About 10 months ago, the vacant and long-suffering Olivia Apartments building, once described as Joplin’s most luxurious, was heading downhill in a hurry.

Redevelopment efforts were encountering headwinds and then an inexplicable fire threatened to hasten the hurry. The specter of a swinging wrecking ball loomed in some quarters.

But at a City Council meeting last Monday, developer Sawyer Smith announced: “I’m happy to say the Olivia building has been saved.”

That said, Smith, of Blue Haven Homes and Bykota LLC, detailed the effort to revitalize the 115-year-old structure 320 Moffet Ave.

The contractor for the restoration project, Neal Group Construction and Restoration, of Joplin, has removed most of the water-damaged material and rubble, although there is some demolition left on the first floor and in the basement.

“We have worked our way down (the floors of the building) and we are working on the lobby at the moment,” Smith said.

Fans and generators pump air through the basement and the building to dry remaining materials and save the foundation and floor boards.

Mayor Pro Tem Keenan Cortez asked if Smith considered the work on target currently and whether any surprises or unexpected things were encountered so far that would affect the restoration.

“The timeline is looking really good,” Smith said. “We have not really run into any crazy surprises, nothing that jumped out or made us really worried. We still are on target to meet our deadline to be completed by March of 2023.”

“Exciting,” Cortez responded.

Jeff Neal, with Neal Group Construction, said during a recent tour of the Olivia: “Bykota’s vision — and everyone’s vision involved in the place — is to bring back luxury living. People are going to be proud to live at the Olivia again.”

‘Places in peril’

2020 was a tough year for the Olivia.

It was named one of Missouri’s 2020 “Places in Peril” last October by the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation, which feared demolition.

“With the roof actively leaking, it is just going downhill so quickly,” Lori Haun, executive director of the Downtown Joplin Alliance, said at the time. Her group also considered the Olivia a priority for its Endangered Properties Program.

“It’s one of those where it just hurts your heart,” she said of seeing the condition of the building last year.

In naming the Olivia to its list, the Alliance for Historic Preservation noted: “While there is not a current demolition order pending, such an action has been suggested to the city of Joplin’s Building Board of Appeals.”

At the time the owner of the property was Scott Tillman, of Tillman Redevelopment in Springfield.

St. Louis-based Bywater Development Group had expressed an interest in developing apartments in the Olivia, and had even gotten from the Joplin City Council a resolution supporting a plan to develop up to 40 units for senior housing. The preliminary cost of that project has been put at $12 million.

Bywater CEO J. David Dodson told the Globe that the company had an option to purchase the Olivia from the current owner if it could secure financing, and their plan required federal and state affordable housing tax credits as well as federal and state historic tax credits.

But in December, a fire broke out in the Olivia, destroying the roof. Water damage was another problem, with firefighters drowning the building before flames spread to neighboring structures, which include historic houses and churches. The cause of the fire could not be determined.

Just over a week later, Bywater learned that its application for state tax credits had been rejected.

‘Nothing more elegant’

At that point, it looked like Joplin was on the verge of losing another jewel in its crown.

Built in 1906, the Olivia was constructed by Anton Bendelari for $150,000 and was named for his mother. When the five-story building opened, the Globe reported that “nothing more elegant, more stylish, more convenient has yet been erected in Joplin.”

According to the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation, the Olivia also had a reputation as the “handsomest apartment house in the West,” and each apartment had fireplaces, marble bathrooms with clawfoot tubs and French doors that opened onto private balconies. Two eateries were housed on the fifth floor — a more formal dining room and a casual “grill room.” Both were open to tenants as well as the public.

The Olivia has a large lobby with Ionic columns and coffered ceilings. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, but two years earlier, it was declared uninhabitable by the city because it needed electrical- and fire-code updates. As many as 20 tenants, some of whom had lived in the building for nearly half a century, had to vacate the property. It has been vacant since.

Neal said only four of the original apartments had kitchens, and everyone else ate at those restaurants on the top floor.

“Our plan is to have a restaurant in the basement,” Sawyer said during the tour. They also plan to use the courtyard to the north of the building for a social area, and to turn the house just to the north of the Olivia into duplexes.

‘Great bones’

Just as quickly as fate had turned on the Olivia, it turned for it.

Engineers who inspected the Olivia after the fire deemed it structurally sound, but also said it wouldn’t remain that way much longer, especially given its roofless condition.

“She still has great bones,” Jeff Neal said. “She just needed a lot of work.”

Including drying out. Water damage, already severe, gave way to mold. The workers said a “mushroom jungle” had grown up inside the Olivia, and Rob Newsom, project manager, said they could smell it 50 yards away when they arrived to start work.

In fact, they all agree that the 115-year-old building had just months to go before it would have been beyond saving.

Lori Haun of the Downtown Joplin Alliance, and the group’s Endangered Properties Committee, helped arrange a deal to save the building with Sawyer and Sullivan Smith, real estate developers who operate Blue Haven Homes, a subsidiary of their father, Chris Smith’s company, Bykota LLC, a real estate holding company. They renovate older homes that are then used as rentals. The Smiths also own the former Joplin Family Y downtown building at Fifth Street and Wall Avenue that was closed by the Y in 2017. It was built in 1921. The Smiths plan a future renovation of that building for lofts.

Sawyer said the renovation plan for the Olivia will cost $7.5 million and produce 38 market-rate one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments.

After a 50-minute discussion with multiple parties in February, the Joplin City Council approved a private-public partnership that provided $250,000 in dollar-for-dollar matching money from the city for labor and material costs related to construction of the roof and other measures to secure the building.

“Good thing; it did not have much time,” Sawyer said during the recent tour.

The agreement specified the roof had to be finished by June 15.

In making the decision, some council members weighed the financial risk and concerns for the health and safety of residents, as well as the cost of having to demolish the building if that responsibility fell to the city. That cost was put at more than $1 million.

Referring to the city’s decision to partner on that part of the project, Neal said: “It’s a tribute to Bykota seeing the possibilities and the commitment they had already made to the city.

“What’s a quarter-million on a $7.5 million project? “ Neal asked. “That $7.5 million is new money.”

Sawyer said the choice was spending that quarter-million for a revitalized apartment building versus spending a million dollars to destroy a historic building and ending up with an empty lot.

In June, the Smiths announced the main roof and fifth floor stabilization were complete, and they wanting to push ahead with additional cleanup and then renovation.

Drying out the building was a necessary step “so that the building has another 100 years to go and it is safe,” Smith said.

During a tour of the building, Newsom said the goal is to preserve as much of the the original tile floor, the marble columns and the woodwork as possible.

“A lot of the historic elements will be preserved,” he said. “But we will remodel the floor plan. We want to keep as much of the character of the building as we can.

Mayor Ryan Stanley asked during the Council meeting if the Smiths are planning to rent or sell the apartments when the building is done.

“We are planning on renting all the units from the first through the fifth floor,” Sawyer said. “When the time comes, we will be accepting applications ahead of time so people can be reserving their spot in that building.” They hope to begin taking applications from prospective renters in the middle of next year but will wait until they see where the restoration stands before announcing when people can apply.

Sawyer also said people will be able to watch the progress on social media, including the company’s Facebook page, Blue Haven Homes, for announcements about taking applications.

“We appreciate your good work,” Stanley said. “Thank you for investing in Joplin and choosing Joplin. We were happy to partner with you.”

Haun, with the Downtown Joplin Alliance, shares the enthusiasm for the future of the Olivia, less than a year after it’s fate appeared sealed. “It’s really exciting, with it slowly coming back,” she said. “It’s incredible.”

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