News: At Home with Art

Imagination shows what downtown living could be

Sara Beiting

Condy Beavers' five-year dream is nearly a reality downtown.

If Condy Beavers and Leslie Aronoff wanted to complain, they could say that getting city approval of their plan to rehab a downtown building was like pulling teeth.

In their case, the expression has literal meaning. While they were gutting the basement at 807 Race St., a number of pulled teeth fell out of old water pipes. Vacant for more than a year, the building had most recently been a dentist's office.

At one point Christian Moerlein Brewery had a bar in the building, which dates to the 1880s. Some of the planks on the hardwood floor suggest the bar might have included a bowling alley. The new owners also think an automobile parts store once operated there.

But Beavers and Aronoff don't spend a lot of time thinking about the building's past; they're looking toward its future. The opening of the Aronoff Gallery early next month will cap a decision they made five years ago to get involved in downtown.

Beavers owns two other properties downtown, the building on Seventh Street that houses Grumpy's Bar and the building at Ninth and Elm streets housing the novelty shop Metronation.

Beavers and Aronoff purchased the property at 807 Race St. last year, planning to open an art gallery on the first floor.

"The physical structure was exactly what we were looking for," says Beavers who, with another partner, operated the Madison Antiques and Art Gallery in O'Bryonville for more than 20 years. "We bought the building with the intent to bring it back to life, as opposed to an investor who would only be concerned about the money aspect of it."

The second floor has been vacant for more than 50 years. Beavers and Aronoff decided to turn that into their home.

"It's been a dream for a long time, having a gallery and a living space upstairs," Aronoff says.

But turning that dream into reality was laborious. In addition to major renovations on both floors — including restoring skylights that had been sealed and painted over and removing bricks that covered up windows — they also had to comply with the city's building regulations.

City codes require residential space and retail space to be divided. Beavers' and Aronoff's home is considered 809 Race St. The gallery, in the same building, is 807 Race. In order for Beavers and Aronoff to enter the gallery, they have to go outside and use the front door.

"The city's not prepared to handle this kind of arrangement," Beavers says. "Eventually, I just said, 'Tell me what to do to move forward.' "

Permit problems prompted Beavers and Aronoff to rethink their original plan.

"We didn't want to take the whole thing on all at once," Beavers says. "We thought we could rent the first floor out for awhile, but when we kind of got into the project — in trying to get permits to use the residential space, it was evident that it was going to be pretty expensive in getting the first floor also up to code.

"We ended up tearing out the whole first floor and started looking at things differently and decided to do the whole thing right from the beginning. We kind of decided we didn't want to let anyone else have it."

Renovations began in early spring. By late summer, the residential space was completed and the first floor well on its way.

With the skylights, windows and wood floors restored, the 2,700-square-foot living space has a feeling of openness, with a lot of natural light.

"I ain't ever leaving here," Aronoff says.

Beavers says he looks forward to finishing the project.

"I'm happy to be done with it and get back to what I originally do," he says.

And that's running a gallery.

"It will be a little bit of everything," Beavers says. "We buy in many different areas and we want to be able to service customers who are just decorating and also those who are serious collectors."

The couple plan purchasing trips to Europe, Mexico City and New York in the near future.

"When we started this project, friends said, 'You guys are nuts,' " Aronoff says. "But we believe in investing in downtown. Downtown's in early redevelopment and it has to come back, because of what's happening residentially. We consider this a gift to the city."

But it's also an investment.

"Maybe we're five years ahead of what's going to be happening, but when it does, we'll be sitting in a nice spot," he says. ©