, RenCorp became 50 percent owners and the ongoing property managers. The building is listed now on the Spokane Register of Historic Places and has been nominated for the National Register. RenCorp also received HUD funding from the city's Community Development department; in return, they've agreed to reserve 16 of the project's 21 units for low-income tenants. Once the restoration work has been certified, RenCorp and the original owners will be eligible to share in the preservation tax credits. "It's a win-win situation," Urgeleit says.

The original Cutter & amp; Malmgren drawings show an elegant clinker brick apartment house with six stuccoed gables facing Broadway, leaded glass casement windows and a corbeled chimney. Over the years, however, the building lost its luster. Two units burned in the early '90s and were never fully repaired; by 2001, the building had suffered from years of neglect.

"When I first came in here, it was pitch black because the city had boarded it up," Urgeleit remembers. "I had a flashlight and a respirator, because the smell was so bad. I came in to measure the building so we could do a floor plan, but all I could see was what I could shine the flashlight on."

Once restoration began, though, the team uncovered many surprises. Some were unpleasant, like finding plumbing pipes that led nowhere or rooms buried under three feet of fire debris. But most were the kind that thrill anyone who loves old buildings. For example, when the plywood was removed, the team located one surviving example of an original leaded glass window. That single window served as a template to reproduce replacement windows in the original style. Later, while removing a tile ceiling added in the '70s, Urgeleit found exposed box beams hidden above. Pulling up old carpet revealed hardwood floors, many of which were salvageable.

RenCorp was able to keep many intact stairways and guardrails, even though they don't meet current code. "The codes for building conservation are more lenient than for new construction," Urgeleit says. "That's why the [historic register] listing helps. The building department works with us for code relief."

The Gables reopened to tenants last December 2002, and the final few units are nearing completion. Some of the front stairs still need to be repaired and a few aluminum windows replaced with leaded glass reproductions, but Urgeleit says those finishing touches will be completed as the rental income cash flow improves.

"We did it on a shoestring budget, so we've deferred what we could," he says. Still, the partners made sure the project would work financially before diving in. "We did the pro forma, based on what we'd get for rents, and then figured out how much we could spend on the project to make it all pencil out."

As the property managers, RenCorp will oversee ongoing maintenance and additional restoration efforts in the coming years.

"It'll be an ongoing renovation," Urgeleit says. "We hope over the next 20 years that every year it gets better."

Publication date: 06/05/03

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