Despite the Columbus Planning and Zoning Commission's desire to see the Old Columbus Firehouse and Light Artillery Armory building converted into retail business, developer Mark Smith, CEO of The CPI Group, had a different vision.
Smith recently completed work on five high-end condominiums in the firehouse. The building maintains its look from the outside, while the inside is a marriage of tradition and state-of-the-art amenities.
The idea of condos in an old building isn't anything groundbreaking, but Firehouse Commons is unique in that three of the five condos are on the first floor. No buildings along Columbus' Main Street have apartments on the first level.
"The planning commission was reluctant to approve it because it had never been done before. And they didn't want to open up what they consider a proverbial can of worms," Smith said.
Undeterred, he took his idea to the Columbus City Council, which circumvented the planning commission and voted to allow the renovation. It was just as well, said Smith, because the firehouse isn't conducive to retail.
"There's hardly any walk-by traffic or drive-by traffic," Smith said of the discreetly located firehouse, nor is there any street parking.
So plans pushed forward on the condos, and Smith recruited architect Sam Kaye of LPK Architects, one of Mississippi's developers of historical buildings and namesake of Mississippi Main Street Association's Sam Kaye Excellence in Design Award.
"When other cities and towns want expertise all the way down to the mortar they used back in the day, Sam is the go-to guy," Smith said.
Kaye drew up a plan to maximize space. He was eager to work on the project given the building's history and location, but care was a necessity.
"The trick is to preserve the building," Kaye said. "It's a Mississippi landmark so, consequently, Mississippi (Department of) Archives and History had to approve everything."
Using his experience working with archives and history, Kaye was able to accomplish nearly every goal he and Smith set from the beginning.
Smith wanted upscale interiors that took advantage of the firehouse's existing elements.
For instance, all the original windows were restored and the condos were laid out in a pattern to maximize natural light. High ceilings and crown moldings hover above hardwood floors. Stone and marble countertops accent the kitchens and bathrooms, which are fitted with the latest appliances. All the exterior doors are made of African mahogany.
Smith wanted the condos to reach beyond a modern look. He wanted efficiency. So each condo features tankless water heaters, soundproofed walls and high-end security systems.
A special bonus to the owner of one condo is a fully enclosed garage.
The most difficult part of the process was the layout. Fitting three condos downstairs and two upstairs with limited space. To accomplish the balancing act, the condos vary in size from 950 to 1,525 square feet.
Smith declined to mention prices for the condos.
Smith is not a developer by trade, but he caught the bug for fixing up old buildings from his parents.
"I just like old historical buildings and that stately grandeur look that they have. I had an interest for modern amenities blended in with the obvious historical presentation," Smith said.
Kaye said the finished product is a win-win for the town and the firehouse's owners.
"I think it's great. It's a real addition to downtown getting a historical building like that back in service," he said.