Historic buildings in disrepair brought back to life in Northeast Ohio

By Josie Bixler

Successful Strategies to Repurpose Historic Buildings

The Franklin Hotel was built in 1920. By 1979, the first three floors were condemned due to a bird infestation, said Doug Fuller, the recently retired owner of Fuller Design Group, an architectural firm. In the early 2000s, the bottom three floors were also condemned. 

Doug Fuller approached historical renovation as an architect hired out by developers. His part included drawing up design and preservation plans. *Image by Josie Bixler

“My office was in an 1876 building downtown and from my desk I could look diagonally across Main Street and see the Franklin Hotel,” Fuller said. “The building was deconstructing from neglect and it became a personal project for me and the people in the office to save it.”

In 2011, a local developer in Kent, Ron Burbick, purchased the Franklin Hotel and enlisted a team, including Fuller’s architectural firm, to refurbish and repurpose the building. He started by beginning the application process to get the hotel on the National Register of Historic Places so the property was eligible for state and federal preservation office tax credit awards, Fuller said. 

Tax credits are monetary returns on the financial investment a developer puts into restoring a historic building. Eligibility for tax credits are determined by the National Park Service and the Internal Revenue Service in partnership with the State Historic Preservation Office, according to the Ohio History Connection. Tax credits are more likely to be awarded if the building is of greater historical significance, like buildings listed on the historical register. 

Doug Fuller explains tax credits.

“That tax credit could or does when fully used today, for every dollar you would spend on it (historical preservation project), it would give you somewhere between 30% and 35%, a third of the construction cost back to you in a tax credit,” Fuller said. “That’s a direct dollar for dollar credit, or ⅓ of $1 for credit – if you spent $100 that’s getting $33 back that’s a pretty good incentive.”

Listing a building on the historic register to have a greater chance at the available tax credits is a give and take exchange. Making it on the register helps ensure a higher award amount, but making it on the register also means that the preservation process has to be approved and monitored by the state and federal preservation offices. 

“We had to continually report to the state the progress on the building and whether what we were doing in the building actually matched what we said we were going to do,” Fuller said. “Anything we did had to reflect the history of the building and it had to be accurate in the reflecting of that history.”

The key to successfully repurposing a historical building that’s fallen into disrepair comes down to the team’s experience, Fuller said. 

“When you get the right people involved, it is economically worthwhile to pursue the tax credit,” Fuller said. “People that try to do this without the assistance of people who have been down that road before can struggle because there are requirements set by the federal government and they don’t know how to adhere to that process.”

Although the process is time consuming, preservation specialists are there to help developers along the way, said Ryan Cene, the co-owner of the L.N. Gross Building. The building had been used as a dress factory when it was built in 1928. The end of 2015, Cene and his dad, Bob Cene, purchased the building house their architectural firm, Renaissance 2000, and the startup business OnUs LLC.  

The building is listed under 315 RFK, a Limited Liability Company created to keep financial transactions and liability independent of other businesses, a common practice in business and in historical redevelopment, Ryan said. They received $2.5 million in tax credits and were able to cover a majority of the remaining cost from the sale of a previous family-owned business, Bob Cene said. 

“You need to have constant dialogue with the NPS (National Park Services Historic Preservation) and the Ohio State Preservation Office. If you have any questions, if anything’s up for interpretation, you want to get them involved as soon as possible,” Ryan said. “They might not give you an ideal answer, but they’ll steer you in the right direction.” 

In the end, the revitalization process may produce a return on the investment, at least not right away.

“The biggest piece to making a project successful is passion because there’s not a short-term payoff,” Ryan said. “It’s not transactional.”

The viability, the historical eligibility, the relationship with the national register, the possibility of tax credits versus the freedom of fully paying for the project, the community and the heart all play into the success of a historical renovation process, Fuller said. 

Doug Fuller explains why people should care about historical preservation.

“Embedded in all these old buildings is a ton of energy that’s already been used to produce it,” Fuller said. “The energy that’s in the bricks, the energy that’s in the wood and the doors and the glass. It’s a loss of energy if you just throw that away and if you lose it, you’ll never get it back.”

Historical Remodeling Project in the Works in Louisville, Ohio

Stark Parks bought Molly Stark Hospital for $1 from Stark County in 2009. 

The hospital grounds were repurposed into a system of trails and gardens called Molly Stark Park located off of Columbus Road in Louisville, Ohio, but the hospital building itself sat abandoned for over two decades.

“It is a historic structure, architecturally significant, so I don’t want to be the one to tear it down,” said Bob Fonte, the Stark Parks Director. “We’ve already abated the asbestos, keeping our options open to preserving it, but if we fail someday it will get torn down.”

Molly Stark Hospital was architecturally structured with vaulted porticos, Spanish Revival style windows and rooftop verandas because the commonly held belief at the time was that sunshine and fresh air cured tuberculosis, according to the Molly Stark History page. *Image from the Ohio Redevelopment Project

Molly Stark Sanatorium was built in 1929 as a county treatment center for tuberculosis, named in honor of Molly Stark, who served as a nurse in the American Revolution and wife of John Stark, the namesake of Stark County.  

By 1956, tuberculosis cases were on the decline and the sanatorium was converted to Molly Stark Hospital. The buildings that made up the hospital complex were expanded to treat drug and alcohol addiction, provide physical and mental rehabilitation, and elderly care, in addition to tuberculosis. A 1,200-foot-long tunnel system was installed beneath the hospital as a faster way for staff to move from building to building, according to the Stark Parks history page

The hospital continued operating for 40 more years until permanently closing its doors in 1995. The buildings no longer met infrastructure standards for modern-day hospitals and the outdated layout made treatment difficult. 

Since then, Molly Stark Hospital sat abandoned for nearly 27 years, silent behind a metal fence erected to keep trespassers out of the century-old building complex. The secrets of the past are hidden behind shuttered windows, boarded-off hallways and twisted tunnels. Overactive imaginations run wild with mid-century horror stories locked within the stone walls now overgrown with ivy.

Bob Fonte, the Stark Parks director, is retiring this year. The hopes of a Molly Stark Hospital renovation will continue on. *Image by Josie Bixler

 “We still plan on repurposing the building. The roof leaks a little more than it did 20 years ago, but the building isn’t at the point that it’s destroyed structurally,” Fonte said. “All the stars have to line up to make a project like this financially viable.

Future Plans for Molly Stark Hospital

Steve Coon, a developer from the Louisville area, is interested in repurposing Molly Stark Hospital. Remodeling the sectioned rooms of the wings of the hospital into apartments would create the first housing development within a park in the area, Fonte said. The plan is to make a contractual agreement between the developer and Stark Parks to protect Molly Stark Park and also redevelop the old hospital.

Coon has had his eye on the hospital for a few decades but efforts to raise money to cover the cost of the remodeling project have not gone anywhere this far. Fonte received a phone call from Coon this month and said he is still pursuing an investment plan to renovate the old hospital.

“The building is not on the historic register yet because we wanted to keep it flexible until we found a partner,” Fonte said. “When Coon’s ready we’ll draw up a contract and he’ll make his plan and then present that to the historic registry.”

But this first step has no timeline. It could be this week or it could take another ten years to see any progress on Molly Stark Hospital.

Bob Fonte remains hopeful for a future renovation of Molly Stark Park, but is not overly optimistic.

“Every normal project we do is typically ten years – we’re already at ten years and we don’t have a solution,” Fonte said. “It could take another ten years to get a solution to make it (Molly Stark Hospital) into a full fledged complex that’s residential and park. My crystal ball is foggy.”