Montgomery Building’s $29 million renovation fueling growth in downtown Spartanburg

Greenville-based developer BF Spartanburg is leading the effort to bring new residential, commercial, office, and entertainment space to the building perched at a prominent intersection near the city’s urban center.

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The Montgomery Building | Photos by Will Crooks

Construction noise echoes through downtown Spartanburg’s Montgomery Building.

A $29 million renovation that will transform the historic 10-story, 130,000-square-foot former office high-rise into a mixed-use development is inching closer to completion.

Greenville-based developer BF Spartanburg is leading the effort to bring new residential, commercial, office, and entertainment space to the building perched at a prominent intersection near the city’s urban center.

James Bakker, co-principal of BF Spartanburg, said the project’s anticipated completion is October 2018.

The revival of the 93-year-old structure, originally built as a monument to Spartanburg’s ascent as a textile hub during the early 20th century, is already helping to kindle new growth.

“This building is not just deeply rooted in Spartanburg’s business community, it’s closely tied to the people of Spartanburg,” said Tom Finnegan, Bakker’s business partner. “We often get to hear people share their memories of the building. You don’t get a lot of opportunities like this.”

Constructed in 1924, the Montgomery Building sits on nearly 1.5 acres at the northeast corner of the North Church and East St. John streets intersection.

During its life as an office building, it housed corporate operations for prominent textile manufacturers, government agencies, and a plethora of other businesses.

A 1,300-seat theater adjacent to the office tower originally named The Montgomery, but later renamed the Carolina Theater, was a thriving local entertainment venue.

BF Spartanburg purchased the property in February from Florida-based Cypress Lending Group for $680,000.

“It took us 2 1/2 years to close [on the building],” Bakker said. “When we first came to Spartanburg and said we wanted to do this, people really had to trust us. So many people have been helpful in moving this project forward.”

Despite a fire scare in March, Bakker said renovations have remained on schedule.

The work is about one-third of the way done, he said.

The project’s anticipated completion is October 2018.

“It’s all coming together nicely,” Bakker said.

When complete, the building will boast 63 apartments on floors four through 10.

The apartments will be a mix of studio, one-, and two-bedroom units ranging from about 500 to 1,500 square feet.

Bakker said the apartments will be heated and cooled by energy-efficient ductless HVAC technology.

Each unit will have a stacked washer and dryer, 10-foot-high ceilings, and a modern interior design theme with contemporary accents and fixtures.

He said the apartments will be available to lease by the spring of 2018.

The rental rates, he said, will be “somewhere between Church Street Lofts and Drayton Mills [Lofts],” two other historic buildings in Spartanburg that have been renovated into apartments.

The building’s second and third floors will have about 20,000 square feet of high-quality office space.

On the ground floor, the building will have a nearly 4,000-square-foot restaurant space at its southern end that also has 1,500 square feet of dining space in the basement.

The first floor will also have three other commercial spaces for new retail or dining options, ranging from more than 900 to about 2,000 square feet.

Those spaces are currently available for lease and have already attracted interest from a number of potential tenants, Bakker said.

He said there will be a fitness center and storage area for residents in the basement, as well as co-working space for local entrepreneurs.

The co-working space will have 23 desks, private phone areas, a coffee bar, and a print/break room, he said.

The developer said a big part of the renovation’s focus is on the use of windows that will allow natural light to spill into the building.

Along a main hallway on the first floor separating the Montgomery Building’s tower from the theater, where there are few windows, Bakker said he plans to have circadian lighting installed that will change throughout the day, mimicking the solar cycle.

Charter will wire the whole building with fiber optic cable enabling tenants access to high-speed Internet.

“You look at projects like the Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston and the Westin Poinsett in Greenville, and you see the way they have energized the community,” Finnegan said. “We think the Montgomery Building will have the same impact. Once these buildings are gone, you can’t replace them. They’re so special. This is honestly one of the few projects I’ve ever worked on where I’m proud and excited every time I see it.”

One of the things the developers said they are most pleased with so far is the work on the building’s exterior.

Concrete panels from the facade of the building were removed early on in the renovation.

They are being recast and will be replaced with new panels. Some of the decorative pieces had to be reengineered because the originals had deteriorated.

