Two years ago, Cory Vandenberghe stepped inside a boarded-up brick industrial building in St. Paul. He surveyed the hole in the roof, the mold, the decades of grime on the walls and the cold concrete floor. There was no electricity or water. One wall had caved in.
Instead of turning around and heading out the door, Cory envisioned how he and his girlfriend, Tia, could turn the condemned 1912 vacant structure into the one-of-a-kind house he’d always wanted.
“It was creepy walking around with a cellphone flashlight,” he recalled. “It was a mess and needed lots of structural repairs — but I could see it becoming a home.”
Cory had been searching for five years for a raw commercial building that he could renovate into an urban loft-style living space. Exposed brick and ductwork, a modern open floor plan and enough space for four bedrooms were also on his wish list.
But it seemed impossible to find a building “the right size, the right price and in the right neighborhood,” he said. “It was like finding a needle in a haystack.”
In 2016, the couple’s real estate agent told them about a “Vacant Home Tour” in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood. That’s when they first saw the brick building, which had been empty since 2005. It was owned by the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA), and was going to be demolished.
“People in the neighborhood didn’t want to see it torn down,” said Joe Musolf, interim housing director with the HRA’s Planning and Economic Development Department. The building, in the neighborhood’s historic district, had housed the Schorenstein Garage, the Railing Shop, an automotive repair business and other entities over the decades.
As a last push to save the building, Musolf worked with a neighborhood group and St. Paul City Council Member Jane Prince to organize the Vacant Home Tour to market it, along with some other properties, as a residential rehab opportunity.
Tia and Cory fell in love with the brick exterior and vintage lettering, “Railing Shop,” where blacksmiths had crafted stair railings, across the front.
A week later, Cory was able to get a closer look inside. He consulted with designer Michael Anschel of OA Design+Build+Architecture, who agreed it was a viable candidate.
“The inside was pretty awful,” Anschel said. “But it was a good-sized brick building, and the layout seemed conducive to the open floor plan Cory described.”
Cory and Anschel submitted a proposal and construction plan to the HRA and the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission, which approved it in 2017.
The city’s Inspiring Communities Program, which rehabs vacant properties to provide affordable housing and neighborhood stabilization, contributed a subsidy of $178,000 to offset some of the cost, and sold the property for $1. Tia and Cory took out a construction loan to cover the rest of the renovation.
They were so excited about their new venture that Cory proposed to Tia in front of the Railing Shop, and they were married a few months later.
Although they had never lived in St. Paul, the couple were looking forward to being close to both downtowns, the restaurant scene and breweries, and walking paths along the Mississippi River.
Tia stepped inside their future home for the first time when they threw a demolition party to knock down walls and clean it out. “I really saw all the work ahead,” she recalled. “I felt terrified — but trusted Cory.”
There were many unexpected costs, delays and construction plan revisions, ahead, too.
Cory, who works in advertising/marketing, and Tia, who works in finance, collaborated with the OA Design team on the details of the project.
The century-old building was actually a one-story structure and a two-story structure connected together. Engineering inspections determined that the one-story building’s foundation was in poor condition, and that it would be too costly to salvage and renovate the building. “The cost to preserve it dramatically exceeded the cost to replace it,” said Anschel.
So Cory and Tia had that part demolished, and shifted gears to build an entirely new one-story brick structure within the original footprint — matching the original architectural details, so it looks like it was always standing there. The new structure contains the living room, guest bedroom and front-entry mudroom leading to an attached two-car garage.
The existing two-story building was gutted, while retaining its brick walls, terra-cotta ceiling and foundation.
Today, the completed home contains 2,160 square feet with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. Exposed ductwork snakes through every space, and the 11-foot-tall ceilings give it a loft-like feel.
For the interiors, the couple married the old rough textures with new polished materials in fresh, creative ways.
“It was important to find a balance between the aesthetic of the existing character and up-to-date efficiency of a modern home,” said Tia.
The Vandenberghes spent two weekends “soda-blasting” the original brick walls and terra-cotta ceiling to remove decades of black grime and reveal the rich character.
“It’s a 100-year-old ceiling,” said Cory. “We could have covered it up with Sheetrock — but want to show it off.”
The textural terra-cotta tiles are a stark contrast to the smooth, metal ductwork and sharp lines of the modern kitchen cabinets, he said.
The kitchen is anchored by an angled island topped with a remnant of black honed granite with a wavy edge, an OA Design signature. Friends can sip drinks and watch Cory, the chef of the family, prepare dinner at the long island counter. Cool black stainless-steel appliances continue the modern vibe.
To warm up the spaces, the couple infused traditional touches, such as Craftsman-style trim around three-paneled doors and windows, and hardwood floors in the upstairs bedrooms.
The new staircase, constructed with salvaged century-old roof trusses, leads to the three second-floor bedrooms. Cory and Tia splurged on a retro-style sunburst light at the top of the stairs that “really stands out at night in front of the window,” said Cory.
The home’s exterior is a combination of new brick and the original painted bricks. The “Railing Shop” words are still there.
They painted their front door navy blue. “We thought it looked great with the red brick,” said Cory.
New energy-efficient double-hung windows fit in the existing openings and draw in lots of light.
To save money on the renovation, the couple are doing some of the finishing work themselves — from tiling the bathroom showers to staining and installing wood trim.
“It’s such a unique and amazing space — it was worth the effort,” said Anschel. “It’s awesome to have folks like Cory and Tia make that kind of investment to transform a forgotten commercial property into their home.”
The Vandenberghe home was open for a “Hard Hat” tour during the Mpls.St. Paul home tour last spring because it wasn’t close to being completed, due to some unexpected delays.
But it will be back on the tour in spring 2019. “People can see how you can take something very rough and turn it into something beautiful,” said Tia.
Cory is amazed at their accomplishments when he looks back at the “before” photos of the boarded-up building.
Still, he always had confidence that they could do it, he said. “We had to adjust our plans, deadlines and budget — but it turned out how we envisioned it.”
To see more details of the restoration, go to therailingshop.co.
To find out more about the Inspiring Communities Program, go to stpaul.gov/inspiringcommunities.