By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
ALTON — Many people look at deteriorating buildings and see history in decline. Mike and Jeannine Kelly look at such structures and see history in the making.
The brother and sister are slowly putting a shine on what could be an Alton of the future.
Between them, they have acquired several of the city’s most historic properties, mainly along the Broadway corridor. Their rehab projects stand at various stages but what’s been accomplished so far is true community restoration.
Mike Kelly bought the Kendall Cracker Factory at 201 E. Broadway in the late 1990s, but only recently has the property really taken shape. Kelly always had serious intentions for the structure but fate got in the way twice — first when he was called up for active military duty with the U.S. Marine Corps and then when a devastating storm struck the building in 2009, tearing off the third story.
“I kind of walked that line between being here and not being here,” he said of his military service. “The building sat as a vacant, two-story structure for a long time while we went through determining if it was a viable project. It came very close to being a grass lot.”
Those who treasure history are glad he’s pursued the project. Today, several high-end apartments are completed in the building — and those who stay there are treated to a magnificent view of the Mississippi River.
Tearing down a building constructed in the 1860s would have gone against everything the brother and sister have separately worked for the last few decades.
The siblings grew up in Wood River. Jeannine fell in love with Alton after moving there to live with her grandmother as a teenager. Her grandmother had an Alton antique shop, which gave rise to a great coincidence years later.
“Sam Thames owned (the Cracker Factory) and when Michael was going to buy it, we were walking through it and found an old barnwood sign that I had painted for my grandmother when I was in the sixth grade,” Jeannine said. “It had old ballooned letters that said, ‘Antiques,’ and it was in a shop here.”
It was “a sign” her brother was supposed to buy the building, she said at the time.
From the outside, the building still appears to be a largely vacated part of Alton’s antique district. Inside, however, a series of apartments have been completed — and are proving a real draw. The three-floor building offers one of the best residential views of the Mississippi River in the entire city. Kelly began renting them out last July.
In rebuilding the storm-destroyed third floor from scratch, Kelly used a different design but still retained many of the architectural features.
The top two floors are complete. People can rent the guest lodging for an evening, a weekend or several months. The second floor has three smaller apartment units. The newly built third floor is one big, two-bedroom, two-bath penthouse with a large great room, kitchen, dining and living area all in one space, With a tremendous view of Riverfront Park and the Clark Bridge, it is perfect for parties — including the July 4th fireworks celebration, he said.
“What’s unique about this is the view of the river, unobstructed, one of the greatest assets we have in this area,” he said.
Kelly won’t say exactly how much he’s invested on the Cracker Factory building, but he does acknowledge “it was a lot. More than intended.”
The rents range from $95 a night during the week for the small studio apartments to $229 on the weekend for the upper floor.
The first floor is a work in progress, and Kelly says he has visions for what it could be. He’s not ready to announce anything just yet, but retail commercial development is likely. The space previously had three businesses and the future could hold a single tenant, if it’s as large as something like a restaurant. That floor, too, has a deck overlooking the water.
Alton riverfront residential property is, of course, a premium. A few years ago developers took the former headquarters of Mississippi Lime Co. at 7 Alby St. and created loft living space. Before that, the Laura Building at 9 E. Broadway was extensively remodeled for a similar lifestyle.
Kelly’s effort is essentially moving that idea, block by block, up East Broadway.
“The people in town were very supportive of the decision to rehab it rather than tear it down,” he said.
Jeannine Kelly’s ‘passion’
By the time Mike Kelly bought the Cracker Factory, his sister had long been involved in real estate. She bought her first house at age 19, a historic structure at the corner of Ninth and Market streets in Alton. It led to a lifelong love. Today, she’s 57 — four years older than Mike — and still driven.
“My passion is real estate. When you create something, that’s art, and my art is these old buildings and bringing them back to life,” she said.
Her first notable venture on Broadway was the World’s Fair Building at 322 East Broadway, so named because it was built from wood that had been part of an exhibit at the 1904 Fair in St. Louis. Parts of the building were constructed to resemble that exhibit.
She had the property substantially remodeled and rented it out for years before selling it to local businesswoman Chris Velloff in 2014.
