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Preservation efforts recognized for Butler commercial, residential buildings

| Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 6:12 p.m.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
The Farmer's National Bank building, which currently houses other businesses on Main St. in Butler, is owned by Joe Gray. Gray and his company received an award from the city for their preservation efforts.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
Joe Gray poses in front of the Farmer's National Bank building on Main St. in Butler on August 6, 2013. Gray, who owns the building, and his company recently won an award for their preservation efforts.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
(Left to right) Brian Fell and his family, Sophie, Antonie, Luigi, and William pose in front of their home in Butler on August 6, 2013. The Fell family recently won an award for their efforts in preserving their 1870 home.

Upstairs apartments in the Farmers National Bank building on Butler's Main Street are occupied for the first time since the 1930s.

“The upper floors have been empty forever. But it's a good building,” said Joe Gray, whose company, Evolution Properties, was one of two winners of a preservation award from the city of Butler — given for the first time this year.

Gray and his partners, John Ankney and Jim Taylor, spent $1.4 million to renovate the bank building, which is made of Indiana limestone and was built in 1921.

The city gave another award to Brian and Toni Fell for work they did on their East Pearl Street home.

By giving the non-monetary award, the city is trying to encourage redevelopment of its Main Street and nearby residential areas.

Two awards will be given each year — one to a commercial property and another to a residential property.

“We think these awards might motivate residents and developers to renovate properties. We have really gone after the blighted property in the city for several years,” said Richard Schontz Jr., a Butler council member who sponsored the awards. Winners receive a plaque.

Like other onetime manufacturing cities, Butler's population is about half of what it once was — 15,000 today compared to 30,000 during World War II.

“Butler has many period homes. By promoting restoration of these homes and buildings, we increase the quality of life and economic viability of the city,” said Bill May, a high school teacher and local history buff who came up with the idea for the awards.

The Fell home is a classic period home.

Alexander Mitchell, a lawyer and Civil War veteran, built the brick Italianate house in 1870. The home stayed in the Mitchell family until 1953, when new owners converted it into three apartments.

“They were always nice apartments. But it can be a problem with any neighborhood when owners do not live in the building,” May said.

The Fells bought the home late last year and researched its original layout.

Since then, they have knocked out at least four walls and restored the home's original staircase, Toni Fell said. She is an illustrator, and her husband is a designer.

“This is the second home we have restored. We have pretty good imagination about how a home should look,” she said.

Fell said she and her husband prefer living in older homes.

“These houses will stay here forever. They are built much better than most homes are today,” she said.

Gray's renovation of the bank building was more complicated and costly.

“We gutted most of it and added an elevator for access to apartments in the upper floors,” he said.

Gray also connected the building to the building next door, jacked up floors and installed a sprinkler system, whose first floor houses Anderson's Common Court Restaurant.

Gray owns four other buildings in Butler. Like the Fells, he said he appreciates the recognition from the city.

“It does encourage people to do good things with properties.”

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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