Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 11:00 am
The challenge of transforming an old multi-story manufacturing building into new office and retail space is not for the impatient or the faint of heart.
Fortunately for Michael Gardner, he is neither. Gardner is the managing member of the Gardner Group LLC, which purchased the old P.H. Dye House at 320 E. Buffalo St. in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward in 1999.
The property had been owned by Gardner’s parents, Jack and Barbara Gardner, since the 1970s.
The structure was built in 1920 for the Phoenix Hosiery Co., which owned several structures in the Third Ward. The P.H. Dye House was a prime example of vertical manufacturing. The hosiery was dyed on an upper floor, dried on another floor, folded on another floor and packaged on another floor.
"They just kept the product moving down the building until they got to the bottom," Gardner said.
That inefficient business model has long since become extinct, leaving hundreds of vacant industrial space throughout southeastern Wisconsin.
Gardner is doing his part to breathe new life into his "concrete fortress."
Floor by floor, suite by suite, Gardner is redeveloping the P.H. Dye House:
Fred Astaire Dance Studios operates on the first floor of the building.
– IT Fusion Business Centers, a business incubation company, is located on the sixth floor.
– Open Roads Management Consulting is based on the sixth floor.
– Momentum Advertising, Marketing & Public Relations also operates on the sixth floor.
– The Halling & Cayl law firm has offices on the seventh floor.
Another business, Moda 3, will soon move into 3,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor. (See accompanying story.)
In between, Gardner has 110,000 square feet of available space spread out over the remaining floors of the nine-story structure.
"It’s been a slow process as users of manufacturing space have moved out, but they have opened the building up for retail and offices," Gardner said. "So far this year, we’ve had a lot of showings of the building."
The leasing for the building is being done by Siegel-Gallagher Management Co., Milwaukee.
When Gardner finds a new tenant for space in his building, he calls Engberg Anderson Design Partnership, Milwaukee, to design the space for the new tenant and Waukesha-based Voss Jorgensen Schueler Co. to build it to suit.
Gardner has been doing the building by piecework, designing new space as he finds new tenants.
However, he’s also making some construction investments in the building to attract additional tenants.
Gardner estimates he has invested more than $4 million into the structure so far. The most significant project to date has been the installation of two new passenger elevators into a shaft that had held a freight elevator. The 18-month project, which was turned down by several contractors because if its complexity, is due to be completed this spring when a backup generator is installed.
When the new elevator system is operable, Gardner hopes his building will attract more potential tenants. He’s also hopeful that the entire neighborhood will become even more attractive when the Third Ward Public Market project receives a $2.5 million federal grant.
Gardner has installed a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and new electrical wiring in the building.
He soon plans to replace all of the structure’s windows, and the exterior will be repaired next year.
"We’ll be renovating the exterior, resurfacing it, chip out any of the loose concrete, patch up the building and repaint the building. It will be more of a cream color," Gardner said.
Although the building certainly would have qualified for historical tax credits from the city, Gardner opted not to go that route, because those tax credits usually come with restrictions on how the building can be renovated.
The P.H. Dye House is something of a landmark in the Third Ward. It is known by the locals as the tall white building with the green shrubbery on the roof.
Actually, the garden space and deck on the roof were designed by Gardner’s mother in the 1970s, and "truckloads of dirt" were brought up there to support the greenery.
Today, a physician, whom Gardner declined to identify, resides on the eighth floor and has private access to that terrace space.
The offices in the building provide exhilarating views of downtown Milwaukee’s skyline. From the north side of the building, tenants have panoramic views of the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Lake Michigan and the southern edge of downtown. On the south side of the building, the Hoan Bridge, the Third Ward and the lake are in full view.
"My only problem is one of curb appeal. Once people get in here, they say, ‘Wow,’ and they appreciate how special this is," Gardner said.
Gardner’s "upper Class B" office space can be built to suit office tenants of any size up to 20,000 square feet per floor, and is being marketed with a lease rate of $15.50 per square foot, which doesn’t include electricity costs.
"Our building really lays out nicely for an open concept business, with cubicles. With 20,000 square feet, we can do a very efficient layout, and you can have your own office on the whole floor," Gardner said.
The building’s location at the intersection of Buffalo and Milwaukee streets – just a couple blocks off of busy Water Street – also is an asset, Gardner said. He owns a parking lot for 100 vehicles to the north of the structure and has another 50 parking spaces in the basement.
"Milwaukee Street is a much slower street, and you can find street parking almost anytime," Gardner said.
The construction work to renovate the poured concrete structure involves tearing out the worn wooden floors and renovating the space around the building’s existing concrete pillars.
"When you’re walking in here, you’ve almost got a brand new building in an old shell," Gardner said.
April 30, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee