Preservation at its Best 2017, Multi-Family Residential: Franklin Apartments (Des Moines)
For many years, the property at 1811 6th Avenue seemed to be a forgotten set from a Hollywood horror movie. The hulking, vacant, deteriorating 6,000+ square foot converted mansion evoked a sense of unease and disregard. Cloaked by wildly growing bushes and trees, the property encouraged passers-by to unconsciously skirt to the far side of the sidewalk when passing. Although 6th Avenue had been designated an Urban Main Street District in 2009 and efforts to revitalize the area were gaining signifi
cant momentum with plans for an enhanced streetscape and new small business growth, 1811 6th Avenue seemed destined for the wrecking ball. It served as a sterling (well, perhaps tarnished example of decades of disinvestment on 6th Avenue. Who could be daring enough to take on such a daunting challenge?
Thankfully, the property caught the eye of Julian Caselli, owner of Caselli Construction and an emerging historic property developer in the City of Des Moines. Caselli, an immigrant from Columbia turned restaurateur turned developer, had already tackled several projects in the revitalized neighborhood of Sherman Hill and was looking for another project that could make a positive impact on both the City and his resume. Caselli set out to learn more about 6th Avenue Corridor Urban Main Street District and the surrounding historic neighborhoods. He developed relationships, began attending meetings, and volunteered.
In July of 2013, Caselli purchased the property for $145,000. By early 2015, the stunning rehabilitation of the Franklin Apartments was complete and seven new affordable apartments added to the residential offerings on 6th Avenue. The revitalization of the property at 1811 6th Avenue fits within a larger narrative of a century of changes along 6th Avenue. Once the main artery of a separate community known as North Des Moines, 6th Avenue was initially home to the mansions of wealthy elites who worked in Des Moines and lived in this first suburb. As the community was annexed into the City of Des Moines, 6th Avenue became a thriving commercial corridor with its own streetcar line. The Queen Anne-style mansion at 1811 6th Avenue was initially built in 1897 and was later converted into a 7-unit apartment building.
The abandonment of the property in the 2000s threatened to erase this history. At every step of the rehabilitation process, Caselli kept the 6th Avenue Corridor Urban Main Street District staff and area neighborhood association involved and informed. He met with the 6th Avenue Corridor Design Committee throughout the process as well as the River Bend Neighborhood Association Housing Committee. The overall budget for the project was $673,075 including the $145,000 purchase price. $588,000 of the overall budget was provided through a loan from the Iowa Finance Authority using HOME funds focused on supporting affordable housing in the City of Des Moines. The City of Des Moines was also a strong partner in the project.
The primary structure as well as the accessory carriage house were transformed from top to bottom on both the exterior and interior – thankfully much of the original woodwork and builtins remained. The exterior received a lovely, period-appropriate paint scheme and trees and bushes were removed to allow the structure to once again properly greet 6th Avenue. Today, the property boasts seven beautiful affordable apartments, typically rented to the elderly and veterans. Caselli notes that the demand for these units has been overwhelming and that there’s a sizable waiting list. Rehabilitation of 1811 6th Avenue, a National Register for Historic Places listed property, served as a watershed moment in the course of 6th Avenue revitalization. It demonstrated that a large, vacant structure could be sensitively rehabilitated and boast new life.
Since project completion, two new construction multifamily residential developments have been initiated, non-historic blighted one-story structures are being demolished where appropriate to make way for sensitive mixed-use developments, and the historic North Des Moines City Hall has been secured and is in the early stages of transformation. The Franklin Apartment and Julian Caselli have earned a lasting legacy on the 6th Avenue Corridor and in the City of Des Moines and truly embody “preservation at its best.”
Preservation Iowa’s two most visible programs are Iowa’s Most Endangered and Preservation at Its Best. These two programs work well together because being listed as Most Endangered often times leads to awareness, a preservation effort, and a high-quality, award winning project.
The full list of Preservation Iowa’s 2017 Preservation at its Best award winners include: