Preservationists breathe new life into century-old warehouse building

This story appeared in the September issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!

On a muggy New Orleans afternoon in June, neighbors filed into the warehouse at 4201 Tulane Ave. to get a peek at the historic building’s renovation during a Preservation Resource Center’s “Beams & Brews” event. Among the crowd of fascinated preservationists and curious neighbors — all armed with cold drinks and fans to beat the heat — an impromptu reunion formed as several generations of the Riecke family returned to the warehouse where their ancestors built a cabinet manufacturing company nearly a century ago.

Inside the building, which once again displays the Riecke name after the uncovering of long-hidden original signage, family members swapped stories and memories of days gone by.

“I enjoyed so much to be inside that building again, surprised to see that many cousins attending the tour, and being able to reunite with them — most of whom I had not seen in generations,” said Roy Riecke Gernon, the grandson of Henry S. Riecke, founder of Riecke Cabinet Works.

Stepping inside the restored warehouse brought back fond memories for Gernon, who — along with many others in the family — worked in the plant as a young teenager. “I particularly enjoyed working in the same office with my grandpa and two uncles, Earl and Henry Jr., and watching how they worked,” Gernon said.

Photos 1-3: Undated photographs show the interior of the Riecke Cabinet Works. The company was founded in 1904 by Henry S. Riecke. (Photo 1 courtesy Rome Office, Photos 2-3 courtesy Roy Riecke Gernon.) Photo 4: Riecke family members gather at the PRCs Beams & Brews event in June 2022. (Photo by Liz Jurey.)




Cabinets to church pews

Riecke Cabinet Works was founded by Henry S. Riecke in 1904 and got its start at a small shop in New Orleans’ Warehouse District. His quality craftsmanship grew a following and led to the business’ success in the early 20th century, quickly outgrowing its original headquarters.

After relocating to another site in the Warehouse District and soon outgrowing that space, Riecke built the warehouse on Tulane Avenue in 1924. Operations at the building began in 1925, and the site employed 129 workers at one time. The plant was well-known for manufacturing high-quality custom cabinetry and wooden fixtures. Its designs could be found in commercial buildings and churches around the world, including the mahogany archbishop’s throne at St. Louis Cathedral.

“If it isn’t worth doing right, it isn’t worth doing at all,” Riecke told the New Orleans States in 1955, upon the company’s 50th anniversary.

After 67 years in business, the Riecke Cabinet Works closed in 1971, and the building was acquired by The Lighting Inc. Company. The warehouse was renovated with a slipcover that shrouded the 1924 building in a boxy modernist façade. Lighting Inc. used the building as its showroom until relocating in 2006.

The building then sold and changed ownership several times before getting divided into storage units and left to deteriorate. In more recent years, the site became known as a dangerous nuisance property and garnered multiple citations from the city for minimum property maintenance, building code and fire code violations.

All that began to change in 2020, when Tony and Katherine Gelderman purchased the property and started work on its revival.

Historic images provided by Rome Office




Seizing the opportunity

Husband-and-wife developers Katherine and Tony Gelderman, through their company KCT Real Estate Ventures LLC, are no strangers to impressive preservation projects. Their portfolio includes the renovation of 450 Julia St. (the site of Peche restaurant), as well as the recent revamp of The Rink shopping center in the Garden District. This latest project, though, was the Geldermans’ first in an Opportunity Zone.

Introduced by the federal government in 2017, Qualified Opportunity Zones are intended to spur private, long-term investment in economically distressed communities. Opportunity Zones can be a catalyst for new developments in disinvested neighborhoods, but it takes the creativity of preservation-minded developers to use the incentive in a way that benefits a community’s historic resources, instead of demolishing them to build anew.

To find a project that would fit the bill, the Geldermans enlisted the help of Gordon McLeod, an agent with the McEnery Company and past board president of the Preservation Resource Center who searched for commercial properties in one of New Orleans’ opportunity zones. “He sent me five different buildings, and this was one of them,” Tony Gelderman said of McLeod. “I was drawn to it because I had gone there when I was younger to buy lighting at Lighting Inc., and I knew it was a very good location. What I didn’t know was that there was a historic building underneath the exterior, but Gordon did know that — and told me that it could maybe even get (historic rehabilitation) tax credits.”

