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Sweet New Deal for an Old Building

Business owners Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine aquire a historic Troy structure desperately in need of help, and get ready to spread the love

by Ann Morrow on March 27, 2013

Shovel in hand, Vic Christopher is creating a business from the ground up. Literally. Last week, Christopher and his wife, Heather LaVine, purchased “the most endangered building in Troy,” a four-story commercial building that extends from 207 to 215 Broadway. That’s a lot of ground and a lot of up, especially considering its collapsed rear wall and other structural chasms. “It’s a scary sight right now, but if this building was not standing, it would be a devastating loss for downtown Troy,” Christopher said. “We felt compelled to give it chance.”

And the 1876 building is giving Christopher and LaVine an opportunity in return: space to expand. The couple own the Charles F. Lucas Confectionary & Wine Bar around the corner on Second Street. Due to its fast-growing popularity, the Confectionary needs to open out from its 19th-century confines. It also needs a second bathroom, pronto. “The only complaint I hear from customers is about long lines for the bathroom,” said Christopher. From this utilitarian need, a decaying landmark has been reclaimed and reenvisioned.

Labor of Love: Christopher acquired the Clark building in Troy, and began to rehab it. Photo by Ann Morrow.

At first, the couple wanted to negotiate for just for the add-on structure that was used as a kitchen for the old Tavern restaurant at 209. “The owners wanted to sell the whole parcel, so we decided to go for it,” Christopher said.

He plans to “undo” the add-on (which was encroachment on the candy shop’s original property) and enlarge through the Confectionary’s back wall, with a garden walkway leading to outdoor dining areas. “We don’t have the space for large parties and the events that people are asking for,” he explained.

Though the Confectionary opened less than six months ago, LaVine said, “We’re turning away business. The big thing about the new building is it will allow us to entertain more people. The plan is to pay tribute to its history while making sure the space is relevant for the guests we intend to host.”

Known as the Clark building after the owner of a longtime boarding house that resided there, the Broadway behemoth is distinguished by cast-iron columns and ornate window frames. It bustled with commercial activity for almost a hundred years, with millineries, confectionaries (Troy once had 30 confectionaries, noted Christopher), a bootery, and an apothecary. After falling vacant in the 1980s, it narrowly avoided demolition at several junctures, especially after the rear wall collapsed. “People were always saying, ‘Why don’t they just tear the thing down,’” said Christopher. “It was a center of commerce, and of people’s lives, people who lived in boarding houses back then. It saw a lot of activity and life, and it has a lot of life left in it.”

The couple paid $80,000 for the Clark, and anticipate spending more than twice that amount for stabilization and restoration of the street-level storefronts. “I never once projected the numbers,” said Christopher. “I’m not motivated by money. That’s not my idea of success. This reclamation will be a tribute to the city, and to send a message: Troy has a great history and we are going to celebrate it.”

Laboring for love certainly worked for the Lucas Confectionary, named after the Austrian-born confectioner who opened shop there in 1863. Part of the draw of the new Lucas candy store, coffee shop and wine bar is the décor, which gives a rustic intimacy to industrial chic with the use of reclaimed materials, including Troy-stamped bricks, pressed-tin panels, and objects found in alleyways.

Development of the Clark will be a similarly organic and intuitive process. “I’m still playing with the configurations,” said Christopher. “I have to connect with the building, to feel the vibe of the property, to utilize its assets.” He describes how knocking down walls and ripping up floors is filled with surprises–such as finding a skylight under chunks of debris. Christopher also likes to conjure images of the past, and to “stir the spirits” while he’s working. One of those spirits is Charles Lucas’ son, who owned businesses in the Clark. “Everything we do, it seems we’re following in his footsteps,” Christopher added.

Though he said it’s too soon to plan on what will go into the long-vacant storefronts (except for Broadway News, which has been in continuous operation since 1936), Christopher is intrigued by the idea of reinventing the apothecary shop.

The Clark’s upper floors have rooftop views, including a view of the nearby Keenan building, which was recently converted to loft apartments. Christopher may at some point consider a partner for converting the Clark’s top floors to residential, but for now, the building is about “creating businesses.”

“I’m a retail guy,” he said. “I like making things for people in the city to enjoy. If they want a grocery, we’ll put in a grocery.”

Asked if the rehab will be another boost for Troy’s revitalization, Christopher asked in return, “When is the revitalization going to be official? What is that moment that everyone is waiting for? Because for me, Troy is perfect the way it is. That moment has arrived. If nothing else changes, I don’t care. I love doing business in this city.

“I could’ve put a wine bar in anywhere,” the Brooklyn native continued. “But Troy is the last place where you can still get a building at a reasonable price. It affords entrepreneurs the opportunity to pursue their artistic vision. There are cool places with lousy architecture. But they’re not as interesting. That’s why Troy is perfect.”

Troy is also where Christopher met his wife. “Heather and I are living the American dream,” he added. “We live and work in buildings that we bought affordably, and business is very, very good.”