Shawnee, Okla. -- A $9.2 million historic preservation project has transformed a dilapidated landmark into 61 elegant, affordable apartments for seniors and a renewed source of community pride.
ERC Properties redeveloped the former 200-room Aldridge hotel to create 43 two-bedroom apartments, one two-bedroom penthouse unit and 17 one-bedroom apartments. All the units, which range in size from 700 to 850 square feet, are affordable to households earning no more than 60% of the area median income.
Begun in 1926 and completed in 1929 for $750,000, the Aldridge hotel required significantly more time and money to revive. Millions of dollars in state and federal tax credits, as well as years of cooperative efforts, made the renovation possible.
The story of the building’s rebirth begins with the Central Oklahoma Community Action Agency (COCAA), which purchased the hotel in 1997, hoping to redevelop it as housing. However, the magnitude of the project was greater than the agency expected. In 2003, COCAA agreed to sell the hotel to ERC Properties, which undertook the rehab project as its first historic preservation effort.
Drawing the developer’s interest was the eagerness of the city and BancFirst of Oklahoma City to see the hotel restored. (The BancFirst branch in Shawnee approached ERC with the idea of redeveloping the Aldridge.)
“There was so much positive feedback to our inquiries about preserving this pearl,” said Robert Thorpe, vice president and development specialist for ERC Development Group. “We saw some opportunity there. When the historic tax credits were available on both the state and federal sides, that made things a bit more palatable, as far as the overall costs were concerned.”
ERC would ultimately tap $5 million in low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) equity and $1.8 million in federal historic tax credit equity provided by CharterMac Capital; $1.8 million in state historic tax credit equity provided by BancFirst; and two construction loans totaling $600,000 from BancFirst.
However, despite the relative ease of assembling the financing, the hotel, which had been out of operation for about 10 years and vacant for about five, required considerable work to revamp it into housing. The majority of the interior walls had to be removed and rebuilt to configure apartments from hotel rooms. Meanwhile, the building’s standing on the National Register of Historic Places meant careful attention needed to be paid to preserving its character.
“A major obstacle was the preservation of the windows,” said Thorpe. “We spent a lot of time, effort and money on refurbishing 50% to 60% of the windows. The integrity of hallways was also an issue.”
To preserve the appearance of the hotel’s original hallways, all of the room doors and their frames were restored to their original state. “We had to keep all of the door openings intact, and where we didn’t need a door, we had to fill in with a dummy door,” said Thorpe.
In addition, “when you do any kind of renovation like this, the mechanical aspects are enormous,” said Thorpe. ERC rewired the entire hotel and installed two new elevators, as well as new heating and ventilation systems.
“What they did in this building was painstaking,” said Dennis Shockley, executive director of the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency, which allocated the LIHTCs to the project. “If you are on the National Register [of Historic Places], the state historic preservation officer is going to hold you to a certain standard anyway, but I really think they went above and beyond.”
Most people would agree, as the developer took care to retain or re-create numerous details.
In the top-floor ballroom – now serving as community space for tenants – ERC reconstructed the plaster molding and light cove around the ceiling and managed to retain 75% to 80% of the original hardwood flooring (the rest was patched).
Several patterns of horsehair carpet were uncovered during the renovations, and ERC enlisted a carpet manufacturer to re-create one motif for use throughout the halls. The magnificent lobby with its marble columns, reservation desk and grand marble and wood stairs were carefully preserved.
“It’s the tallest building in Shawnee. Now that may not mean much to someone in New York City,” noted Shockley. “But it’s Shawnee’s equivalent of the Empire State Building, and for years people in Shawnee had been watching the pigeons fly in and out of the roof, seeing the broken windows and saying, ‘isn’t that a shame.’”
However, when Shockley visited the Aldridge after its completion in September, he said the lobby reminded him of a “Clark Gable movie.”
The apartments’ lease-up is expected to be completed by this fall. The Community Action Agency of Shawnee will provide residents with transportation, mobile meals and financial counseling and also will help connect tenants to special assistance provided by other nonprofit, government and community action agencies. Rents range from about $475 to $585 for a one-bedroom unit and from $675 to $709 for a two-bedroom apartment.
As part of the project, ERC Properties also redeveloped 7,000 square feet of commercial space in the first floor and basement. The ground floor is home to a barbershop (as it was in the past), a gift and boutique store, and 1,200 square feet being marketed as potential restaurant space. The basement was restored to create office space, 65% of which had been leased as of late February.
Finally restored to its former glory, the Aldridge is once again the jewel of downtown Shawnee. Although its story in many ways is a familiar one to Shockley, it is one of which he never tires.
“We’ve participated in the financing for a number of these historic renovations. ... In most cases, it’s a very prominent downtown building that has a long history and a lot of memories,” he said. “In the case of the Aldridge, I was in the ballroom [during the grand opening], and an older gentleman told me that when he was a teenager he had attended his first-ever dance in that very ballroom.
“To me, that means there is a lot going on that has too little to do with the saving of a historic property or the utilitarian aspect of making it into an apartment building,” said Shockley. “There is pride instilled in a community when you bring a building with all these memories back to life.”