Tom Harper: Project underway to restore Reuter building in downtown Lawrence (Column)

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Most townies refer to the stone building at 612 and 614 New Hampshire St. as the Reuter building. However, townies from 1882 to around 1919 likely referred to it as the Wilder Brothers building. 

This iconic and historic building has been of interest to me for many years. Sadly, since the Reuter Organ Company moved out in 2001, I have watched it slowly deteriorate.

The building has a rich history and traces its roots to one of the earliest and most prominent industrial businesses in Lawrence. But from 2001 to 2022, the building sat vacant, neglected and endangered.

Several months ago, I noticed fencing being installed around the building and contractors onsite. I asked Matt Gilhousen, the owner, for a tour. He agreed to show former Lawrence Preservation Alliance president Dennis Brown and me the building in April. 

Tom Harper Dennis Brown (left) and Matt Gilhousen during an April 2024 tour of the building

Gilhousen founded Walnut Street LLC in 2018 and purchased the Reuter building in March 2022. His company specializes in the acquisition and redevelopment of unique infill and historic properties in Lawrence.

He has always been interested in restoring and bringing life to old things. He recalls this passion started early in his youth, taking apart and putting back together old bicycles, motorcycles and cars. He then moved on to renovating old houses in 1995. 

Matt Gilhousen

In recent years, he pivoted to acquiring and renovating old commercial buildings. 

Gilhousen has renovated the J. E. Stubbs building at 11th and Massachusetts streets; Sunflower Bike Shop & Cafe; the Broom Factory building at 401 Elm St. in North Lawrence; Slimmer’s Automotive (now Eastside European); and the buildings located on the northeast and northwest corners of Ninth and Pennsylvania streets in the Arts District.

Gilhousen also owns the brick two-story building south of the Reuter factory, which was part of the Reuter operations, constructed in 1927. It housed their corporate employees and draftsmen. It is often referred to as “Little Red” due to the handsome brick construction and smaller size next to the monumental stone factory. 

Little Red, along with the stone building, have recently been placed on the historic registers. Last year, Gilhousen completed the renovation. It’s currently leased to two tenants.

Tom Harper “Little Red”

Shortly after the Reuter building purchase, Gilhousen employed Rosin Preservation to prepare the nomination for the buildings to be on the State and National Historic Registers. Having the building listed on the historic registers will help with a portion of the cost of the multimillion-dollar renovation project.

The full nomination can be read at this link.

In November 2023, the Reuter building became structurally unstable. It was on the verge of collapsing. 

“It was extremely unsafe,” Gilhousen said. “We could not keep people out of the building. People were squatting in it and vandalizing it.”

The roof had failed, and water was coming into the building. The original structural support columns made of old growth wood in the basement had rotted. The center of the building had settled 10 inches.

Years of neglect had finally taken its toll. Gilhousen and the building were at an inflection point. 

“I could not locate anyone to work on the building because it was so unsafe,” he said.

He was considering demolition. 

“We ran the numbers on what the land was worth without the buildings on it. It was worth more gone,” Gilhousen said. “It’s a big enough parcel, it would have been well suited for a large residential project.”

Fortunately, Gilhousen located Rau Construction, based in Kansas City, Missouri, to take on the process of stabilizing and being the lead contractor for the project. Rau Construction is a family-owned company that started in 1870 and specializes in large historic renovations. 

Securing Rau to stabilize and renovate the building was fortuitous. Yet even more important, Gilhousen personally made the decision to save the building. 

It was a complex decision to make. It took Gilhousen about six weeks. 

“I asked myself, where do I want to be? If we can do this safely, I’d rather be on the right side of history,” he said. “I’ve had enough ‘at bats’ that the end product will be worth it. I wanted to see it through and ultimately, I didn’t want it to be torn down on my watch. I’m not the one who let it fall into neglect, but I made the decision to buy it, so I needed to see it through.”

The first intervention for the building in November of last year was installing adjustable steel support columns in the center of the building on each floor while removing the original timber columns that had supported the building for the past 142 years. A new roof was installed to stop the water infiltration. New, solid Douglas fir support columns were installed along with sistering joists and added flooring. 

