Revamped building finds new life

by Nichol Nelson

The plastic head of the new Jesse Ventura dolls saw its first glimpse of life in the second-floor studio of the Blue Ribbon Building on the corner of 5th and University avenues southeast.
The building, built in 1901 as a fire station, recently underwent drastic renovations to create a private toy studio and public coffee shop. The renovation was done by a local couple in conjunction with the Heritage Preservation Commission, which honored the building Thursday for its compliance with historical guidelines.
Steven Kiwus, a toy sculptor, and his wife Liza purchased the dilapidated building in January 1998. The old fire station had been empty for seven years and had huge holes in the roof and floors, Kiwus said.
The building was almost completely gutted for the renovation. The first floor was then prepared for Dunn Bros. Coffee Shop.
The couple had never owned a commercial building prior to their purchase of the brick mammoth. Kiwus said the renovation was an enormous undertaking and compared it to having a baby.
“You know it’s going to be complicated, but you don’t know how complicated it’s going to be,” he said.
The coffee shop has become a popular neighborhood hangout, with students and residents peppering the multiple tables of the store.
The sunlit, spacious second floor houses Kiwus’ toy sculpting studio. Kiwus is one of about 50 freelance toy sculptors in the United States, and his models of muscled superheroes and grotesque monsters line the walls. Kiwus created and sculpted the head for the popular growling governor doll that has been flying off retail shelves in recent weeks.
Marcy-Holmes neighborhood officials are pleased with the renovation. Joe Fusco, who runs the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Revitalization Program, said the program donated $50,000 to the project.
“Believe me, that’s a drop in the bucket for what the rehabilitation of that project cost,” Fusco said. The money was used for the exterior renovation of the building. Similar funds were given to Dinkytown stores like Everyday People Clothing Exchange and the Crazy Carrot.
Although the Kiwus’ had help from the neighborhood, they faced the added difficulty of adhering to historical specifications while remodeling. Ten members from the Heritage Preservation Commission served as advisers to the building renovation.
Windows had to be placed in their original 1901 locations, and special provisions had to be made for the addition of the Dunn Bros. retail space.
Kristina Harley of the commission support staff said the group oversees historically and architecturally significant buildings and districts.
Kiwus said the Heritage Preservation Commission had strict guidelines, but he was willing to comply.
“I believe in the mission of preservation,” he said.