By Katherine Hart, Mid-City Messenger
Real estate investor Tony Gelderman was on a Zoom call in 2020, discussing federal historic preservation tax credits for the renovation of the nearly 100-year-old warehouse at 4201 Tulane Ave. As architects with New Orleans based Rome office showed interior photos to federal officials, Gelderman said he was struck by the potential of the building.
“All of a sudden, I said, ‘This is a really nice space. He deserves to be brought back,” he recalled. “That’s when I thought, ‘We should do this. “”
Gelderman and his wife, Katherine Gelderman, along with a team of builders and architects, are rehabilitating the industrial building nestled between The Preserve Apartments and the Tulane-Carrollton Mall along the Pontchartrain Freeway.
Construction officially began in December 2021, but they removed its 1970s renovations and cleaned up years of neglect over the past year, according to city permit records. The idea, Gelderman said, is to restore the building to how it looked when it was built in 1924 for Riecke Cabinet Works.
The current plan for the 1920s factory is to redevelop it into a coworking space for the 2020s and beyond.
Natural light floods the second floor of the former factory, where around 100 workers created intricate wooden pieces such as mahogany radio cabinets and pews and other accessories for around 1,200 churches around the world, according to local historian Catherine Campanella. These works included the hand-carved throne of the Archbishop in St. Louis Cathedral, built in the mid-1940s.
Members of the Riecke family, along with relatives of former Reicke Cabinet Works employees, were among those who gathered on Wednesday for a preview of the ongoing renovation.
One such family member was Gus Riecke Gernon, who spent his teenage summers working in the factory his grandfather Henry Sebastian Riecke founded in 1904 and ran until his death in 1965. .
“I wanted to come back here,” Gernon said, smiling while leaning on a walker.
Standing in the center of the floor, he showed where large fans helped ventilation, to where pulleys drove machinery, and to where sawdust and wood shavings were collected in conduits and deposited outside.
Many New Orleans residents remember the sprawling two-story building as a showroom and warehouse for Lighting Inc.who owned it from 1972 to 2006.
Lighting Inc. sold the building after Hurricane Katrina and moved to Earhart Boulevard, where it remained until it closed for good on April 29.
The 36,000 square foot structure then changed hands three times before the Geldermans purchased it. During that time, he racked up citations from the Fire Marshal, Code Enforcement, Safety and Permits, and the Health Department.
City records show violations for trash and debris, rats and other rodents, tall weeds, and fire hazards. “It’s been an eyesore for years,” a neighbor said of the building, which takes up an entire city block.
On two occasions, city inspectors found people living in storage units created by a landlord. At one point, utilities were turned off to force illegal residents out of the building.
The Geldermans, whose past projects include The Rink in the Garden District and the building at 450 Julia St. that houses the Peche restaurant, saw the blight and alterations of the 1970s.
“I thought it was unusual, a unique building in a great location,” Gelderman said. “I’m very confident about the building because of where it’s located. It’s right in the middle of town.
After cleaning the building, they started peeling off the layers. In the 1970s, the lighting retailer clad the exterior in metal panels to modernize the then 50-year-old building. “We found out there was this building in the building,” Gelderman said.
Once they received approval from the city to remove the panels, the original pressed metal exterior could be restored, said Derek Gardes of Trine Builders. They found matching pressed metal signs for an area where the originals were missing.
To ensure that the 1920s facade will not be altered if the building changes hands, the Preservation Resource Center holds a servitude over ownership, giving the nonprofit advocacy group control of any outside changes. “A building like this could not be restored without the help of organizations like the PRC,” Gelderman said.
“The PRC is thrilled to see the new life that will be breathed into this part of Tulane Avenue,” said Danielle Del Sol, Executive Director of the PRC.
When they took on the project, Gelderman said, they had no idea how the renovated building would be used. “We have been studying this very closely and we could very well develop it as a co-working environment,” he said. “Take people who are just starting out in life, who are entrepreneurs — they can have a place where they can work and collaborate close to home. There are a lot of young people in Mid-City.
Whatever happens to the building, Gelderman said, he wants its integrity preserved.
Katherine Hart is the editor of NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at [email protected].