The structure has now been stabilized, and it is safe for the Rau contractors to continue with the renovation. Next steps include windows and masonry work.

As with all Gilhousen’s renovation projects, it is done with the mindset of using the newest construction methods and materials while respecting the original elements and craftsmanship. Details matter, such as using real wood support columns and even tapering them to match the originals. CT Design + Development and Trettel Design are masters at incorporating the old, original elements of a building with modern design components to create functional spaces that are also aesthetically pleasing. 

On Thursday, the Lawrence Preservation Alliance announced this project as a winner of its Spring Preservation in Progress Award. 

What are the plans for the building? 

Gilhousen is uncertain, but plans for the building’s future might include commercial hospitality on the first floor and office space and apartments on the upper floors.

Construction costs have skyrocketed over the past several years. Any developer of a historic building needs to think creatively. Gilhousen will apply for historic tax credits, possibly federal loans and, hopefully tax abatements from the city. He’s also interested in private investors. 

“We are looking for financial partners, which could be investors, buyers, tenants — we are looking for anybody who can help us get this across the finish line,” he said. 

Our downtown is at an inflection point as we determine what it will look like and how it will function for the next 100 years. Finishing the Loop, constructing a pedestrian bridge across the river, determining the fate of the Marriott Hotel, adding more housing, building a grocery store, addressing the needs of people who are without homes — the list goes on, but one thing is for certain: It takes a community to think creatively about how to support developers who are willing to undertake the risks involved in saving historic buildings.

Our built environment tells our story to future generations. It communicates what we value, and ultimately, who we are. 

Thanks to Gilhousen’s leadership, the Wilder Brothers Shirt Factory/Reuter building will be preserved, renovated, and repurposed for future generations of Lawrencians to enjoy. 

The alternative was demolition. Our community would have lost an important historic building that traced its roots to the beginning of industrialization in Lawrence alongside the Kaw River.

I hope our city leaders and community will actively support Gihousen as he continues this important historic preservation project. 

More on the building’s history

The Wilder Brothers Shirt Factory was founded by brothers Lawrence J. Frank Wilder and Charles E. Wilder in 1870.

The brothers came to Lawrence from Troy, New York and constructed the 20,000-square-foot building in 1882. They harnessed the energy from the Kaw River and dam to power the sewing machines employees used to produce shirts.

As the business grew, in 1890 they added a fourth floor with an ornamental mansard roof and dormers. At the top of each dormer is a painted sunflower that can still be seen today if you look closely.

Tom Harper

At their peak in 1906, they employed 75 employees and produced 20,000 shirts per year.

In 1916, the factory ceased operations. 

The next chapter for the building began to take shape in 1917 when the Reuter-Schwarz Company was founded in Trenton, Illinois, by Adolph Reuter, Earl Schwarz, and Albert Sabol. In 1919, an organ was commissioned by Masonic Temple members at 10th and Massachusetts streets. It was at this time local business leaders urged Reuter and Schwarz to move their company to Lawrence. 

Fortunately, the offer was accepted. I wonder if the City of Lawrence offered any incentives for them to relocate? 

On Jan. 1, 1920, Reuter started their operations at Sixth and New Hampshire streets. The first organ constructed was delivered to Central Congregational Church in Topeka on July 3, 1920.

At its peak in the 1960s, Reuter employed 125 people.

Reuter added the building north of the original building early in 1919. This large open space has 48-foot-high ceilings. It is where workers would preassemble and test the pipe organs. 

In 2001, after a remarkable 101 years of ownership, Reuter sold the building to the Simons family and moved into a newly designed building north of town. The Reuter Organ Company closed in 2022.

Tom Harper

About the writer

Tom Harper is a Realtor at Stephens Real Estate helping people in Lawrence and Douglas County buy and sell real estate. He is the founder of Lawrence Modern, a group whose mission is to raise awareness of midcentury and modern architecture. You will find him posting frequently on Instagram under @lawrencemodern, sharing his daily observations of his favorite place on earth: Lawrence, Kansas. Read more of Tom’s writing for The Lawrence Times here.

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