It's hats off to developer of Washington Avenue site
By Charlene Prost
Of the Post-Dispatch
It's been five years since the Bee Hat Co. closed up shop in its distinctive, seven-story building on Washington Avenue - the one with the stone-faced, bosomy, terra cotta women around the top.
But as things turned out, the company that sold and distributed hats there starting in the 1930s left something behind. The building was brimming with thousands and thousands of hats.
"When we bought the building, there were still 150,000 hats in there, perfectly maintained, many in boxes that were never opened," said developer Sam Glasser. "We were giving them away."
Now developer Matt Burghoff, who bought the building from Glasser and plans to revive it with apartments above retail, is dealing with the remaining inventory.
"The top floor is still basically full of hats," Burghoff said. "The bulk appear to be men's hats ... and all varieties, from baseball hats and straw hats to cowboy hats and fedoras.
"We've been trying to think of creative uses for them, and talking with charities," he said.
Regardless of what happens to the hats, Burghoff intends to start construction this month on the $11.5 million renovation project. The cost includes $2.3 million he paid for the ornate brick and terra cotta building, designed by noted architect Isaac Taylor and built in the late 1890s.
Montgomery Bank and Great Southern Bank are financing the project. Burghoff, managing partner of Mambo Development LLC and owner of an appraisal company, also is using city tax increment financing, state and federal historic tax credits and state brownfields tax credits.
What's coming, within a year, are 36 one- and two-bedroom apartments on the second through seventh floors. An Irish bistro owned by restaurateur Eddie Neill, a women's clothing store and another retail space will open on the first floor.
Above the first floor, on the building's exterior, Burghoff plans to turn 11 ornamental terra cotta lions' heads into a feature passersby won't miss.
"They were part of the building's gutter system," he said. "The gutters would drain into the lions' heads, and water would go out through the lions' mouths when it rained. We're going to replace the water with the steam system in the building and hook the steam up to a clock or timer, so that every half-hour or whatever, the lions' heads will 'roar,' shooting steam out of their mouths."
Apartments there, designed by Rosemann & Associates P.C., will range from 900 square feet to 1,350 square feet and rent from nearly $1,000 to $1,400 or so a month.
Gary Rogowski, Rosemann's project architect, said the floors were "completely wide open" and ideal for creative layouts.
The apartments will have restored wood beam and plank ceilings, wood or concrete interior support columns in some living areas and big windows.
One challenge, Rogowski said, was a windowless wall on the east side, where the building abuts one next door. The solution, he said, was reserving the east side for elevators, stairs, laundry rooms and "all the stuff that doesn't need windows, and focusing the apartments to face west and south."
Parking will be built into the basement; Burghoff owns a lot a block away if more is needed.
Burghoff's previous renovation projects include converting the Kirkwood Cinema building and a utility substation in downtown St. Louis for offices.
He said he envisions Bee Hat as "a boutique apartment building, small in scale with nice amenities." And he expects it to attract a mix, from young professionals to empty nesters.
"Not everybody wants to own in the loft district yet," he said. "Renting is a good way to test a living environment and see if you like it."
Neill, an ownership partner at Cafe Provencal in Kirkwood, said what attracted him to Bee Hat was the building, its location downtown and the 18-foot-tall hat display area where he plans to open his Irish bistro early next year.
He said he'll keep the wood floor and wood panels on the walls, although he'll change the color of the panels. "They're blond now, because they were installed in the'20s," he said, "but we'll warm the wood up with brown and red hues."
Neill said his menu will feature organically and locally grown meats, poultry and produce. He also plans an oyster and mussel bar and is lining up Celtic bands and other entertainment and activities.
"The market is there with all the condos and lofts going on," he said. "And the neat thing is that buildings (like Bee Hat) are being saved."
Reporter Charlene Prost