HARLINGEN — For a 91-year-old, the Baxter Building is looking pretty good.
Move past the chalky white dust swirling around the construction crew, and the peeling plaster scabbing the thick walls and ceilings — those fixes are coming, and paint covers a multitude of sins.
And the plywood with the small squares in the middle which replaced the old, broken windows is about to come out, and new windows are about to be installed.
The renovation of the abandoned and unloved nine-story building in downtown Harlingen into 24 mostly low-income apartments is finally legging it into the final phase of construction.
Rodger Lewis, construction site supervisor, says the $4.5 million project is on target to finish May 1.
“This thing is a beautiful old building. It’s got a lot of good history, and it is stout,” he said during a tour of the construction site this week. “I’m glad we didn’t have to demo (demolish) it out.”
Outside looking good
The building’s exterior has been cleaned up, and the first of many windows has been installed just to see how they look.
“We’ll install a little over 200,” said Steve Sorrels as he worked on the building’s ground floor.
The building’s rusting fire escape has been removed after being deemed a safety hazard, as have the old windows, whose wooden frames were rotting away. Most of the old windows had been broken out by vandals competing to see how high they could throw a rock and still score.
“I haven’t been in but you look at the exterior of the building and all the work they did on that, just cleaned the entire building, took the graffiti off, re-pointed all the brick,” said Bill DeBrooke, a downtown property owner and resident, and a member of the Downtown Improvement District board. “The building looks as good as the day it was built.”
This week, the construction site, or at least the ground floor of the Baxter Building, is filling up with lots and lots of stacked brown windows inside brown cardboard.
“Those windows are first-class,” Lewis said, “and we’ve got a lot more doubles than we have singles. They will open from the bottom but they won’t tilt out at the top but they will open at the bottom.”
Depending on safety concerns which always come with a multi-story structure, it isn’t exactly clear whether or how far the windows will be allowed to open.
More than skin deep
So that’s the outside, but what about the interior?
Lewis leads the way along the ground floor, where behind the large windows facing A Street will be shared space for the eventual residents who will live in the Baxter Building.
“Where those windows are is going to be a kitchen,” Lewis said, walking through the white dust thrown up by his crew. “There will be a bar right here, a bar where they can stand and visit. And this will be a community bathroom. It’s going to be a common area.”
Concrete was set to be poured this week in a breezeway, which leads to an exercise room where the walls were ready to be textured.
“Out there will be a courtyard and we’ll have the primary transformer out here and then we’ll have a generator and the trash area on the back of the property,” Lewis added. “This will be a gated area with a mag-lock where you can come in and go. We’ll have handicapped parking out here” he said, pointing to Jackson Street.
“This will be an elevator that will be sealed,” he said. “We’ll take all the historic doors, clean them up, paint them, and then seal them and this shaft will be sealed.
“All this old tile will be restored as it is, as will the terrazzo, and it will be cleaned up,” he said. “We’ll fill all these divots and everything — it’s going to be cool.”
Up a floor
On the second floor one can see what the layouts will be throughout the building when it comes to apartments, some one-bedroom, others two-bedroom.
The internal walls of the building are thick, far more so than one would find at a modern construction site, which is part of Lewis’ reasoning in pronouncing the Baxter a stout old building.
Lewis said fire-rated doors will be installed on the individual apartments, which will share a common internal corridor.
“This is a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment,” Lewis said. “There will be a kitchen over here in this area.”
Some say the apartments are cramped, but the 9-foot ceilings certainly help to give an impression of space.
“You know, the bedrooms are small,” Lewis said, “but the millennials don’t want bedrooms that are big anymore. They want a place where they can work on their computer; they don’t stay in the bedroom much.”
The closets at least are big, and there is room for stacked washers and dryers in the apartments, but in the handicapped-accessible apartments, there will be room for side-by-side setups.
Finishing of the walls is going to be minimal, Lewis said.
“What we’re going to do is just scrape the ceiling and clean it up, smooth it out, and then they’ll just paint it,” he said. “What you see is what you’re going to get. They want to keep it historic, so it’s going to have a different look.”
Last puzzle piece?
Lars Keim is a downtown property owner, and like DeBrooke, not only lives downtown but has a place on the downtown board.
He recently moved into a house he built in the vicinity of Jackson Street and Commerce Street, and concedes nobody seems to remember when or who built the last residential home downtown.
“Most of the buildings downtown were built as multi- or mixed-use developments, so there were some residents upstairs, along with the hotels and stuff.
“It’s a stand-alone and it’s the first free-standing residence downtown that I know of, at least in the overlay district,” he said of his new house.
Like many who have invested financially in the downtown district, Keim hopes he is setting an example which others follow — by living there.
“Whenever you want to revitalize an area, you can’t do it with retail alone,” he said. “You need local shoppers, local residents, to energize the area. So I think it’s extremely important that we have people here who are part of the energy of the downtown. … I love living downtown. I absolutely, thoroughly, enjoy it.”
Like Keim, DeBrooke too has a financial interest in helping make the downtown thrive. The Baxter Building, he says, may be an important piece of a complicated puzzle.
“It is absolutely critical for the downtown to get to the next phase of where it should be going,” DeBrooke said. “It has to have the resident base in order to get there. We have to become sort of a community within a community. We have to evolve to essentially become a neighborhood.”
Lewis, the construction supervisor, doesn’t have any financial attachment to downtown, at least he won’t once his job here is done.
But he may have found an emotional one in the stout old Baxter Building.
“I’ve kind of got a passion for it now,” he said.
Baxter Building facts
Location: Corner A Street and Jackson Street
Size: Nine stories; 29,272 square feet
Owners: Baxter Housing Partners LP
Plan: Convert the building into 24 largely low-income housing units
Cost: $4.5 million