A longtime old union hall in Allentown that may have once been the target of government surveillance is now the latest posh new address for downtown residents.
Allentown landlord Don Gilbert has completed his $1.1 million conversion of the two-story former Laborers 210 Labor Hall into Strathman Manor, with 12 apartments in a space where beefy union workers once gathered and jewelry technicians later toiled behind bulletproof glass and barbed wire.
The 52-year-old building has a lot of history behind it, including plenty of old rumors about the goings-on in the days when the union local was dominated by the mob, before federal authorities cracked down and seized control of the international union to rid it of criminal control. “Everybody asks me, are there bodies in the basement?” Gilbert joked. “I told them, I found Jimmy Hoffa.”
Now, the 11,412-square-foot dark brick building at 481 Franklin St., near Allen Street, will host a variety of tenants, living in apartments filled with Martha Stewart decor, Juliet balconies, large walk-in closets and the occasional mosaic tiles that date back to the building’s original construction. Gilbert finished the project late last year, and the building received its certificate of occupancy at the end of December. Three units are now rented, “so I’m excited, to say the least,” he said.
Most of all, Gilbert, a member of the city’s Preservation Board, is happy to be growing his small, geographically concentrated portfolio. “It’s a popular area,” he said. “It’s a trendy area. It’s a happening neighborhood.”
The redeveloped Strathman – named for Gilbert’s mother’s maiden name – has seven one-bedroom units and five studio luxury apartments, with basement storage and off-street parking. Five of the studios are on the first floor, with two one-bedroom units, while the rest are upstairs. The studios average 515 square feet and rent for $1,000 per month, while the larger units average 820 square feet, for $1,350.
Three apartments – two studios and a one-bedroom – are handicapped-accessible, with wider door frames and kitchen entrances, a shower with no tub and side-by-side laundry machines.
To say the building has an unusual legacy would be an understatement. Built in 1964 and used for meetings and functions, the hall was occupied by the union until 2003, seven years after the federal raids.
Not much is known about exactly what happened in the building during those years – the FBI reportedly installed hidden cameras and listening devices at one point, and a neighbor once told Gilbert that FBI agents came up to a neighbor’s second floor to videotape who was coming and going from the labor hall. But Gilbert said he did find 42 phone lines had been set up in the 4,500-square-foot basement, possibly fitting rumors of an illegal betting operation. “A lot of pieces to the puzzle,” he said.
M.A. Reich, a jewelry manufacturer, took over the space after the union left, making jewelry for Kay Jewelers, with 18 technicians working with gold and silver on the second floor. Hence the barbed wire and bulletproof glass, Gilbert said, since there were walk-in safes with millions of dollars of jewelry. The front door of the building also had unusually thick windows and piano hinges, providing extra security.
Gilbert, who owns four other nearby apartment properties, learned from the owner of a restaurant across the street that the building was available, and quickly contacted the broker at RealtyUSA to put in a bid. He bought the property in November 2014 for $750,000. “I was looking for two years at other opportunities,” he said. “I was excited to get the opportunity.”
Work began early last year, with Gilbert demolishing the interior walls on the first floor.
Gilbert said he “tried to keep whatever I could of the old,” so apartments feature a mix of details. The units mostly have golden teak acacia hardwood floors, except for two apartments and a hallway with some beige square ceramic tiles where bathrooms used to be. He said he wanted exposed brick and ceiling as well, but poor insulation meant he had to reframe and re-drywall the apartments instead, filling the space behind with spray foam.
Most of the windows were original, and he sought to retain them, while adding French doors and transoms after getting approval from the Preservation Board. And he added “Juliet” balconies that jut out 10 inches from the window.
The cabinets, fixtures and paint colors are largely from Martha Stewart, doors are solid pine, and the units include built-in wood storage cubbies and shelving. “My brand is white, bright, clean,” he said, referring to the abundance of white, cream and gray colors.
This is the fifth project for Gilbert, a Buffalo native who played in the Canadian Football League for the Ottawa Rough Riders, came back to Buffalo to get a master’s degree in college student personnel, and then spent five years as an assistant professor and head football coach at the University of Ottawa, leading the team to the Vanier Cup national championship. He was named Canadian College Coach of the Year, and was inducted into the Ottawa city and university halls of fame. Gilbert, who starred at quarterback for Bennett High School and the University of Buffalo, is also a member of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
But he decided not to stay in Canada. Gilbert signed up for a real estate course after seeing some friends buying property in Ottawa, and then returned to Buffalo, where he got a job with WBEN for 11 years while he started investing in real estate.
After a brief experiment with a building on Park Street for 18 months, he sold that and bought Bishop Manor at 455 Franklin St., a nine-unit apartment building that was constructed in 1878, and converted it to residential. With some federal and city dollars, he renovated it and now lives in one of the units. He later bought a 22-unit building at 44 North Pearl St., a four-unit at 451 Franklin and the Hiram Day Mansion with seven units at 441 Franklin.