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Restoring history

Workers smooth a concrete pad for the new elevator at Empire Block LLC, the former Lurye building at 1202-1208 Tower Ave., Tuesday. The building is in the process of a historic restoration project. When finished, it will house 15 apartments and retail shop space. (Maria Lockwood / 1 / 9
The building's one remaining fireplace.2 / 9
3 / 9
A sign on the front of the Empire Block LLC building, gives rental information.4 / 9
The 15-foot-high stamped tin ceiling on the main retail floor is in the process of being restored. Celings in the upper two stories are 12- and 11 and a half-feet tall.5 / 9
Apartment spaces have been roughed out on the second floor, with spaces designed to meld historic details with modern conveniences, like dishwashers.6 / 9
The view facing Tower Avenue.7 / 9
Wood flooring has been pulled up. What can be salvaged will be refinished and re-installed.8 / 9
Windows nearly 8-feet tall grace the building's exterior. In addition, roof skylights will be retained, including three skylight wells that bring daylight to the interior of both second and third floor apartments.9 / 9

The beehive of activity at the Empire Block stills every Friday. For Thad Whitesel at nearby TW Wood Design, however, work continues full-bore.

Building deconstruction began in February at Empire Block, the former Lurye Furniture building on the corner of North 12th Street and Tower Avenue. Since then, the Ogden Avenue shop Whitesel shares with Thom Wheeler has been flooded with a stream of woodwork in need of restoration.

They put other work on hold for a year to focus on the influx of pine and birch, which has to be stripped by hand and stained back to its original colors. New pieces need to be created with the same patterns and stain, distressed to fit into the building's historic décor. Wainscoting along the hallways requires on-site work from the TW Wood Design crew.

Finished pieces — tens of thousands of feet of wood trim, frames, doors, a mantelpiece and more — wait for their return in huge metal containers.

Every single stick of wood bears a number, part of a giant jigsaw puzzle that will soon be re-assembled.

On this particular Friday, Whitesel and his crew — including friends he's brought in from as far away as Minneapolis to help him tackle the building-wide work — focused on 15 new kitchen cabinet sets, one for each of the Empire Block's apartments.

Come Monday, he said, the lot nearby fills up with workers' cars, most from within a 30-mile radius.

Four days later, Mark Hubbard walked through the Empire Block wearing a Lakehead Constructors shirt. Retirement hasn't quite kicked in for Hubbard, one of the owners of Lakehead, who retired 2½ years ago.

One thing has changed.

"I used to work Fridays," Hubbard said. Now he spends Fridays home on Lake Amnicon.

The beehive hummed around him. A concrete pad for the elevator was under construction out back; bricks were being laid in a curving pattern upstairs, crews worked in the basement and main floor, classic rock music tumbled through the three-story building.

On any given day, there will be 25 to 30 people from different companies working on site, Hubbard said.

The Empire Block is a family affair, kick-started by interest from Hubbard's oldest son, Brian. The family has taken the reins of the historic restoration project, which 2015 estimates put at $4.3 million.

Designed by architect Carl Wirth, the building at 1202-1208 Tower Ave. was erected by the Empire Building Company in 1892. It cost $50,000 to build and the first tenants were a grocery store, drug store and hardware, with apartments above.

When they began cleaning out the building last spring, the family found historic surprises — a sunset mural in a space that had once been a bar; a tin ceiling, 15 feet high, hiding above dropped ceilings on the main floor; cereal boxes left behind in cupboards, clothes in closets; a baby book that included the child's social security number and a letter from her grandparents.

Hubbard's wife Diane and daughter-in-law Claire researched and combed social media for a year, finally returning the book to the baby it was made for, now in her 40s and living in Ohio.

There has been give and take in the restoration process, Hubbard said. They are installing a sprinkler system, but won't have to replace the uninsulated roof, fashioned to melt the snow.

The tin ceiling tiles are being cleaned and, when necessary, replaced. New utilities have been put in, floors pulled up and prepared for refinishing, nearly 8-foot high windows with historically accurate details rest on the main floor, waiting to be installed.

Everything was handcrafted back in the 1800s when the Empire Block was new. One of the big challenges for Hubbard and his crews was the fact that nothing's uniform, from the materials to the room layouts. To exacerbate that, the original pine and lathe walls were replaced with birch and mesh in the south side of the building following a fire.

Over the months, workers have formed new spaces out of old, run miles of cable and pipe, held onto elements of the past and prepared the shell for reconstruction.

Plaster and blueboard work is on the horizon. Soon, the boxes of marked wooden pieces will be opened and returned.

"Daily the building will start taking its shape," Hubbard said. "We'll be done by mid-October. We'll be open for business."

When finished, the building will offer 15 market-rate apartments and main-floor retail space for three tenants.

Hubbard was quick to point out that the restoration project came about as a result of cooperation with the city, county and state. The Empire Block project received a $200,000 economic development grant from the city in 2015 and a $250,000 community development investment grant from the state in 2016. Information from the Better City Superior campaign helped in grant applications, the school district wrote a letter of support.

For its part, Empire Block LLC is utilizing local labor as much as possible.

"We live here, we think it's important to engage local companies," Hubbard said.

Follow the restoration project at or the Empire Block LLC. Facebook page.