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Owners hope new life comes to old building

By ALLISON MILES
Nov. 17, 2011 at 5:17 a.m.


Did you know ... ?

The old federal building served as a bomb shelter during the Cold War.

Legend has it a postmaster once killed himself inside one of the building's offices.

The structure is rumored to be haunted.

Source: Brad Richards, Frels Theatres, Inc. employee

Old Federal Building: a timeline

Jan. 1, 1913: Building opens for business as a post office

1960s: Private investors purchase the building and, later, sell to Frels Theatres, Inc.

1991: Walker, Keeling & Carroll law firm moves into building

September 2011: Law firm's lease runs out, firm decides to relocate

The proud structure at 210 E. Constitution St. has played home to a number of things through the years - a post office, a theater company, a law office and more.

As for what comes next, it's difficult to say.

The old federal building will soon sit vacant.

The structure offers Italian Romanesque architecture and came to be with help from James Knox Taylor, who worked as supervising architect on the project, said Gary Dunnam, executive director of Victoria Preservation, Inc.

After a three-year construction period, it was open for business Jan. 1, 1913, and first put to use as a post office.

Letters and packages weren't the only secrets the structure held at the time.

The building itself contains an air shaft that runs from basement to attic, Dunnam said, while two rooms suspended between the first and second floors offer a glimpse at the goings-on inside.

"That was where the federal officials kept an eye on the postal employees," Dunnam said.

Private investors purchased the building in the 1960s, after the post office moved to its Main Street location, and Frels Theatres, Inc. purchased the structure soon after.

The purchase gave the organization a chance to join all of its offices - Frels Real Estate, Frels Pipe Organs and Frels Theatres - together under one roof, said Dunnam, who also serves as vice president and secretary for Frels Theatres, Inc.

Although the company still owns the building, it was law firm of Walker, Keeling & Carroll that made up the next residents, when it moved in in 1991.

The building served the law office well for years but, after the lease ran out in September, the law office decided it was time for a change, said Ron Walker, a partner in the business. It will move to 120 Main Place this year.

Walker said the firm's previous three locations were also along Main Street, and it will be nice to return home again.

"We've enjoyed the building and have worked to keep it in good shape," he said. "I'm going to miss this building but, at the same time, I'm excited about the new offices."

The law firm will likely change its name to Walker & Keeling after the move, he said, explaining a partner recently retired.

The old federal building might soon sit empty, but its owners aren't concerned, said Brad Richards, Frels Theatres' only employee.

He said a restaurateur has already expressed interest in moving a business in, while several artists have considered taking advantage of the upstairs area's tall ceilings and abundant light by opening a gallery.

It will not go up for sale, he said, explaining ownership is split among those in the corporation.

Whoever moves in, Richards said he hopes they appreciate the building's character.

Secret passages aren't the only thing that helps it stand apart from others.

The 14,000-square-foot building plays home to two large, heavy vaults and was plumbed for gas and wired for electric lighting, "in case electricity was a passing trend."

Also, although the structure has an elevator shaft, no elevator is in sight.

Rubin Frels, with Frels Theatres, Inc., attempted to change that element, Richards said, by removing the elevator from the Denver Hotel, which then sat across the street.

During the move, however, crews chipped away at support beams, leaving only rebar to support the hotel. When it began to give way, Frels urged the workers to exit the building.

While his employees made it out, other workers perished in the collapse, as did the elevator.

"We lost our tools, too, " Frels said.

Whatever happens down the road, Dunnam said he hopes to see the building continue on. Not only does it have a historical significance, but it has personal ties, as well.

For a time, Dunnam lived in its third-story apartment.

"I think that, next to the courthouse, it's our most beautiful building downtown, in a public sort of way," he said. "I really want to see it have a long life."

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