$15 million Smulekoff's renovation 'screaming along' in Cedar Rapids

First tenant planning event July 16 in historic downtown building

Renovation work continues in the Smulekoff’s building in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, June 28, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s been nearly 75 years since Smulekoff’s opened its doors in a building at 97 Third Ave. SE in downtown Cedar Rapids.

The legendary home furnishings store is now gone — closed in 2014 after 125 years in business at three locations — but the iconic, redbrick building where it operated for so many years remains and is about to see new life.

Eastbank Venue and Lounge is to be the first new tenant in the five-story building that sits at the intersection of First Street SE and Third Avenue SE, kitty corner from the soon-to-be-completed, 11-story CRST Center and across the street from the proposed 28-story One Park Place tower.

Eastbank owner Adam Covington was the first to sign on to the Smulekoff’s building, which is being renovated by building owner and developer Steve Emerson as part of a $15 million project.

“The flexibility of the space is incredible,” Covington said, noting he plans to cater to larger events, such as weddings, banquets, business training sessions and corporate functions of 300 to 475 people, but also is to operate as a lounge with drinks and light fare on afternoons and evenings when the space is not rented out.

The space is being outfitted with an industrial kitchen and a liquor license with the idea it’s a ready-to-go space for event planners and even local restaurants to step in and host larger gatherings.

Eastbank is scheduled to open on the main floor this month in time to host its first event, a wedding, on July 16.

That means renovations are in full swing at the 100,000-square-foot building. The historic facade of the building remains very much the same, but inside, the former showrooms for ottomans, recliners, coffee tables and rugs are quickly being whipped into shape for offices, retail and apartments.

The Smulekoff’s project offers an exciting mix of amenities, including retail, housing and office, that will contribute to the vibrancy of downtown while preserving the historic structure of the building,” said Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz. “This project, along with others underway such as United Fire, the Welsh Cook Beals building, former Gringos building, Station of First, Sokol Gymnasium, True North expansion and CRST all add up to over $100 million in investment to our downtown.

“This shows the level of confidence developers have in the future of Cedar Rapids.”

WANTED: TENANTS

Last week, dozens of plumbers, electricians, painters, drywallers and other tradesmen scurried about the ground floor, and to a lesser extent the upper levels, remaking the building. They have been working weekends to get the building ready, even bringing in dehumidifiers and fans to speed up certain processes, said Emerson.

“We are screaming along,” he added.

Emerson bought the Smulekoff building from the city of Cedar Rapids in March for $415,000. In doing so, he received a 10-year tax break worth $120,000 annually. His plans for the building were selected by city officials over several other proposals. The city acquired the building for $4.7 million in late 2014 as part of the voluntary flood buyout program. Smulekoff’s was heavily damaged in the 2008 flood.

As part of Emerson’s deal, the building must house at least 50 people by the end of 2018. The employees must be new to the city or relocated with written consent of the existing property owner.

Emerson estimates six tenants eventually are to make their home at the Smulekoff’s building, adding he still is seeking additional tenants for the second and third floors.

“We are hypersensitive about getting new tenants downtown,” he said.

Aside from Eastbank, the Early Bird coffee shop has also signed a lease to occupy space on the ground floor of the building.

Owner Brooke Fitzgerald said Early Bird is leaving its current location at 316 Second St. SE with plans to open in the new location in October.

“We need a larger space,” she said. “It’ll be better traffic, better location, busy street, and more of our niche customers.”

TRANSFORMING THE SPACE

During a recent tour of the Smulekoff’s building, it was easy to see how historic features are being combined with modern touches to give the space a new look.

The second floor, which extends from the main building over an adjoining 60-stall indoor parking structure, is being retrofit for 28,000 square feet of office space. Exposed brick walls and classic sliding steel fire doors with old fashion counterweights are being preserved and wood floors restored.

The fourth floor has metal studs framing out about half of the 32 “microunits.” The other half are to go on the fifth floor, which still is being cleared. These smaller efficiency and one-bedroom living spaces — with expected rents between $530 and $650 monthly — are to be equipped with laundries and appliances. The goal is to have the apartments complete by the end of this year.

“This is geared for young professionals coming to work downtown,” Emerson said.

On the fifth floor, where remnants of Smulekoff’s old repair shop and offices linger, exposed brick and wooden trusses help date the building, which was constructed in 1904. Those features are to be saved, Emerson said.

“This is a cool historic place we get to work with,” he said.

THROUGH THE YEARS

Here is a look at some of the more important dates in the history of the Smulekoff’s building in downtown Cedar Rapids:

1889: Henry Smulekoff opens his store on May’s Island.

1908: The store is moved to Third Avenue SW.

1942: Smulekoff’s relocated to its final location at 97 Third Avenue SE.

2008: Floodwater reaches 7 feet high on the main level and damages the building, forcing the business to operate out of its warehouse for two months before returning to its downtown location.

2014: The Smulekoff’s building is sold to the city and the store closes.

2016: The Smulekoff’s building is set to reopen with a lounge, event hall and coffee shop, later to be joined by offices and apartments.

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