Spirit of Rowan 2023: Reinventing home in the heart of historic Salisbury

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 26, 2023

Downtown Salisbury is home to many restaurants, watering holes, parks and plazas. With the help of some local developers, it will be home to many more people in the near future too.

Several older buildings in the downtown area are being restored as residential spaces above the street-level storefronts. While they vary in size and scope, the developers’ missions align to bring more people to downtown Salisbury while preserving history.

Josh Barnhardt is one of those developers. He recently renovated “The Salisbury,” located at 121 W. Council St. The building is about 100 years old and was constructed by the Southern Bell Telephone Company. For many years, it was just offices.

The “Salisbury” now boasts 12 units, with six one-bedroom apartments and six two-bedroom units varying in size from 650 to 1,100 square feet, with four units on each floor. A lot of tenants are already moving in.

Barnhardt indicated that he loves what he does for several reasons.

“It’s really special seeing people make these spaces their home, especially seeing them fall in love with these spaces as much as I have,” Barnhardt said. “I have several people selling their homes they lived in for 30, 40 or 50 years to move in and make it their new home, and they couldn’t be more excited.

“When you get to the finished product and get to share with others, you really enjoy it, and it’s worth all the hard work, stress and risk.”

Barnhardt is working on projects around the region, but he’s got another one just up the street from the Salisbury building, the old Empire Hotel on Main Street. While the Empire Hotel is older and significantly larger than the Salisbury project, Barnhardt indicated that the processes are similar.

“As you start doing this, you figure out the looks that you know will work,” Barnhardt said. “You start to put together the puzzle pieces that you know will fit. With every project, it is going to be unique. You try to figure out what the building is giving you.”

Identifying those assets takes time, but finding out what they are early on, Barnhardt indicated, illuminates the path to the final product.

“A lot of times you have to walk through the building when it’s wide open and spend time walking and thinking before you start to really find out what the space and the building are giving you to work with and then adapt to that,” Barnhardt said. “With each project, you have to dig in and spend time in it to start to visualize what can work where.”

When the Empire Hotel project is finished, there will be a restaurant, hotel rooms and about 40 apartments ranging in size and room counts.

Not far down the street from the Empire Hotel is the Bell Block building. It is being renovated to include seven two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments by Bill and Cora Greene.

The Bell Block Building is named for the sister of David Gaskill, a tobacco magnate from around the turn of the 20th century, who nearly became Salisbury’s mayor. Its prominence and proximity to central downtown made it a popular location for business people.

“At the time, all the big-wigs had offices here,” Bill Greene said.

The three-story 1898 Richardson Romanesque structure sits on the northeast corner of Main and Fisher streets. The granite exterior is enough to capture the attention of anyone who is just walking by, but inside lies even more to awe. A signature wooden staircase and high-wooden archways demand visitors’ attention.

Rumor has it that when George Clooney visited Salisbury while filming Leatherheads, he was so enamored with archways inside the Bell Block building that he commissioned replicas for his Italian estate.

Although the building has been home to various storefronts, the two upper floors have been vacant for decades.

The Greenes love Salisbury and want to see the downtown flourish.

“It is kind of a vanity project for my wife and me,” Greene said. “We are dedicated to downtown. And we really want to make it better.”

While a passionate development team bolsters any project, it cannot run off of that alone.

“A lot of things have to come together to make something like this happen,” Greene said. “It’s a big project. It takes capital and imagination.”

Greene has taken advantage of applicable tax credits that can be applied to projects such as his, and he also indicated that the city has been helpful in more ways than one.

“I’ll compliment the city,” Greene said. “For the last five years, the city has been very aggressive in putting incentives out because they know downtown living is working for many other communities. A lot of other communities have challenges doing that, so they have had a very focused incentive program.”

With any project, especially a historic one, there will be challenges.

“I have seven units going in here,” Greene said. “Reality is, I probably needed nine or 10 units for all the costs. But where I lost them was the common area with the beautiful stairwell.”

He also indicated that splitting some of the apartments to get to that desired unit number would have compromised the quality of the apartments they were trying to create.

Since Greene’s building and those that Barnhardt has been working on all fall under Salisbury’s historic district, increased regulatory standards exist that can impact what they can do. It’s also a benefit because of the historic preservation tax credits.

It makes a difference, and it makes these types of projects possible. These renovations are just some of the many that are transforming downtown Salisbury into a place where people don’t just work but live, too, all the while preserving parts of Salisbury’s history.