Bakker said the National Park Service and the S.C. State Historic Preservation Office have both approved the new panel designs, which he said will be as close to the original color as possible.

“The scariest moment for me so far was getting the façade off,” he said. “Honestly, I was surprised with how great of shape the structure of the building was.”

Lockwood Greene & Co., an architectural and engineering firm that originated out of the Northeast and designed about 50 cotton mills in South Carolina, designed the building.

According to the Montgomery Building’s National Register of Historic Places filing, Lockwood Greene “used the Chicago skeletal frame method of construction,” in order to make it more fireproof.

The building’s frame was constructed entirely from U.S. steel and bonded together with rivets, which Bakker said makes it much stronger than some contemporary methods used to bond steel.

He said some environmental cleanup was necessary, but there were no big surprises.

“It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for a building of this age,” Bakker said. “We had a pretty good idea of what we were getting into before we started.”

Bakker said the sidewalk surrounding the building will have attractive, pedestrian-friendly streetscaping.

A pocket park will replace an existing driveway between the northern side of the building and Central United Methodist Church.

A parking lot with 23 spaces at the rear of the building will be open only to customers of the retail and dining establishments.

The city has provided the developer with 150 parking spaces in the nearby St. John Street parking garage for tenants.

Bakker said the theater is not part of the current renovation. It was gifted earlier this year to Preservation South Carolina, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting historic structures in the state.

Preservation South Carolina has started a Spartanburg Preservation Fund with $10,000 raised during an unsuccessful effort in 2015 to save the historic Spartanburg mansion Bon Haven.

The Carolina Theater is the fund’s first project. It will help prepare the theater to eventually be sold to a new owner/operator.

“For the past 10 years, we’ve had a lot of great progress in downtown,” said Jansen Tidmore, executive vice president of Spartanburg’s Downtown Development Partnership. “But that building detracted from the progress, as it was an eyesore in our skyline. From a development standpoint, the Montgomery Building is the epitome of the community turning this corner. The project reflects the level progress we’ve made.”

Bakker said Spartanburg-based McMillan Pazan Smith Architecture is serving as the architect for the project.

Harper Corp. is the general contractor.

Bakker said most of the subcontractors working on the project are from Spartanburg, or they have ties to Spartanburg.

He also credited Paige Pollard with Commonwealth Preservation Group and David McCutchen with McCutchen Engineering Associates for their work on the project.

The Montgomery Building’s renovation is one of four large projects currently underway in downtown.

The other projects include the Johnson family’s $20 million AC Hotel and Spartanburg developer Royce Camp’s new 198 Morgan & Main mixed-use building both nearing completion in the western end of downtown.

Greenville-based Blue Wall Real Estate is working on a $10.5 million redevelopment of the Aug W. Smith building on East Main Street that will transform the historic building into a mixed-use facility with apartments and retail space.

Officials said each of those projects have created ripples they hope will become waves of new economic success in the future.

“All of those projects are energizing downtown,” Tidmore said. “The Montgomery Building is a point of pride. It’s a first-class project led by a first-class developer. So many people said it couldn’t be done… There is a lot of interest in it. I think it helps open a whole swath of downtown to new growth.”

Two projects in development could be signs of the Montgomery Building renovation’s positive impact on downtown.

Local businessmen Jimmy Gibbs and Andy Cajka have announced plans for a new five-story, 70,000-square-foot mixed-use building on 5.3 acres behind the Montgomery Building.

Tampa-based Forge Capital Partners hopes to build a $30 million, 200-unit apartment community on 7 acres of an 8.6-acre lot at 215 E. Daniel Morgan Avenue, also near the Montgomery Building.

Bakker credited the redevelopment of Spartanburg’s historic Drayton Mill into a vibrant mixed-use community, the AC Hotel’s construction, Camp’s facility, Aug W. Smith, and other projects in the city for helping to lay the groundwork for the Montgomery Building’s revitalization.

“I think it’s the combination of all of those things that have brought us here,” he said. “All of that together has created a huge center of mass. A lot more people are coming to downtown. Where it is today is awesome. Where it’s going is even more exciting… We wouldn’t have been able to do this without the work that other people have done. The city really stepped up to the plate. There are just so many who made this possible.”

From the Montgomery Building’s roof, it isn’t difficult to see much of the progress that has encouraged Bakker and several other developers to invest in downtown Spartanburg.

