Outside his downtown Eau Claire office window, Brian Johnson gets a front-row view of the rebirth of the defunct Ramada Inn into the Lismore Hotel.
Just a couple of blocks away, a mixed-use building for shops, restaurants and apartments is rising and a community arts center is soon to join it.
“We like what’s going on downtown with development,” said Johnson, president of JCAP Real Estate, 212 S. Barstow St.
Inspired by the increasing activity and high demand he’s already seeing for apartments he owns downtown, Johnson sees opportunity in the six-story Wells Fargo building at 204 E. Grand Ave., which he bought last week.
His vision is to get commercial tenants — a restaurant, shops, offices or other business — in the first couple of floors and extensively renovate the top four floors’ office space into luxury apartments.
“They’re really going to be some of the nicest apartments Eau Claire has seen,” Johnson said.
He had not yet gotten final quotes on the interior renovations as of Monday, but Johnson estimates that $140,000 to $150,000 in work will be put into each apartment.
With between 1,200 and 1,400 square feet each, the apartments will have high-end furnishings, including granite countertops, hardwood floors and floor-to-ceiling windows, he said. The building’s top four floors will have a dozen two-bedroom apartments and a trio of single-bedroom ones.
Though open to all who qualify, Johnson expects his new apartment tenants would be mostly young professionals, but also potentially older residents who want to downsize from a home and be close to downtown.
The ground floor, which Wells Fargo is still operating as a bank, will be remodeled to fit needs of future tenants. They will have one architectural feature to fit in their plans.
“The vault stays here. It is part of the building,” Johnson said of the massive room of shimmering steel tucked behind bank tellers in the lobby.
The exterior of the building will remain mostly as it is seen now and inside remodeling will be done in a way that reflects its history.
“We’d like to keep the old character of things in the building,” Johnson said.
That means keeping some vintage fixtures such as an old postal box while also using new materials that pay homage to a 1930s look.
Atop the six-story building’s roof, which stands above most downtown Eau Claire structures, the view stretches for miles in most directions.
The scenery through upper floor windows and the roof is one of the assets that Johnson noticed when he began planning the building’s renovations. Apartment windows will be enlarged to span from floor to ceiling and the roof will be converted into a terrace for all tenants to use.
“They got some wonderful views,” said John Kaiser, an Eau Claire attorney who moved out of his sixth-floor office in the Wells Fargo building last week.
He’s watched the seasons change from windows overlooking the Chippewa River at the building for almost 30 years and picked up remaining belongings on Monday while preparing to open his new office in Graham Riverside, another downtown office building.
Joining a law firm in the building for several years in the early 1980s before returning to establish his own practice in 1989, Kaiser remarked that 204 E. Grand Ave. has been home to a long list of tenants.
“A lot of people have been in and out of that building,” he said.
A bank has always been a fixture in the building, but old Eau Claire city directories showed it had also been home to doctors, dentists, lawyers, insurance agents, stock brokers, accountants, a jeweler and government offices through its history.
Though many have walked through its doors, JCAP will only be the fourth owner of the 85-year-old building.
Scandinavian-American Fraternity bought the land from a Florida couple in 1929 and owned the six-story building erected there for 40 years, according to records at the Eau Claire County register of deeds office.
The organization provided life insurance and emergency funds to its members. Eau Claire city directories also show the building hosted the fraternity’s offices, a barber shop and beauty salon, and the top floor was a hall for members.
Bankers Mutual Life Insurance took ownership of the building in 1970 before selling it later that year to American National Bank & Trust Co., which had long been a tenant in the building. The bank underwent a few name changes and acquisitions before becoming part of Wells Fargo in 1995, according to online history records of the U.S. Federal Reserve System.
Bank still open
While most other office tenants in the building have already relocated, the Wells Fargo bank remains open and will serve customers until expansion at a nearby branch is finished in November.
Construction at the existing Wells Fargo motor bank on Graham Avenue will create space needed for financial services currently offered at the six-story building that JCAP recently bought, according to a Wells Fargo spokeswoman.
“The sale allows for the complete redevelopment of the property which we believe is a win for downtown Eau Claire and the community,” spokeswoman Cristie Drumm wrote in an email.
JCAP owns a half-dozen downtown Eau Claire buildings, Johnson said, but 204 E. Grand Ave. will be its most prominent. With headquarters in Eau Claire, JCAP has been in business for about 25 years, owning homes for rent, apartments, a few commercial buildings and some mixed-use projects.
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