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St. Martins’ Recycling Habit Creates Living Space (2017-11-14)
Written by: Holli Seehafer

It’s been several years since words like recycle, reuse and repurpose became popular, and many people have engaged in various methods of taking what’s old and making it new again … or at least putting it to a renewed use. Two of Milbank’s Main Street business owners have outdone themselves in their most recent venture into repurposing. Mark and Beth St. Martin, owners of Street Graphex, have nearly completed phase one of renovating the second story of their business space into their personal living space.

In the midst of several changes to their growing business, the St. Martin’s had the opportunity to purchase the buildings that housed Seehafer Hardware on Main Street in late 2014. Although the hardware store included three buildings, the St. Martins opted to purchase only the two north buildings. “We didn’t buy with the intention of renovating them,” Mark said. “We bought for the space.”

The basement, main floor and upper floor of the two attached buildings equaled a great deal of room. The St. Martins packed up their personal belongings from their farm home and moved them into the basement of the Main Street buildings in anticipation of the sale of the rural Wilmot property.

When the farm sold in the spring of 2016, the couple looked for housing in Milbank, but nothing sparked their interest. They settled on renting an apartment and set out to explore options.

“It allowed us to take our time. We watched for homes but nothing called out ‘buy me,’” Beth said. “We knew our next place would need to have space and character.” Both are happy to label themselves as “eclectic” and neither wanted to purchase a home that they consider “cookie cutter houses.”

Not long after moving the business into their Main Street location, it became apparent that the roof over the back garage of the north building would need to be replaced. That was the beginning of the current renovation.

After removing the two layers of old roof from the garage, the St. Martins began to look at the building with a new vision.

When the upper sloping roof was removed, what had seemed like dead space was found to hide two large windows that face east, and an abundance of character. The two windows now allow plenty of early morning sun into the area that is the couple’s living room and kitchen.

Beneath the sloping roof, was a flat roof, which when reconstructed became the flooring of the current outdoor seating area at the east end of the building.

With the discovery of the windows and the hidden space, the renovation was on. “Once we decided to renovate the upstairs, it went really fast,” Beth said.

From the outside, an observer can see the changes to the east side with the addition of the deck. And anyone who passed down Main Street this spring was likely to notice the new windows that were installed on the west exposure. A new metal siding was installed and exterior painting was done to provide a facelift on the building’s front. But the real transformation was happening on the inside, away from the public eye.

The couple’s youngest son, Billy, did much of the demolition work on the interior space starting in the fall of 2016. Working only in the upper level of the north building, the demolition was fairly fast and economical. “Billy took out all of the plaster and lath, and then we hired a team of friends to haul it all out,” Beth said. “Labor intensive, but economical.”

Partly because of the couple’s tendency to recycle, the costs associated with the exterior exceed the costs of the interior, they say. “When we finish, it will be pretty even,” Beth projected. “We still have to finish a few things … when all that is said and done and paid for, it’s going to be a toss up on whether the exterior costs more than the interior. A big reason for that is because we recycle and reuse. If we would have bought all new cabinetry, we would have far exceeded the costs.”

A love and respect of authentic components is evident throughout the reconstructed living space. The more than 1,400 sq. ft. apartment was built around some key pieces including a five-foot sliding door that originally separated two office suites in the original building.

The sliding door was left untouched during the renovation, as was the wall it is situated in. It became the entrance between the couple’s new office space and the master bedroom which is nestled against the west wall.

“We designed the whole space around that door,” Beth said. “We knew we would not want to lose that door, or change it.”

Signage on the numerous antique doors indicates that in by-gone decades the north building was occupied by law offices, while dentists had their offices in the south building. All of those doors, as well as original trim, have been saved and will be reused throughout the project. “We plan to restore the trim without losing its authenticity, and reuse it,” Beth said.

The original staircase and handrail will remain completely intact as the two move into the new living space. “We just had to keep the staircase and railing,” Beth commented. In addition, an authentic fire door, made of concrete and steel, will continue to separate the renovated upper level in the north building from the south building. “The fire door is original to the common wall between the buildings, and we wouldn’t want to remove it,” the couple expressed. Although they did add that they may change it to look more like a barn door than a fire door.

