Renovating a historic building requires passion, a characteristic readily evident as Bernie Carter describes the renovation of the historic Post Office and Federal Building in downtown Reno.
“We call ourselves re-developers, not developers,” Carter said, adding that they kept architectural changes to a minimum while repurposing the building.
“A building will lend itself to certain uses. Go with those uses; don’t fight them. Let the building tell you what it wants to be.”
Carter is the principal planner of the repurposed post office, what is now known as Fifty South Virginia and is being transformed into a retail and office center.
The other principals of 50 South Virginia LLC, all with Nevada roots, include his two brothers, Richard Carter, of Arlington, Texas, and Timothy Carter of Reno, plus Wood Gulch LLC’s Theodore Day of Reno.
The post office opened in 1934. It was designed by Nevada architect Frederic J. DeLongchamps in an Art Deco Moderne style. It’s the only Art Deco post office in Nevada.
“In our opinion, (redevelopment of the post office) is critical to the development of our community,” Carter said. “There’s been a problem with historical buildings before that were destroyed. This project is a significant contribution and catalyst to the redevelopment of downtown.”
In many cases, the redevelopers restored details that had been hidden for decades. With the original blueprints in hand, they uncovered and restored skylights that had been closed up when the ceiling was lowered to install heating ducts. They discovered hardwood-parquet, and marble floors hidden underneath asbestos tiles.
Architectural details include terrazzo floors with black marble trim; terra cotta and cast aluminum doors and ornamentation.
“The aluminum was cast in Germany prior to World War II,” Carter said.
Carter said craftsmen could probably be found with the ability to make the detailed accents, but no one could afford them today.
“The craftsmanship is really amazing,” said Troy Schneider who handles marketing for the project, and is a long-time friend of Carter. “Bernie was here (at the post office) all the time making sure nothing went wrong; making sure to preserve the history.”
Previously, Carter helped renovate and repurpose the Carter Bros. Aces Hardware building in Midtown. The oldest building he’s worked on, at 737 South Virginia St., was constructed about 1910.
“We’d rather refurbish, not tear them down,” he said of the old but well-crafted buildings.
Fifty South Virginia is being refurbished as a retail and office building. Plans call for a destination retailer — probably dry goods — on the main floor, offices on the second and third floors, and, in the basement, a collection of nine small retailers plus a lecture hall.
A highlight of the ground floor is the restored skylight, which provides an abundance of natural light. Until a retailer is found, the open space can be leased for special events.
Interest in the 13,000 square feet of office space on the second and third floors increased after the March 22 open house.
“We’ll have (office) tenants this year,” Carter said.
He anticipated two tenants on each floor, but has talked to businesses interested in leasing an entire floor.
The Basement retail center is the closest to being ready for occupation. Leases for all nine Basement spaces are expected to be signed by early April. Businesses include a florist, barbershop, boutique clothing store, cold press juice bar, chocolatier, coffee shop and a food venue. Retailers are expected to start moving in by May.
The Basement also features an open lecture hall that can be used for TED talks, performing arts, magic shows, comedy and more.
“It’s a relatively small space,” Carter said. “It’s not for big crowds. The music will be all acoustic.”
The lecture hall space originally housed the boiler room for the building. Heating and cooling has been replaced by a state-of-the-art heat exchange system. Water from the Cochran Ditch, which carries water from the Truckee River to Virginia Lake, is carried into a single unit not much larger than a house furnace and used to regulate air temperature. The air is circulated throughout the building and regulated by thermostats in each individual office and retail space.
Room temperatures in the offices can also be regulated the old-fashioned way: with fresh air. Every window can be opened.
“One of the worse things is to be stuck in an office with no fresh air,” Carter said.
While resurrecting skylights and wood floors, and polishing cast aluminum doors and black marble panels brought a lot of satisfaction to the partners, other aspects of the project were more frustrating.
They expected lead paint mitigation issues because the architect specified its use.
Rather than have to go through a lead-paint abatement process every time a light fixture was installed, they chose to take all the ceilings out. The large project was also slowed by a change in contractors to do the mitigation work.
The restoration has involved a large dose of plain hard work. The lobby floors had 80 years’ worth of wax building up that had to be removed to reveal the beauty of the terrazzo floors. And the expansive aluminum doors, sculptures and panels are being cleaned by hand with toothbrushes.
A lot of thought, planning and hard work goes into repurposing an historic building.
Carter’s advice to anyone with a similar interest in preserving the past?
“Go in with a passion.”