After buying the World’s Fair Building, she and her husband Mark DeVer formed a company, DanMar Enterprises, to pursue other properties. Kelly serves as company president.
One of their first major commercial purchases was in 1998 when they bought Alton Plaza shopping center at 1800 East Broadway. Among the shopping center’s tenants are Metro Supply where DeVer has worked for years and now is manager. The plaza has been substantially remodeled.
In 2003, Kelly became one the founding members of Alton Steel, which resurrected part of the former Laclede Steel Co. operation on Broadway. She left the company in October 2014 to focus full time on real estate and development.
“I was doing the day-to-day operational stuff but it’s not what I like doing. I love to make deals happen,” she said.
She had plenty of work to fall back on: In 2002, DanMar had bought the Haagen Haus, a four-unit apartment building at State and Seventh streets in the Christian Hill area. They bought it at judgment sale, without having an advance look inside the house.
“The house was beautiful, except for the first floor, which had to be completely redone,” she said. “We got Haagen Haus zoned to be used as a guesthouse in 2007. It is still used for that purpose. Mark and I moved to the Haagen Haus in 2014, after selling our home on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in Godfrey.”
An even more ambitious project was in the offing. In 2004, DanMar had bought the Wedge Bank building at 600 Broadway from River Bend United Way. Smurfit Stone was the major tenant at the time and was preparing to move to new corporate offices in Chesterfield, Mo.
The building was constructed in a way that made subdividing it problematic. It was on one HVAC system and one electrical system.
Kelly knew if she didn’t have a good plan for the building she would end up paying way too much in utilities just to have a couple of tenants.
“I left it sitting for a long time because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do with it. I was worried about the neighborhood down there. Going down Broadway was like a warzone. It was not conducive to investing money without knowing what was going to happen. You can’t market a property in an area like that.”
The answer began to emerge last year when the Alton Pawn Shop building went up for sale, across the street at 601-611 E. Broadway.
“That building is a beautiful building, or it has the potential,” she said. It has apartments on the top. It has a deck on the top and a deck on the back serving six storefronts.
She ended up buying both the pawn shop building and the Talbert Law Building at 630 East Broadway in December 2014.
The series of buys gave her more control over the direction the block will take.
“Now I can start working on these properties with a common vision of what they’ll be,” she said.
She’s now working on the pawn shop and Talbert properties and is already fielding inquiries about both.
“I’ll develop those and get things going there, then the Wedge starts. And I’m still deciding what to do with that,” she said.
There are no occupants in any of the 600 block buildings at the moment.
Her vision for the old pawn shop, at least for one or two of the units on the northwest corner of the first floor, is a “breakfast place and coffee shop” on the first floor. Upstairs is a unit that once contained offices. That needs to be gutted and could be made into a loft with a river view.
The 603 address has potential for something like a wine and cheese shop, she said, with the back deck overlooking the river.
Nos. 605-611 feature four units, and Kelly is talking to a party interested in selling high-end, repurposed furniture, antiques and art.
“I think a lot of people continue to recognize that this is where the growth potential is, Downtown Alton and the upper Broadway corridor,” Mike Kelly said. “There are a lot of possibilities here.”
A new movement to redevelop the old is illustrated, he said, by the recent addition of Old Bakery Brewery locating in the historic Colonial Bakery building, and more recently the acquisition of the Historic Mineral Springs Hotel just doors down from the Cracker Factory.
“You have to build a project right and you can’t be risk averse,” Mike Kelly said, citing people like restaurant entrepreneur Russ Smith in Downtown and the owners of the Gentelin’s restaurant on Broadway, all entrepreneurs who took old buildings and made something successful from them.
He also owns a warehouse building behind the Cracker Factory, along Landmarks Boulevard. One day, he hopes to develop that property, too.
Jeannine Kelly said the price of buildings, the availability of tax increment financing money and the available building stock make the market a good one for people who want to follow the lead.
“There are buildings available and people just need to take that risk,” she said.
“Instead of relying on the city to have a master plan of its own for that area, I thought I would create one myself. That’s the only way I can develop the Wedge and make that whole area prosperous.”
Ten years from now, what will the various projects look like?
“We have a very bright future,” Jeannine Kelly said with confidence.