The first tenants of the former Bloomington High School building in downtown Bloomington began moving in a couple of weeks ago, following a $17 million renovation that began in 2016 when Iceberg Development Group LLC of LeClaire, Iowa, purchased the historic structure.
The purchase price of the building, at 510 E. Washington St., was $400,000, and construction has been ongoing to convert the second, third and fourth floors into the Washington Senior Apartments that includes 58 units for people 55 and older. The company will lease space to commercial and nonprofit users on the first floor.
The property is part of the city’s downtown tax increment financing (TIF) district that allows developers to put a portion of property taxes on the increased value of the building into the re-development.
Architect Michael Buragas from Farnsworth Group worked on the design to convert the building into affordable senior housing. Monthly rent starts at $648 for a one-bedroom apartment, and $729 for a two-bedroom unit. They are income restricted based on average median income for Bloomington. The city has set aside $228,000 over 10 years to provide additional financial support for four of the units.
The high school building was dedicated in 1915 and underwent two additions, including most recently the north wing in 1975. Buragas said the original structure was designed by Arthur L. Pilsbury, the first licensed architect in Bloomington.
The design is considered Collegiate Gothic style, which was reminiscent of an English manor. Buragas said in addition to tax increment financing, several factors came together to make the project happen, including tax credits from the Illinois Housing Development Authority and from the federal government that offers credits for historic buildings.
“Historic preservation remodels have all the challenges of remodel, plus additional challenges of trying to preserve, expose and showcase fantastic features of those buildings we want to preserve," Buragas said. "We talked to the Historic Preservation Agency and they did an extensive inventory as did we, and identified items they would like to keep and worked with the developer and what they (the developer) can afford and work with the budget; what they can functionally make work while improving the building for energy, conservation and to make them functional apartments.”
Buragas and two other colleagues at Farnsworth Group tagged each item and then decided what could be saved, even if it needed some work, and what had to be donated or sold to the public. In some cases, doors and blackboards were relocated to where they could be incorporated into the remodel. The renovation included putting up new walls to make the space livable for one- and two-bedroom apartments.
“I’m so proud we got to keep the terrazzo marble floors in the corridors. We got to take out the drop acoustical tile ceilings and expose all the great plaster work on the walls and the ceiling including ornate cornices,” Buragas shared while sitting inside the apartment of one of the building’s newest residents, 73-year-old Wanda Sigler.
Sigler, who is on oxygen and needs a walker, sat in her new apartment surrounded by unpacked boxes and her 15-year-old cat Pansy who is allowed because the Washington Senior Apartments are pet-friendly. She said moving in “feels like coming home.” The former South Hill Bloomington resident didn’t like giving up her single-family home, but knew it was time for a change.
“Age caught up to me. When this became available, I jumped at it because I went to school here. I have wonderful memories from here. I spent three years of my life here," she said.
As she walked the long halls to her second-floor, two-bedroom, one bathroom apartment that faces Evans street, Sigler pointed to doors identifying what used to be behind them, including the band room where she said she spent many hours. She picked her specific apartment because it used to be a biology lab and has lots of built-in storage closets that once held microscopes, beakers and petri dishes, but that will now be home to the many items Sigler has collected over a lifetime.
“It’s wonderful. All my stuff gets to be behind closed doors, but I know it’s in there,” she said, while joking that the closest locker just outside her front door might be a good place to stash out-of-season coats. Sigler laughed when explaining she still has her combination lock that once secured her locker.
Blackboards line the entire wall of her open-concept kitchen and living room. There’s another blackboard in the master bedroom, and Sigler has initiated what will become a new tradition: Visitors will be asked to leave a message after their first visit. Buragas signed, “Welcome home!”
The State Farm retiree’s apartment also has the original narrow, hardwood planks that look like the color of heavily steeped black tea. Her bathroom has a shower-tub inset. Sigler would have preferred a walk-in shower, but Buragas said that wasn’t practical because contractors would have had to break through concrete flooring, creating unknown structural and plumbing issues.
The apartments don’t each have their own washer-dryer because of the expense of running gas to each. Every floor does have its own laundry room with coin-operated machines. However, other amenities more than make up for that, according to Sigler, who loves the vaulted ceilings, walk-in closets, fully-equipped kitchen with granite countertops, excellent security, and off-street parking. Water, heat and trash service are included in the rent. Elevators, including one to accommodate wheelchairs, also have been installed.
Knowing the importance of creating community, developers also added a group fitness room, library, communal TV lounge, and a party room with a kitchen for future potlucks and celebrations.
Sigler has met some of her neighbors and looks forward to socializing once the COVID-19 pandemic winds down. But she is surprised how quiet the building seems to be.
“You wouldn’t really think about quiet but then you think, ‘Are we all gonna have a lot of parties?' Probably not!”
Construction continues even though many residents have moved in. The pool will remain open as a business that continues to offer swimming lessons. A couple of big spaces will remain off limits because Buragas said it would have been too expensive to remodel them. That includes a two-story, now empty auditorium and the two-story boys gymnasium that was home to Game Time Gym.
“They are wonderful spaces, but for this project they had to be sealed off and left unused but in a preserved state so that sometime in the future, should the owner or someone else want to do something with them, all of the historic features are intact and ready to be used," Buragas said.
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