MONMOUTH - Since the turn of the 20th century, the old Monmouth Improvement Company building at 105-113 E. Main St. has been a steady hub of commerce.
At least the ground-level storefronts have. The 4,000-square-foot second story is a different matter.
Apart from its use as an attic for city decorations, signs and other items, it has been more or less derelict for the past 50 years.
Bodie Bemrose, a real estate developer from Monmouth, purchased the building last summer and remembers his first look upstairs.
The 15-foot-high lath-and-plaster ceiling was starting to cave in. There were numerous exposed patches of an archaic knob-and-tube electrical sytem. Leaks in the roof had caused the hardwood floor of the main ballroom to warp and buckle.
"It looked like a haunted house," Bemrose said.
Things have changed. Bemrose completed a major renovation and restoration of the entire upper floor this past spring, and four of the five revamped office spaces have been snatched up by small business tenants in recent months.
A fa‡ade improvement of the building exterior is scheduled to begin in the next few weeks, Bemrose said.
"It's a great building, and it had tons of potential," Bemrose said. "I'm just happy to tap into it and bring out some of its former glory."
The structure was one of four historic properties purchased by Bemrose and his real estate partner, Gary R. Miller, last summer from the Criders of Monmouth.
It was erected at the corner of Main and Warren streets in 1901 by the Monmouth Improvement Company (MIC), a real estate group that bought, sold and developed many local properties during the early 1900s.
(The Criders have been the majority shareholders of MIC for many years; this property represented that company's last asset, Bemrose said.)
A long string of businesses and tenants have come and gone during the address' lifetime. The city post office was housed in the northwest corner of the ground floor for nearly 40 years, while there has always been a barber shop in the property.
The second story had mostly been occupied by professional tenants. Bemrose said his grandmother had three teeth pulled by a dentist who was upstairs during the 1930s.
The ballroom was used as a lodge and meeting place for fraternal organizations, such as the Odd Fellows and the Woodsmen of the World, until the 1920s.
In the past several decades, however, the second floor has been scarcely more than storage space, Bemrose said.
"I don't think there's been any active business up there for the last 50 years," Bemrose said. "I know it was used by the city and for furniture storage during the 1970s."
Bemrose said his goal with the MIC building was to overhaul the top story into new office spaces.
For six months, half a dozen contractors -- several of them local -- installed new plumbing, wiring, and heating and cooling systems. They repaired the ceiling, and brought the bathrooms, fire escape and other elements up to code.
Dennis Sheldon, who operates a Monmouth-based construction firm, was one of those involved and said the project's overarching principle was to keep the structure's historic character intact.
For example, the electric contractor, Online Electric, researched ways to incorporate most of the old lighting fixtures, he said.
Custom-made knives were manufactured to reproduce the wood trim on the doorways and wainscoat on the walls, he said. "We even built the door trim with the original (carpenter's) rosettes."
A massage therapist, accountant and two technology firms now occupy the upstairs offices. Some of the tenants reserved their spots before the building was even finished.
Bemrose said his biggest pride is the ballroom. The walls were repainted, a small stage was preserved, and worn original floors were sanded down and coated with a polyurethane protectant.
Bemrose said he wants to lease out the room to an event planner or as office space -- but with a condition that there be no new construction inside.
"We went all-out on it," Bemrose said. "It's an old original ballroom, and there's nothing like it in Monmouth or Independence."