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Historic coffee building gets an 'old school' renovation

A soft breeze blew through the open windows on the top floor of 2017 Preston, bringing with it the rich smell of coffee from a manufacturing plant about a half-mile away. At first, the irony was lost on the owner of the five-story building, itself once a coffee roasting operation that shuttered in the 1940s.

"I've always smelled that, but I didn't know exactly what it was. That's pretty cool," said David Denenburg, laughing about how his senses have been dulled by years of exposure to paint, chemicals other products used in construction.

Denenburg recently bought the red brick building that rises five stories alongside the Southwest Freeway just east of downtown. Though there's been a renaissance of the neighborhood around it, the old Cheek-Neal Coffee building has languished for decades, a target for graffiti artists and a shelter for the homeless.

One of its most identifiable features is a rooftop water tower that was replaced several years ago with a fiberglass imitation that hides Verizon Wireless cellular equipment. The original tank sits just a few feet away, and Denenburg imagines it being used as perhaps a circular bar once the building has been restored and has a new purpose.

For now, he's not sure what that purpose will be. And there's still a looming question as to how the building might be affected by the state's plans to reroute Interstate 45 alongside U.S. 59, effectively widening the freeway adjacent to Denenburg's building.

Since he and a small group of investors purchased the building in June, the 36-year-old developer has been moving at a fast clip to restore it to the way it looked when it was built in 1917.

Denenburg has concentrated initial restoration efforts on the building's downtown-facing side.

"What I'm trying to do is get this entire façade finished so everybody in the city can see how beautiful this building really is," Denenburg said during a tour of the property. "I just want to prove this building is not a piece of junk. It's a masterpiece."

Workers have been power-washing the structure and removing paint with equipment that won't damage the bricks. Every window has been restored by hand.

"Everything we do is kind of old school, from building our own scaffolding to how we do the windows," Denenburg said.

Distinctive windows

Welders and architects told him the windows, which were manufactured in St. Louis 100 years ago, could not be saved because they'd have to be removed in order to be restored, and that wasn't an option because of the way they were built into the structure.

"Everyone told me to rip these out and have them re-created in a factory in China," said Denenburg, who was determined to redo them in place.

He pointed out the curvature of a handle that cranks open the windows.

"See how beautiful this handle is? You can't find that anywhere," he said.

The Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission recently voted to approve the building as a Protected Landmark, the highest level of protection for a historic property. It prohibits demolition, except in cases of extreme hardship, and requires approval for any alteration to the façade.

Joseph Finger and James Ruskin Bailey designed the 55,000-square-foot concrete frame structure, which served as a coffee plant that manufactured Maxwell House before operations moved to a bigger plant on Harrisburg, the one nearby, in the late 1940s.

As Denenburg pushed for the designation, he was warned against it.

"People were like, 'Oh be careful ... you're going to be in the hand of the preservation society for everything you do,' " he said. "I was like, 'I don't care. I want it to be that way.' "

What it could be

For now, Denenburg is more focused on restoration than finding a tenant. Still, he's talked with boutique hotel operators and was recently approached with an idea that would use the property as a culinary market like they have in other major cities.

He'd also like to see a coffee shop on the first level and perhaps an event space on the top floor with rooftop access. Residential lofts are "off the table," he said, "because the only people that would be able to enjoy them are the owners."

His plan is to use the original name: The Cheek and Neal.

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