It usually takes more than a couple years for people to get genuinely angry about a building’s dumpy condition. And given the state of the economy, most folks are willing to cut a property owner some extra slack these days if an especially costly renovation is needed. But if the dump in question overlooks a busy downtown intersection, patience can be in short supply. The four-story building wrapped around the southwest corner of Congress and High streets is a case in point.
Known as the Schwartz Building, the property at 600 Congress St. is owned by mega-landlord Geoffrey Rice, whose portfolio includes dozens of residential and commercial properties on the peninsula. Allen & Walker Antiques occupied the first floor of the building for many years. The floors above were a rabbit warren of 20 or so small apartments linked by narrow hallways. From 2008 into 2010, one of the top-floor units was the epicenter of the Tower of Song (a reference to the clock tower that crowns the corner of the building). Local indie-rock and alt-folk acts like Phantom Buffalo, Dead End Armory, Johnny Fountain and Lady Lamb the Beekeeper would play sets during First Fridays; their amps pointed toward the apartment’s open windows, the music would reverberate for blocks.
Renovation work began in the fall of 2010. There were plans to convert the den of studio apartments into a dozen or so larger units that will comply with the fire code, and there was talk of a new restaurant occupying the antique shop’s former space. But by the summer of last year, it appeared that the project was at a standstill. Plywood nailed up where the ground floor windows used to be became a magnet for flyers and graffiti. The Schwartz Building looked like shit, and city leaders have been catching the same for apparently allowing it to remain that way.
Last June, The Forecaster ran a story about concerns that the property’s dumpy façade “could be smudging the city’s reputation, just as the tourist season starts.” And just last month, West End News columnist and former city councilor and planning board chairman Orlando Delogu took officials to task for allowing the Schwartz Building to remain in its dumpy state.
An architect and an attorney involved with the project told The Forecaster that work had been delayed while Rice sought tax credits to help pay for the renovation. This section of Congress Street had recently been designated a historic district, making state and federal money available for the restoration of historic properties like the Schwartz Building, which was built in 1920. The architect, Jim Sterling, said last June that the paperwork needed to secure the credits was nearly complete. Renovation work was expected to resume in a matter of weeks, and the project could be done by December, he told the weekly.
Seven months later, the building looks about the same, though flyers don’t stay up as long. And Sterling’s still optimistic. He told The Bollard that federal approval of a tax credit package is expected soon, as is approval from the city’s Historic Preservation Board, which must OK plans for the building’s façade. Most of the subcontractors have been “lined up,” Sterling said, and work on the upper floors could start within “the next couple weeks.”
The attorney Rice had working on the project, Paul Bulger, told The Forecaster the renovations were also being delayed by the need to provide enough electricity to power a restaurant. Bulger did not respond to a request for comment by The Bollard’s deadline. Sterling said the electrical issue has been a stumbling block — “a restaurant takes up a lot of power” — but he had no update on the status of the ground-floor space.
Some downtown shop owners and other keen observers have noticed that the building appears to be slightly tilted, which is never a good sign. Sterling’s office has a clear view of the Schwartz Building, and he’s seen the same thing. When he lines the clock tower up with the jambs of his office window, he can see that it’s “out of plumb by probably six inches.”
The tilt was most likely caused when a load-bearing wall in the antique shop space was jacked up and reinforced, said Sterling, causing everything above it to shift down a few inches. He does not think the building is settling or sinking. In any case, “if the tower falls over, it’ll probably fall over towards the parking lot” behind the building, Sterling jokingly said. “So there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
The Schwartz project is “complicated on many levels, which has caused it to kind of sputter,” said Sterling. “I’m hoping that by fall we’ll be leasing space.”
— Chris Busby