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Historic Knights of Columbus hall in Allentown undergoes remarkable transformation

One of the city’s historic Delaware Avenue buildings is now among its highest-priced new addresses.

After 14 months of detailed and painstaking work, the former Knights of Columbus Hall in Allentown is now home to nearly two dozen residents, living in spacious apartments that in some cases span two floors.

The tenants range from young professionals fresh out of college to empty-nesters fresh out of children. Some are tied to the nearby Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, while others are downtown business executives, or even sports figures.

And they’re all paying upward of $1,600 a month – and as much as $2,800 – for the privilege of living in custom-designed luxury units in Allentown, complete with tony finishes, unique fixtures, original mahogany and oak, and century-old architectural details like original crown moulding, wainscoting, corbels and carved spindles.

“It’s unlike anything else in the Buffalo area,” said Dr. Brittanny Keeler, 29, a Utica native who moved into one of the apartments late last year with her boyfriend, who moved here from New York City. “The stuff that they restored, like the old architecture, and the wood paneling, it’s really great. They put a lot of attention to detail, and every other place is different.”

That’s music to the ears of James Jerge Jr., who bought the 145-year-old building 13 years ago when it was empty, before starting his privately financed $5.5 million renovation in 2014.

“Once I knew I was going to do a project like this, I was only going to do it one way, and that was the right way. If I knew to do it high-end and luxury, because that was the customer I was looking for, that’s all I cared about,” said Jerge, 48. “I don’t have many competitors when it comes to this.”

Rents reach $2,800

The restored three-story building, now known as The Knights at 506 Delaware, boasts 23 one- and two-bedroom apartments, with various designs and configurations to fit the pre-existing space. Apartments range in size from the smallest one-bedroom, one-bathroom unit at 800 square feet to the biggest, with two bedrooms and bathrooms, at 1,775 square feet. Seven of the units are two-floor apartments, renting for $2,300 to $2,800 a month.

And despite the hefty price tags, all but two are already rented. In fact, more than half of the units were preleased off the model unit, and a few have been occupied since July 1.

“We have had significant interest given the type of historic mansion feel of the space,” said Benjamin Obletz, CEO of First Amherst Development Group, who worked with Jerge on the project, and now oversees management and leasing for the building. “This is a very good example of a building that was sitting vacant for a long time that has come back to life. It shows how the momentum in the city is really bringing people back to the city core to live.”

The adjacent former mansion features 5,000 square feet of Class A commercial office space on the first two floors, with a historic and refinished grand staircase in the center and giant wood-paneled mirrors with lion carvings adorning the walls. With space for a reception area, conference rooms, executive offices and upstairs private offices, it’s geared for a single tenant – such as a law, accounting or professional firm – that would have a separate entrance on Delaware and secure parking.

“The residential has leased so fast, right off the model, ahead of schedule, so now what’s left is to turn our attention to the commercial space,” Obletz said.

Part of a trend

Indeed, the dramatic transformation of the 56,735-square-foot building represents the latest example of landlords and developers remaking historic structures in Buffalo into residential, commercial and even retail space. Initially primed by major public investments into infrastructure, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and Canalside, the redevelopment in the city is now largely fueled by the private sector, driven by a new confidence and even civic pride in the city.

That’s demonstrated by the growth of downtown and a renewed interest in both living and working in the city’s core. And developers are eager to capitalize on the growing demand for urban apartments and especially in historic buildings. In all, more than $5 billion dollars worth of projects – including both privately funded and government-supported – are completed, underway or in the planning stages throughout the city and its suburbs.

Jerge, a contractor who originally bought the building to house a friend’s family business, saw that three years ago. That prompted his decision to take action with his long-suffering investment – on which he was paying $25,000 to $30,000 a year in taxes while it sat unused.

“We were waiting for the right time,” he said. “The good buzz in Buffalo, the momentum that it’s on. So far so good. I would definitely say it’s met our expectations of the quality of tenants that we’re getting.”

Many of those tenants are either moving to Buffalo for the first time, or moving back here from elsewhere.

“They’re used to paying out-of-town rents,” Obletz said. “People come back to Buffalo from out of town, and look at the quality we have here, and they’re very enthusiastic about these units, because they’re used to paying bigger rents for not nearly the square footage or the quality.”

That was Keeler’s reaction, too. “Your money goes way farther in Buffalo than it does in New York City. You get a lot more,” she said. “I don’t know how much this place would cost if you were down there. It would be ridiculous.”

McKinley visited

The Second Empire-style mansion was originally built in 1870 for Detroit native Chillion M. Farrar, a former iron works manager who then co-founded a company in Buffalo that made boilers, metal parts and later engines for train locomotives, oil producers and other users for more than 40 years. President William McKinley visited the steel tycoon at the home in 1901, just prior to his assassination. Farrar died in 1907, but his family stayed in the home until 1916, when it was sold to the Knights of Columbus.

The Knights, who owned and occupied it until 1970, added a gym, swimming pool and steam bath, and used the building not only for gatherings, but also as a residence, converting the upper level to some 40 small apartments. They sold it to Joseph Deck Sr., who converted 20,000 square feet to office space for the county’s Private Industry Council, which helped place people in jobs, schools and housing. The remainder of the building was empty. After PIC left, Deck gave up the building at auction, and Jerge bought it for $450,000.

Jerge, who owns a construction firm and other properties, has usually teamed up with partners on development projects, mostly out of town. He renovated and refinished a 200-year-old former convent house in Orchard Park into his own residence 22 years ago as his first experience with historic structures. And he’s now collaborating with Mark Croce on the pending conversion of the 100,000-square-foot former Hertz garage at 75 W. Huron – next to Croce’s Curtiss Hotel project – into 58 apartments and indoor parking.

Tenants helped design

The Knights apartments are highly individualized, with unique features and custom fixtures in each. That’s in part because when Jerge lined up new tenants, he allowed them to help choose the decor, including lights, counters, cabinets and even appliances. The apartments also feature mechanical shades, custom closets and pre-engineered hardwood floors.

“Once we get a tenant, we like to keep them. So we actually involved them in some of the design side of it,” he said. “For each and every one of the units, we actually came through and picked out specific light fixtures that we thought applied to the unit. No unit is the same.”

Yerge also said he specifically did not want the apartments to have an “industrial or loft” feel to them. So he directed Allied Mechanical to put all the new mechanicals and ductwork above the ceilings, to minimize the exposed look. That added $25,000 to the overall project cost, he said, but also allows him to charge higher rents. Even so, all of the apartments have 14- or 15-foot high ceilings.

Despite the building’s legacy, Jerge did not seek any historic tax credits or other public incentives to support the project, preferring to maintain control rather than bring in a partner.

Still, wherever possible, Jerge and his team sought to retain the historic character and detail of the original building, refinishing wood and re-creating deteriorated elements of the building where necessary, especially those that had suffered water damage over time. Workers from Buffalo Plaster would take plastic molds of sections of the decorative detail, cut out portions of the older plaster that was no longer usable, and then replace it with new plaster from the mold.

“The quality of these units is what people are really impressed with. It helps them to make a decision to rent here versus somewhere else,” Obletz said.