Apparently, 107-year-old bank buildings aren’t easy to convert into modern-day restaurants.
First of all, those 3-foot-thick bank vault walls are hard to bore through. Secondly, those old brick walls can’t be depended on to carry too much weight, which explains the giant crane installing eight, 40-foot-long steel beams in the under-construction Mystic Grill restaurant Thursday in preparation for the planned rooftop dining area.
"Imagine cutting into a bank vault from the 1900s; that’s the kind of thing we run into every day," said builder Steve Smallwood. "The uniqueness of the building works our brains every day. If you move one thing, you will affect three others. On newer construction, it’s wide open; this is a completely different animal."
Smallwood apologized to anyone who was inconvenienced by the crane work.
"It took us a little longer than anticipated, but we have all of the columns in place. It’s something that’s tedious work, like threading a needle, like a 40-foot-long needle going in a 6-inch hole through the whole structure all the way to the basement," Smallwood said.
Crews have been working for the past four to five weeks to reframe the building and try to bring all the structural components up to modern-day code, Smallwood said. Steel is being used to reinforce the building to ensure the old brick walls aren’t bearing much weight; Charlie Henderson with Hopi Contracting in Covington is handling the steel work.
While some other old buildings on the square haven’t survived renovations, contractor Adam Wilson said that’s exactly why builders are ensuring the Mystic Grill is structurally sound.
Another difficulty was basically combining two buildings into once, since the building had been subdivided and the floors and other elements didn’t line up, Smallwood said. Over the next few weeks, the electrical wiring, plumbing, heating, air conditioning and ventilation, fire sprinklers and other mechanical components will be installed, he said, along with the rooftop deck.
The builders met with the Covington fire marshal and fire chief Thursday to show them the project and talk about fire sprinklers to see if there’s any alternative to putting them in the ceiling and putting a whole bunch of holes in the historic metal roof. One thought was to have sprinklers on the side walls instead.
While boring through the vault to install plumbing was difficult, Dennis Young, owner of Dennis Young Plumbing, said even drilling through some of the wood has broken drill bits, because the original rough-cut lumber is thick and nearly as hard as petrified wood.
"It’s a big ordeal to get plumbing into this thing," Young said, noting that all of the systems being installed are completely new.
Putting up sheetrock will come after the mechanical guts are installed, Smallwood said, which he hopes will happen in next three to four weeks.
Things have moved slowly, but that’s part of the difficulty of an old building, Henderson said. When Hopi was working on the large arched windows and removing a piece of plywood there, bricks started falling, so the arches needed to be reinforced with steel.
"That was the tricky and dangerous part, when you go sawing in an old brick building. We cut a 13-foot hole in that wall right there. It was tedious; it was scary, but it’s all gone well," Henderson said.
Smallwood said nearly every company that’s worked on the project has been local, and that’s been important to the owners and workers.
"Everybody on our project wants to be on the project. This is not just a job, it’s reviving the square," Smallwood said. "I’m kind of a retired builder and developer, and I did (this project) just because of the square. I’ve watched it struggle for 10 years, and I think this might get it a jolt. Maybe someone across the street can build something else (in the former Mayfield Ace Hardware building)."
Smallwood said he’d love to see another restaurant in the Mayfield building to bring more people downtown. He said he hoped the investment in the Mystic Grill by Mayor Ronnie Johnston and his wife, Kelley, and Angi and John Bezsborn, who also own Bullritos, will inspire others. According to a previous project assessment submitted to the state for a $250,000 loan, the project was expected to cost $2.27 million, including $1.38 million for rehabilitating the building, $475,000 for property acquisition, $400,000 for furniture, equipment and furnishings and $18,500 for design. The owners are aiming for a fall opening.
"We want to revive the square. There’s never going to be a (J.C.) Poole’s and Belk again, it will have to be restaurants and places where people want to come – a destination,"
Smallwood said. "It’s going to be worth the wait."