Phase one of the renovation has created a full apartment for the couple including the outdoor seating area, living room, kitchen area, office, laundry room, bathroom and two bedrooms. For their personal space, the couple purchased all of Bien Pharmacy’s cabinetry and counter tops. Portions of that cabinetry are found in the kitchen, the bathroom and the laundry room.

“We also found a set of oak cabinets out of the Cities. It took two trips to get it all hauled back,” Mark said.

The reclaimed cabinets are sprinkled throughout the living space, but their use isn’t random or chaotic. “I fancy myself a designer,” Beth revealed. She carefully measured the living space and each element that would be brought into it, and then she created her own blueprint. The plan was transferred to the floor using masking tape to mark off walls and placement of appliances. “I had a lot of fun with it,” she added.

There are inherent challenges in remodeling a building that’s more than 100 years old. One is that, as Mark put it, “Nothing in here is straight.” In fact, the north wall was so uneven they ended up constructing a new wall in front of it.

The floor is uneven, but Beth says, “Everything from your ankles up is level.” They, and the professionals they’ve hired, have worked hard to compensate for the slope of the floors. For example, the cupboard on one side of the stove sits on 2x4s so the counter height matches that of the counter on the other side of the stove. When the kick plates are in place, no one will realize the difference. “That’s part of the charm of a settled building,” she added with a smile. “I love it up here.”

Although a few pieces – mostly things like appliances – are new, it’s the other pieces that have stories attached to them. There are shelves that came from the farm house – laid on their side and repurposed in the new living space; there’s the leather-bound chest of drawers that Mark found in the Cities – “It was just too cheap to pass up”; the painting of the rooster – which spawns the story about when Beth raised 140 chickens, and so much more.

“My grandpa built this out of old radios back in the 1940s,” Beth commented, gesturing toward a dark wooden corner hutch. He built two which have been promised to Beth and her sister at some distant point in the future, but Beth requested hers now in order to enjoy it in the new living space. And with family pride she indicates the end tables in the living room. “Those were my grandma’s when I was a toddler,” she said.

One of the antique doors found in the space holds special meaning for Beth, although she doesn’t know how or when it made its way to Milbank. The door is painted with the letters W. E. Hooper, Attorney. “He was an attorney at Sisseton when I was a little girl,” Beth explained. “He had an amphibious-car, and I used to ride in it.” Beth reports that her mother and Hooper’s son are still friends, and he will be receiving a photo of the door.

“The antique doors were obviously treasures of the renovation process,” Beth stated. “Sometimes when people rip walls apart they find other treasures; we found some packets of old aspirin on the dentists’ side.”

“On the lawyers’ side we found some legal documents about the sewer system,” Mark added. “Otherwise, there were not a lot of cool finds.” They did discover that the north building had two skylights approximately eight-foot square, but they had to be covered up.

An unexpected benefit the couple has found to living upstairs from their business is the commute. “I don’t really see a downside,” Mark said when asked about drawbacks. “People might think you can never get away from your work, but you do. You just go upstairs.”

Even though most community members don’t realize the extent of the renovations inside, the St. Martins are surprised by the feedback they’ve been receiving. “I’m amazed at the amount of interest,” Beth said. “People come in the front door saying, ‘Wow! I love what you’ve done with the front of the building’ or ‘Oh, that deck is awesome.’”

The couple obviously enjoys working together to recreate their space, as is evident when they talk about the project. So it’s no surprise that when the renovation of the north side is finally finished this summer, they already have their vision to start on the south side this fall.

The south side will be designed to include a music/media room, recording studio, two bedrooms and two bathrooms. One of the bathrooms will feature authentic period fixtures including a toilet with an elevated tank and pull-chain flush mechanism, large sink and early style soap dispenser.

The couple renovated the main level of their south Main Street building, utilizing a number of antique doors from the unused upper level. They brought in fixtures from other firms that had gone out of business in Minnesota and South Dakota. “Almost nothing in here was new,” Beth commented. “Even the desks are antique.”

In addition, they’ve decided to update the retail area of the store again. They plan to remove the dropped ceiling to expose the building’s original tin ceiling, and change up the showroom.

~ Holli Seehafer, Grant County Review

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