Preservation Playground

Developer reveals ambitious plan
to transform riverfront

Madison would see hotel, condos,
restaurant complex at former industrial site

By Don Ward

MADISON, Ind. (September 2008) – Driving across the Ohio River Bridge into Madison, Ind., you can’t help but notice the large, brick building hovering over the riverfront below. The former Eagle Cotton Mill, also known as the Meese building, towers above small homes and businesses with its hollow, symmetrical windows and eerie, flat facade that still houses memories of a bygone industrial era.

September 2008 Indiana Edition Cover

September 2008
Indiana Edition Cover

The 90,000-square-foot, four-story structure sits on six acres of prime riverfront land, but for the past three decades this shell of a former industrial powerhouse has slowly dilapidated – its many windows broken, its doors splintered and its ceilings collapsed.
Until now.
When Chicago-based restorationist Bob Przewlocki looks at the circa 1884 site, he envisions a hotel, condominiums, restaurants and retails shops. He sees people strolling public gardens, attending theater shows and sipping flavored coffees and microbrew beers on the veranda. He sees families bicycling into a lush patio to have dinner or to simply sit and watch the barges and houseboats troll by. He sees all of this taking place at what he is calling the signature restoration project of his career - River Mill Resort.
To some, Przewlocki may sound like a dreamer. But to those who have seen the transformation of similar industrial waste sites into thriving downtown residential and retail mixed-use developments, Przewlocki is exactly what Madison needed.
“Our main objective is to preserve the history and character of the building. This project will be all green, with self-sufficient low energy usage and compatible with the environment,” said Przewlocki, 57, who has 30 years of experience in restoration.

Bob Przewlocki
Bob Przewlocki
personal file

Age: 57
Family: Wife, Nancy, a retired museum curator. Resides: Wayne, Ill.
Education: Attended the University of Illinois-Champaign and Boston College. Did not graduate.
Businesses: Owns and operates two northern Illinois restoration companies, Preservation Trades Inc., which restores barns, log homes and historic buildings, and Old Growth Trading Co. Inc. Recently formed two new Indiana corporations, River Mill Resort Inc. and Old Growth Trading Co.-Madison Limited, for the Madison project.
River Mill Resort
Location: 108 St. Michael’s St., Madison, IN.
Contact: (812) 801-4603
Features planned: Luxirious Condo Hotel, River Mill Bread Co., three bars and nightclubs, 200-seat theater, 12,000-square-foot retail space, 6,000-square-foot ballroom, conference facilities, production studio, Allied Working Arts, artisan studios, marina and outdoor activities.
Amenities planned: Hand-crafted furniture, infinity exercise pools, 6,000-square-foot atrium pool, gym and spa, gardens, river views.
Timetable for completion: Three years
Websites: www.rivermillresort.com and www.oldgrowthtradingco.com

“This is going to be a pivotal development within the downtown area, and we hope it will help spur further activity. But our main focus is preservation and paying tribute to the remarkable craftsmen who built this place. We are in a National Historic Landmarks District, and there’s a finite number of buildings in it. So we have to preserve all we can.”
Przewlocki is first and foremost a preservatonist. But faced with this colossal, $20 million project, he has turned developer as well. He bought the building in July 2007 for $475,000 from previous owner Jerry Fuhs of French Lick, Ind. Fuhs had purchased the property for $750,000 three years earlier with plans to conduct a similar renovation. But Fuhs instead turned his attention to French Lick when plans were announced to build a casino there. The structure was on the market for more than a year.
On July 30, Przewlocki appeared before Madison’s Historic Board of Review, at board member Rich Murray’s request, and described for a packed room at the City Council Chamber his dream for transforming the Madison riverfront into a lively, thriving playground. In addition to a luxirious condo hotel and restaurant, the plan includes conference rooms a ballroom and eventually a marina. It features a theater, microbrewery and retail shops. He hopes to complete the entire project in three years.
“When they started taking all the windows out of the building, some people were upset, so I thought it would be a good idea to have Bob come and present his plans to us,” said Murray. “You can’t doubt his enthusiasm. I share everyone’s hopes that they are able to follow through on their plans.”

