- Associated Press - Monday, February 24, 2014

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Mark Wenkus sees a blank canvas when he looks at the building at the southwest corner of Lafayette Boulevard and LaSalle Avenue.

The facade has floor-to-ceiling windows and terra-cotta parapets, but inside it’s no frills — the kind of wide-open space that’s been turned into loft apartments and condominiums, stylish offices, art studios, boutiques, bistros and coffee houses in bigger cities.

“It’s limitless in its uses,” he told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/1doVmzM ).

Wenkus owns and operates Concrete Haus, an artisan concrete business.

He plans to use about a quarter of the building as a workshop and showroom for the countertops, tables, fireplaces, benches and other things he makes. The remainder of the 36,000 square feet would be available for other tenants.

The two-story building already has gone through several rounds of repurposing.

William R. Hinkle built it in 1922 to house his Ford dealership. The building has 15-foot ceilings and ramps that make it possible to drive a car from the basement to the second floor, and the reinforced concrete structure is sturdy enough to hold the weight.

Romy Hammes — a well-known Notre Dame benefactor whose family name is on the university’s bookstore — moved his Ford dealership to the building in the early 1940s. His son Jerry Hammes continued to operate the dealership there until moving it to Olive Street in the mid-1960s.

Since then, the building has been another car dealership, a school for apprentices in the skilled trades and a factory for waterbed frames. Another company used the space to make display booths for conventions.

But the building had been sitting idle for 12 years when Wenkus bought it in April from First Presbyterian Church.

“There was just a monumental amount of junk and other things companies had left behind,” he said.

There also were dead pigeons and signs that people had broken into the building through rear doors and windows. Wenkus has secured the building and cleaned out the garbage.

The building definitely needs some work — new windows, new heating and cooling systems, some tuck pointing, some polish on the mosaic tile floor — but overall it’s in good shape. Wenkus has parked a 1970 Airstream trailer inside the building to serve as his office during the renovation process.

Jerry Hammes said he’s happy to hear his old dealership building is getting some new life.

“I go by that building often,” he said, adding that even the windows on the building appear to be the same ones that were there 50 years ago. “It’s like time stood still when I look at that building.”

Wenkus also owns the former Fredrickson Candy Shop, which dates back to 1892 and faces LaSalle next to the old dealership building.

He’s hopeful he’ll find a tenant, such as a coffee shop or bakery, for the old candy store. The building has 11-foot ceilings, windows that stand 7 feet tall and still has its original wood trim, coat hooks and other details.

Wenkus said he’d been eyeing the buildings at the corner of Lafayette and LaSalle for years, and he’s been encouraged by other new investment he’s seen downtown.

“I’d like to help make South Bend a more interesting and diverse place to live,” he said. “It’s gaining traction.”

Wenkus knows a thing or two about renovating old buildings.

A few years ago, he bought and rehabilitated the former Macri’s Bakery at 520 E. LaSalle Ave. The building, which was built in 1898 and expanded in 1916, now is home to an engineering firm.

He also bought the neighboring LaSalle State Bank building at 526 E. LaSalle Ave., and he’s in the process of restoring it. His concrete business currently is based in the old bank building, which dates from 1921.

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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