After purchasing the building in 2020, the Geldermans worked with architects at Rome Office to reimagine a new life for the building and to begin exploratory demolition of the 1970s exterior to make sure enough of the historic structure was intact underneath to make the project eligible for state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits.

“As we pulled apart the walls, they were able to take a series of photographs, put them all together and create this mosaic,” Tony Gelderman said. “I saw just how beautiful the wood was upstairs and the windows, and I thought this could be just a beautiful building.”

After workers removed a 1970s era slipcover, the original 1920s pressed metal panels and an original Riecke Cabinet Works sign was revealed. Photos provided by Rome Office.




Pulling back the slipcover

The building’s present-day restoration seems fitting of original founder Henry S. Riecke’s “doing it right” ethos. Meticulous attention to detail has been paid to restore the building’s 1924 exterior that had been hidden away for decades.

“I have loved working with Rome Office, Trine Builders and Urban Properties,” Tony Gelderman said. “Everybody who has been involved really wants to make it right.”

For the project to get approved for historic rehabiliation tax credits, the building’s boxy 1970s facade was slowly unwrapped like a Christmas present to expose the historic building underneath. As workers peeled back the more contemporary slipcover, original 1920s pressed metal panels with a unique faux-stone texture emerged underneath. At the top of the building’s facade, the original “Riecke Cabinet Works” painted signage emerged unscathed from the 1970s slipcover.

The building required extensive structural repair after years of alterations and deterioration. The floor on the second story, for example, sloped 16 inches downward from one corner to another. “Nothing was level and plumb, not a column, not a wall, not a thing,” said Rodney Kinkella, project superintendent with Trine Builders. Kinkella took careful surveys of each floor to assess the elevation and condition of each column and joist before the building was shored and the sagging elements were raised to fix the slope.

On the interior, the subdivided storage units were cleared out, and the area was cleaned to show off the original wood walls, floors, ceilings and support beams. “We wanted to see the raw wood-framed factory, because this is what it looked like originally,” said Mollie Burke, project architect with Rome Office. “In order to keep all of this visible, we had to build up everything on the outside.”

Instead of covering up the interior wood with layers of insulation and new building materials, architects and builders worked in reverse to preserve the industrial character inside the building. Workers carefully removed the pressed metal sheets from the exterior and cataloged each one before layers of felt, insulation, plywood, waterproofing and drainage mat were added to the exterior walls. The historic metal panels were then reapplied to their original locations, where salvageable. To replace any panels that were missing or too deteriorated, architects ordered replacements from W. F. Norman Corp. The sheet metal manufacturer has been in business since 1898 and still produces the same pattern of faux-stone panels that were used on the Riecke Cabinet Works building nearly a century ago.

After reinstallation on the building’s exterior, the panels were then repainted with a silver metallic paint to give the walls a consistent look, and the original painted signage also was touched up. The building’s eaves, which had been removed during the 1970s renovation, were rebuilt to restore its original appearance and to prevent excess moisture from running down the face of the building.

Natural light now fills the wood interiors through restored steel windows, many of which had been left intact beneath the 1970s facade. Along the rear wall of the building, which is now a property line and required fire rating without wall openings, the historic windows and metal panels were transplanted to the facades on Tulane and Solomon streets to replace others that had been removed 50 years ago.

“Originally we wanted the windows to be fixed, but during Covid, everyone thinks about fresh air and ventilation,” Burke said, “so we kept as many of them operable as possible.”

Photos by Charles E. Leche


Easement ensures future protection

The first phase of the project, which includes the restoration of the building’s 1924 facade and the stabilization of the structure, is now nearing substantial completion following a year of construction. Once done, the Geldermans will market the property for a new commercial use, and depending on its future, phase two of the project — the interior build-out — will commence.

“I’m highly confident that a very good use will come to the building because of its location and because of its character,” Tony Gelderman said. “It has great commercial potential and will help revitalize the area and help us clean up all around the building.”

Whatever new commercial use will be in store for the historic building’s next life, the structure will be protected forever thanks to a preservation easement held by the Preservation Resource Center.

A preservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement through which a property owner grants a portion of the property rights, including the development rights of the airspace above the property, to a qualified nonprofit organization. That organization then protects the historic resource in perpetuity — even if the site’s ownership, use or local zoning regulations change — as the easement becomes part of the title. In addition, the property owner may qualify for federal tax benefits through the charitable donation.

Dee Allen is PRC’s Communications Associate and a staff writer for Preservation in Print.