To the north, the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine’s facility, which sits atop the site once occupied by Spartan Mills, comes into view.

Surrounding it are signs that the Northside Initiative, a community effort aimed at transforming the city’s north side neighborhood, is beginning to bear fruit.

A scan of the horizon to the south reveals a new runway expansion at the Spartanburg Downtown Memorial Airport, RJ Rockers Brewery, the AC Hotel, Camp’s building, the renovated Schuyler Building now home to Church Street Lofts, and downtown’s bustling Main Street corridor.

The 18-story Denny’s tower still dominates the city’s skyline, but the buildings below, such as the Aug W. Smith Building, show signs of activity and new growth.

To the northeast, the white water towers of Drayton Mill Lofts and Marketplace, and the revamped Beaumont Mill, which recently became the home of Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System’s corporate offices, are visible.

The Montgomery Building also overlooks the Chapman Cultural Center, the University of South Carolina Upstate’s George Dean Johnson Jr. College of Business and Economics, the Hub City Co-op, Converse College, and Wofford College’s campus.

Contrast the current view with what the city’s fathers must have seen when they looked out at the landscape 93 years ago, and the differences are probably pretty significant.

The Montgomery Building was conceptualized during the early 1920s, at a time when the city was growing and in desperate need of modern office space.

A group of local leaders decided to organize a company to build a structure that would meet those needs and project Spartanburg’s growth.

The site they chose was where the late textile mill developer Capt. John H. Montgomery, who helped found Spartan Mills and Drayton Mills, had built his home.

Montgomery was killed in 1902 after he fell from scaffolding during construction of a mill in Gainesville, Ga.

According to the Montgomery Building’s National Register of Historic Places filing, Montgomery’s three sons, Victor M. Montgomery, Walter S. Montgomery, and Ben W. Montgomery, received the property from their father’s estate.

The brothers decided to transfer the property’s title to a new company Montgomery Building Inc.

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the Montgomery Building in 1923, a steam shovel dug a large hole at the site.

The remains of Montgomery’s home were pushed in and buried to serve as part of the building’s foundation.

After its completion, the Montgomery Building stood for three decades as the tallest building in the city.

It was a hub of activity for a wide variety of local, regional, and national businesses and organizations, such as Lockwood Greene, Deering-Milliken, and WSPA, the state’s first AM radio station.

The Spartanburg Chamber of Commerce, the Clinchfield Railroad, Spartanburg County Foundation, a local tuberculosis association, real estate companies, attorneys, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Services also called the building home.

When German automaker BMW decided in 1992 to build its first and only U.S. manufacturing plant in Spartanburg County, it utilized space in the Montgomery Building to house its first employees.

The building was negatively impacted by the decline of rail travel during the 1960s and the rise of shopping centers in the 1970s and ’80s that drew commerce away from downtown.

The evaporation of the local textile industry during the 1990s and early 2000s also took a toll on the Montgomery Building.

Its opulence and character gradually faded.

In 2007, the aging building went into foreclosure.

When Cypress purchased the building that year for $1.9 million, hopes were high that the building would be restored to its former glory.

The building, however, remained idle. The passage of time and natural elements caused its exterior to deteriorate and crumble.

In 2014, Cypress installed scaffolding and chain-link fences around the base of the building to protect pedestrians and motorists from debris falling off the building.

The barriers remained in place for more than a year, obstructing foot traffic along the east side of North Church Street.

Demolition of the iconic building appeared to be looming, but the building’s owner and city officials weren’t ready to let go just yet.

In March 2016, BF Spartanburg entered into a voluntary cleanup contract for the building with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

By September of that year, city council finalized a development agreement with the company.

“I am thrilled to see an iconic building like this repurposed,” said John Montgomery, the great-great grandson of Capt. John H. Montgomery, principal of Spartanburg-based Montgomery Development Group. “I applaud James Bakker and his team for taking on such an important project in our downtown. This will be a pivotal project for Spartanburg to bring more residents downtown to support our restaurants and retailers. This is also going to help improve the pedestrian connection between Wofford, the Marriott, and downtown.”

“Spartanburg is on a roll and it is great to see outside investors believe in our community and willing to make big investments in our downtown,” Montgomery added.

 

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