With each Swiffer stroke, 8-year-old Landry Cooley restores the decades-old wood floors in Hutchinson's oldest standing building.
But to him, it feels less like restoring history and more like child labor.
“Take a break, and you will cool off,” his mother, Jen Cooley, said on a hot Saturday as the family threw out items left behind in the 47,000 square foot space at the Stevens Building, 225 S. Main.
The breeze could barely make it to the back half of the building. In time, the 1876 building that local historians say is the oldest standing in town, and its additions will have new life and air conditioning. However, its history, literally engraved in the walls, will be there for years to come, thanks to the Cooleys.
Scott and Jen Cooley plan to use grants, historic tax credits and their own dollars to create a retail space along with apartments, a possible Airbnb space and other large areas where they still haven’t quite decided what to do.
Scott Cooley sat on the Downtown Hutchinson Advisory Board for five years, and the Cooleys already have experience reviving one downtown building. They remodeled the 1900 building that used to be the former New York Hotel in 2010 to open Evolution Salon and Day Spa, which will relocate to a larger space at the Stevens Building. They plan to put the building at 24 S. Main on the market at an asking price of about $199,000.
The Cooleys took ownership of the Stevens Building on July 2. Since then, they found a missing-in-action letter from WWII to the family of John “Jack” Stevens while he was in Germany.
Stevens was found and returned home to start Stevens Plumbing. He was a meticulous note keeper and blunt with his words, based on project journals the Cooleys found.
A journal Stevens kept for work on the Hutchinson Hospital, now the Hutchinson Regional Medical Center, seemed to lay out every memo and conversation he had about the project.
In an April 22, 1974 letter to building committee chair Art Collins, Stevens wrote and underlined that the committee needed to “stop making changes” and “pay sooner.”
A letter to his employees that same day listed how Stevens Plumbing would complete their work in time: No. 1 read “OTHER CRAFTS WILL HAVE TO STEP ASIDE FOR US,” and No. 3 stated, “IF WE NEED AN AREA — RAISE HELL UNTIL YOU GET IT.”
The large blue “Stevens” sign with yellow letters was put up sometime after 1949, and it will remain there long into the future if the Cooleys have their way.
Scott Cooley said Chris Barnes, who owns Smith’s Market a few doors down with his wife Gail, wanted to buy the sign. Scott Cooley also said a woman told him that her eye doctor made her try to read the sign from the doctor’s office in the Wiley Building.
“That’s how she figured out she needed glasses,” he said.
From water power to TV
The building started as the Water Power Company in 1876 under the organization of town founder C.C. Hutchinson.
“The mill powered the first electric street lights along main, purportedly the first west of Chicago,” according to the Kansas Historical Society.
Part of Cow Creek was diverted four miles to alongside the south of the building to turn a water mill. Because of the unpredictable flow of Cow Creek, the water mill was converted to steam in 1880, according to the KHS.
The pulley system for the water mill still hangs alongside an old, but functioning elevator; there’s a hand-operated elevator in the building, as well.
A stone sign in the building says “First Water Mill” with “1876” beneath it. The First Water Mill may have been a subsidiary of the Water Power Company.
The building was remodeled around 1900, and Gonder-Preto Mercantile opened in 1902. The name of the wholesale grocery distributing company was painted on the exterior wall of the 1876 building. It’s now on an interior wall after the addition of the building to the north.
In 1906, James Gonder sold his interest in the company to E.T. Guymon who changed the name to Guymon-Petro Mercantile.
In the basement, an engraving in the wood says: “HERE LIES Cy Brown who Defended Guymon Petro with His Life.” The month isn’t legible but the year is 1917.
There’s another engraving next to it that says: “Randy’s A Brown noser.”
Guymon-Petro Mercantile was one of the largest wholesale grocery-distributing firms in southwest Kansas and expanded its operation into Dodge City. The business shuttered and the location in Dodge City now is the Guymon Petro Bar and Grill, 301 Fourth Ave.
The company moved out of the building in Hutchinson in 1944. Different companies occupied the space until Stevens Plumbing bought the building in 1949.
In 1953, KTVH, now KWCH, tested television equipment at the building while waiting for their studio to be completed.
“The first TV signals sent from Hutchinson originated from the mill,” according to the historical society.
Scott Cooley said Jason and Karmen Davenport bought the building from the Stevens family in 2010 "for a good deal." The Davenports turned a section on the main floor into a living area. Scott Cooley works as a business development officer at Heartland Credit Union. Jen Cooley runs Evolution Salon and Day Spay. Additionally, they have about 10 rental properties.
Any spare time they have now is spent at the Stevens Building.
Same goes for Landry.
The Cooleys thought about expanding the salon and spa for some time. They looked at 10 N. Main when it was vacant before QueenBee Marketing moved in, but they decided it didn’t fit into their plans.
Ultimately, there were two selling points for the Stevens Building: the city constructing a parking lot across the street and Stevens Plumbing being good at what they did. Every inch of the building, Scott Cooley said, is lined with sprinklers.
“It was really ahead of its time,” Scott Cooley said about the dry pipe sprinkler system.
The sprinkler system is more evident in the basement, where anyone 6 feet or taller risks hitting their head on the sprinkler system. The large wood beams with cast iron bases that hold up the building make it even harder to navigate around the basement.
“If a bomb goes off, this (building) is where I would want to be,” Scott Cooley said.
The first phase the Cooleys have planned is the retail space on the main level. They want to complete the work by the end of the year or the beginning of 2019. The space will nearly double the salon and spa to almost 7,000 square feet.
Jen Cooley said she will also double her staff to about 20.
They will hear back within the next two months about a $250,000 grant from the Kansas Department of Commerce. Those dollars are earmarked for exterior work and code improvements.
The two retail spaces will be divided by a glass partition at the top of the stairwell. The space for lease will have one of the two, double-door vaults in it. They will use about $85,000 of their own money toward the first phase.
Phase two will start the extra heavy lifting. It will include finishing the living area the Davenports started on the first floor and then working on the second-floor living area and possible Airbnb.
There’s a massive room on that level the Cooleys still haven’t figured out a purpose for it. Scott Cooley joked it would be a go-kart track.
They plan to use historic tax credits in the second phase which will include a third-floor living space that the Cooleys plan to move into one day. The third-floor living area will be the suite with roof access to the north building that they will turn into a patio space.
Right now, the third floor is a stark contrast to the wood floors Landry buffs with a Swiffer. Bird droppings have caused the wood to feel liking stepping on a sponge in parts.
The plan is to keep the loading docks on the south side and add an entrance for renters to access their apartment. They plan to add disabilities access to the building as well. They will also need to install a new elevator in the existing elevator shaft that Scott Cooley thought was from around 1900 based on the company that built it — the Warner Elevator Mfg. Co.
Scott Cooley said John “Jack” Stevens, who died in 2007, has a son living in Colorado. He planned to check if the son wanted any of the blueprints or items they found.
If not, he plans to frame certain items and hang them in the building.
“It’s kinda Hutchinson’s story to me,” Scott Cooley said. “I kinda feel we are just the stewards of the building.”