River Mill Resort Rendering

Renderings provided

This rendering shows what the back side
(facing north) of the future River Mill Resort
could look like once the building has been
rehabbed. The courtyard would connect the
theater and microbrewry restaurant to the
rest of the complex. Below is a rendering
of the restaurant planned for an
existing house at the site

River Mill Bread Company Rendering

Murray said he was relieved to hear that Przewlocki was restoring the windows and that the work was being done on site. “This is going to be a monumental project, and I don’t know if it is in their (financial) means to handle it on their own. I hope they are taking full advantage of all the tax credits and programs available to help them finance it.”
Przewlocki said he is familiar with federal and state tax incentive programs. Greg Sekula, who directs the southern Indiana office of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, said he has talked with Przewlocki and has offered to assist him in obtaining tax credits on the project. Historic Landmarks Foundation, headquartered in Indianapolis, assists building owners in saving and restoring historic places through education, advice and advocacy.
Sekula, who has toured the building, said, “I’m delighted to have a developer who is interested in restoring what is probably the largest building in the National Historic Landmarks District. I wish him all the success in the world, and I know folks in Madison are anxious to see something happen with that building.”
Corey Murphy, executive director of Economic Development Partners of Jefferson County, said, “The project fits with our community’s existing assets; it complements nicely, and I’m excited about the project. Anytime you can re-use a historic building like that and generate investment, it’s a good thing.”
Because of the size of the project and Przewlocki’s newcomer status in town, Murphy said he is taking “a wait and see” approach. But he added,” We will certainly be supportive and open minded.”

Back of building

Photos by Don Ward

The above photo
shows what the back
side of the building
looks like today.
Below is where a
200-seat theater
is to be built.

Myrick Howard, executive director of Preservation North Carolina, based in Raleigh, briefly visited the site and met Przewlocki during his July trip to Madison, where he presented a keynote address for Historic Madison Inc. Howard said such projects serve to envigorate small towns, especially those based on tourism.
“These projects are very complicated because they involve a large financial commitment and are high risk,” Howard said during an August telephone interview. “If it works it would have an excellent impact for Madison.”
He said his organization’s studies show that tearing down and constructing new buildings generally cost three times more, take three times as long and are three times harder to do than restoring existing ones. “It makes sense because the basic shell is already there, so you have something to build on. We’ve seen that the cost savings can run as high as 20 to 30 percent.”
Howard recommended that developers create such projects with the residents’ welfare in mind. “If the local residents love it, then the tourists will love it, so do it for the residents first.”
Sekula said if Przewlocki follows the standard federal guidelines, the developer could qualify to receive up to 20 percent in tax federal savings on his investment, plus another 20 percent from the state. “He has not approached us yet about tax credits, but we are willing and ready to provide any assistance,” Sekula said.
Przewlocki recently completed a large private home renovation project for a Fortune 500 CEO north of Chicago and has now turned his attention to Madison. In addition to restoring windows, he is working quickly to renovate a metal storage barn on the site and turn it into a wood recycling shop and wood furniture showroom to support his renovation of the Meese building. He has formed Old Growth Trading Co.-Madison Limited, whose goal is to locate, buy and restore wooden beams and structures from old barns and vintage commercial buildings in the region. Much of the work to be done there could wind up in the floors and ceilings of River Mill Resort.

House to be Restaurant

Photo by Don Ward

Bob Przewlocki’s plan calls for
turning this former business office
into a Panera Bread-style
restaurant, complete with a
wrap-around deck for outdoor dining.

Meantime, Przewlocki has hired restoration expert Tim Adkins to begin refurbishing all 276 windows in the building. Many windows have been removed and, all that can, will be restored and replaced. That includes the wooden frames embedded in the brick walls that hold the sliding glass panes in place.
“It’s a huge project, and I’m honored to be part of it,” said Adkins, 58, a former Indiana Department of Natural Resources employee who has worked on such renovations as the Lanier Mansion and New Albany’s Culbertson Mansion. A Madison native, Adkins moved to Nashville, Tenn., for three years where he recently completed renovating an Italianate mansion in the upscale Belle Meade section for country music stars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
“That project had 700 windows that had to be restored, so I know this project is definitely doable. This is an awesome project. You can’t let it overwhelm you. You must have a vision; keep it alive and keep it moving. Any historic renovation of this size is a longterm project.”

Bob Przewlocki

Photo by Don Ward

Bob Przewlocki says restoring
all the wood, brick and windows
at the site is a primary goal.

Adkins also worked on the late Minnie Pearl’s mansion before he recently moved back to Madison and was hired over the telephone by Przewlocki without even meeting him.
“When it gets done, this building will talk,” Adkins said. “We’ve never seen anything down on the river like this. When you drive over that bridge, this place is really going to be someplace to see. It will speak.”
A Wayne, Ill., resident, Przewlocki grew up near Chicago and attended the University of Illinois-Champaign and later studied environmental sciences at Boston College. He did not earn a degree but while in Boston became interested in historic preservation and restorations taking place on some of the city’s historic buildings. He and some friends learned the trade while working on several projects in the area.

Back of former Meese building

Photo by Don Ward

Despite the appearance of the
dilapidated former Meese building,
developer Bob Przewlocki said
the foundation and walls are sound
and its architecture impressive.

