In downtown revitalization, “It’s all about Third Street”. After almost three decades of a “tear it down” mentality, which has devastated much of the area, Third Street is virtually all we have left of downtown Alexandria. The magnificent Hotel Bentley and a high concentration of turn-of-the-century storefront buildings provide a visual feast of significant historic architecture. The Bentley and these Third Street storefronts serve as a starting point to begin downtown restoration. Historic minded investors—Mike Jenkins, Dr. Robert Rush, Oday Lavergne, Greg Trotter, Jim and Frances Hurst, and others—are poised and anticipating the spark that will rekindle a flame in the revitalization of Alexandria’s downtown. Young urban professionals are eager to see Alexandria’s downtown restored and to make it their home to once again enjoy living along the Red River. Mayor Jacques Roy’s SPARC initiative envisions revitalization on Alexandria’s Third and Fourth Street corridors.
The Historical Association of Central Louisiana applauds the people who have invested in downtown Alexandria and who are eagerly anticipating the spark that ignites it. With the eventual restoration of the Hotel Bentley and the refurbishment of the present Alexander Fulton Hotel, visitors to our beloved city must see progress in Alexandria’s downtown to return it to the formidable convention center it was in the past century. As in any historic restoration process, an owner of a property would not consider the job of historic restoration complete with the renovation of only one or two rooms. Similarly, the restoration of the Hotel Bentley and the refurbishment of the Alexander Fulton must be accompanied by the revitalization of all the historically significant properties we have left on Third Street. We would not want to invite visitors to a city that has not addressed the revitalization of historic buildings closely proximal to the Hotel Bentley and the first proximal historic area to be addressed for revitalization is Third Street. The Historical Association has and will continue to proclaim, “Let the revitalization process begin,” and let Alexandria enter a Second Golden Age in this 21st century much as we witnessed in the first Golden Age of the early years of the 20th century.
A vibrant downtown would provide an economic boost to Alexandria and raise the quality of life in the community, according to Mike Jenkins. “Historically, downtown was the heart of the city. It was where everything was happening, and it could be again. Downtown revitalization is vital,” Jenkins says of the many renovation projects and efforts that have been underway in the downtown area for at least the past 10 years, and he is putting his money where his heart is. Jenkins owns the Diamond Grill, the Commercial Bank Building, the Masonic Building, and the Chase Bank Building downtown. He is visibly becoming the face and voice of downtown revitalization. His allegiance, devotion and investment in downtown Alexandria certainly earn him the honor and respect of Alexandrians listening to his voice on what should be done.
The city of Alexandria has set up an Urban Master Plan to promote and guide the direction of special enhancements to the city. Millions of dollars have already been invested in the restoration and renovations of buildings in the downtown area, with plans for more revitalization projects. As a business leader, Jenkins has made great strides and has “tremendous invested interests” in the revitalization of the downtown area. “We need to create the demand – have a reason for people to want to come downtown. For example, for fine dining there is the Diamond Grill. It is one of the most beautiful restaurants in Louisiana with fabulous dining. It’s a jewel,” Jenkins notes about the restaurant which he recently purchased. Located at 924 Third Street, in the heart of downtown, the Art Nouveau-Art Deco building, constructed in 1931, housed the former C.A. Schnack’s Jewelry store for more than 65 years. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and received a 2006 Preservation Honor Award for the renovation. With it’s romantic ambience, the Diamond Grill offers intimate fine dining as well as two separate banquet areas upstairs that could seat 120 people comfortably.
Besides the restaurant, Jenkins has bought several old commercial buildings. Because of renovations, current businesses have brought new life to the buildings that were once vacant and stagnant. Chase Bank has taken up residence in the 5-story building Jenkins owns at the corner of Murray and 4th Streets. The building is roughly 70,000-square feet of office space. Jenkins says he also has big plans for the 4-story Masonic Building, located at Johnston and 4th Streets. The Masonic Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. “It is about 38,000-square feet. We plan on having retail space on the bottom floor, and plan to build apartments for the third and fourth floors,” Jenkins says. On the second floor of the Masonic Building is a 600-square-foot auditorium with a stage all across the room. Jenkins says he plans to leave the second floor as an auditorium, but adds there are two smaller auditoriums on the third and fourth-floors. “If we went with a dinner theater on the second floor, there would be seating for approximately 200 people,” notes Jenkins. To really stimulate economic growth and expansion in the downtown area, Jenkins believes an entertainment mecca is needed along the Red River waterfront. “We are not taking advantage of the Red River,” Jenkins says, adding that various restaurants and entertainment venues along the river would draw people to the downtown area.
The Third St. area of downtown could easily become a “Blues” area akin to what Memphis has created, Jenkins adds. He also believes the Bentley and Fulton hotels managed with the River Front Center could bring in multiple convention opportunities which would increase the city’s retail coffers. With the Coughlin-Saunders Performing Arts Center and the Alexandria Museum of Art, which Jenkins says is one of the “best kept secrets in the area,” the cultural arts are growing in the downtown area. But with so many budget cuts, fresh inspiration is needed to keep the cultural centers open and growing. “We need new ideas. We need people to step up to the plate to keep it all going,” he adds.
Jim and Frances Hurst are long time renovators and do-it-yourselfers. The “For Sale” sign on the loft they would eventually buy and renovate was fuel for that flame that they simply could not pass up. The loft began as McCann’s Hardware in the late 1930’s and was transformed into the space it is today after Jim Hurst saw the “For Sale” sign that sparked his imagination. The original plans for conversion from warehouse to living space are still in progress but the space, which has been occupied for the past four years, is now very comfortable. The building contains 14,000 square feet of space, with solid 12” thick brick walls all supported by massive iron beams. The upstairs was originally used as a warehouse for the hardware store and was totally open. The Hursts have converted it into living space with the addition of a few walls to make two bedrooms, two baths, an office and storage but the remainder of the 5,700 square foot upstairs space is open. The downstairs remains intact for interior parking, woodworking and metal working shops and storage. Future plans include the conversion of an interior portion to a New Orleans style interior courtyard as well as further renovations to the exterior.
Adding to the uniqueness of the space are the materials used in the construction. The 12 foot ceilings, glossy refinished wood floors and reflective tin ceilings result in an amazingly airy and open modern space. The kitchen counters and sink are made of concrete cast on site with unexpected finish details embedded into the concrete. Cabinet pulls are cast iron from sand molds designed by the Hursts and poured at River Oaks from old sewer pipe. The lighting was custom designed from glass salvaged from old fluorescent fixtures that remained in the building. Bathroom vanities were built from antiques and the kitchen island was an old drafting table now covered with a stainless top. Additional details include custom cypress doors (one set 11 feet tall), handmade moldings and trim, 8 feet tall windows overlooking the interior courtyard, 8 feet by 8 feet shower and a 5 feet by 10 feet, 500 lb steel dining table on casters. The structure, built in the heavy commercial construction methods of the day, has been turned into a very comfortable and unique dwelling that the Hursts are thankful for every day.
With a dedicated group of civic officials, non-profit organizations and private investors working together, it’s easy to see that the future of downtown Alexandria can be bright. As with all forward-thinking, multi-faceted projects, the rebirth, redevelopment and revitalization of downtown Alexandria has been complicated and will require significant capital investment and community involvement. No one person or development will complete the transformation. We need more investors thinking outside the box, government continuing to work diligently to remove obstacles to progress and an overall “Can-do” spirit to restore downtown Alexandria back to its rightful place as a vibrant and vital piece of our community but it can and should be done.