By the early 1980s, Przewlocki had moved back to northern Illinois and formed his own company, Preservation Trades Inc. The company has completed many public and private restoration projects in the Chicago area. One recent project involved dismantling, transporting and re-assembling an 1800s barn in Iowa to Kankakee County, Ill., 200 miles away. The former barn now serves as an educational facility for Bourbonnais Township Park District.
“The thing I liked about working with Bob is that he is pretty flexible. He can smooth things out and help people stay focused,” said John McGinnis, who served as the parks director at the time of the barn relocation project. McGinnis is now a private consultant who has twice visited the River Mill Resort site in Madison. He is considering joining the team to help with condo pre-sales in the Chicago area.
“I really enjoyed working with Bob and learning about new green technologies for rehabbing historic sites and making them viable for today’s use. He combines old craftsmanship and new technology; he’s really geared toward green technology.”
During his presentation to the Historic Board of Review, Przewlocki said solar panels would be used to help make the site energy self-sufficient. He has already met with Cinergy officials about the possibilities.

West Facade of former Meese building

Photo by Don Ward

The west side facade
shows the effects of
age on the 124-year
-old structure.

McGinnis said green is a fascinating new trend in historic restoration of large sites. But he says that, in the end, the key to the success of this project will be community involvement.
“It’s a beautiful town, and you’ve got a beautiful site with a lot of possibilities,” he said. “Bob is very creative. He can see things other people can’t see. If he has a vision, he can bring the vision to reality. I think when people see the vision, it’s going to get them excited.”
Przewlocki said he is eager to get started. “So far, the work at the site has been cleanup, planning and stabilization, but we are finally ready to get moving on restoration,” Przewlocki said Aug. 28 during his second visit to Madison in a month. He plans to soon bring in his own crew of a dozen restoration workers.
David Landau, Przewlocki’s business partner, has spent the past year living in Madison and says he has fielded many questions from residents about the renovation plans. He admits that the public has questioned the newcomers’ credibility and their ability to actually deliver on their promises to complete the project.
“We have gone through many revisions of our plans, but we now have it down to what we want,” Landau said. “People are more supportive of it now because they see we are still here and sticking it out.”
Przewlocki says the public will soon see significant changes taking place on the riverfront in what he is calling “the pinnacle project of my career.” Landau has developed two Internet websites to promote the newly formed companies: www.rivermillresort.com and www.oldgrowthtradingco.com. Marketing materials are being developed to sell the condos, Landau said.
“We plan to start selling the condos first, but we are also looking for tenants to operate clothing or jewelry stores and restaurants,” Landau said.

Tim Adkins

Photo by Don Ward

Tim Adkins poses
with one of 276
windows he has been
hired to restore at
the former Meese
industrial site on the
Madison riverfront.
The entire $20 million
project could take
three years to
complete, says
new owner Bob
Przewlocki, who
resides near Chicago.

They have been negotiating with a hotel chain to operate the hotel. They have met with a restaurant group in Louisville to operate a microbrewery restaurant. The house in front of the structure that once served as an office is to be turned into a Panera Bread-style cafe and restaurant, complete with a wrap-around deck for outdoor seating. The plan also calls for a 200-seat theater, a glass factory, 8,000-square-foot ballroom and production studio. In addition, Przewlocki hopes to include space for an an educational program to promote historic preservation.
“That’s a great idea for that building; it’s fabulous,” said John Staicer, executive director of Historic Madison Inc., the preservation group that owns and operates seven historic properties in downtown Madison. “From what I’ve read about Bob, he’s very capable of doing it. He’s been in the business a long time. It would be a shame to throw a lot of money at that building and not do it justice. But I think Bob will do it justice.”
Staicer met again with Przewlocki in late August for an update on the plans. HMI has offered any type of assistance to make the project a success, Staicer said.
“It’s critical that we have someone who is involved in Madison who is interested in preserving old buildings – how they were built, how they function and how they can be rehabilitated and returned to their authenticity,” Staicer said. “I think we have that in Bob, and that bodes well for a brighter future for us all.”
Madison tourism director Linda Lytle said River Mill Resort would make an ideal location for a future arts center. She met Przewlocki a year ago when he first announced his development plans. “I’m really impressed with him; he’s a real preservationist, and whatever he decides to do down there will probably be spectacular.”
With the city’s ongoing development of Madison Bicentennial Park only a few blocks west on Vaughn Drive, Przewlocki envisions his project as the entertainment playground that will complement the city’s public space, used primarily for festivals and events. He wants to eventually develop a marina at the river’s edge of his condo-hotel project, and he has been negotiating with other property owners along the riverfront to purchase enough land to expand the reach of River Mill Resort. He would not elaborate on those plans, saying only, “We want to have a large footprint on the riverfront because we think our project will someday be a signature development in the downtown historic district.”

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