For nearly 40 years, Excelsior Hall has sat vacant on the north side of East King Street, between Duke and Lime streets.
During that time, various developers have had grandiose plans for the former Victorian-era social hall turned furniture store. A disco and apartments (Hey, it was the late '70s.) Luxury condominiums and commercial/retail space. Restaurants and a wine bar.
None of the plans got off the ground.
Two Forty Associates, a partnership of real estate investor John Dantinne, real estate agent Jeffrey LeFevre and architect Richard Levengood, was the most recent developer. In 2007, they bought Excelsior Hall and related property from the city's redevelopment authority.
They planned to put condos on the upper floors of Excelsior Hall and retail and restaurant space on the first floor, but their plans fell victim to the 2008 recession.
Fast forward to late 2014.
Dantinne bought out his partners, paying $225,000 for Excelsior Hall and related property — what's now essentially an open space in the ground and the former Sprenger brewery building.
He's taking a less-is-more approach, one that will return Excelsior Hall to its former grandeur and largely makes use of the property as-is.
He credits a friend with suggesting that Excelsior Hall would be a good location for weddings, parties and meetings. The idea clicked with Dantinne and that's what he and his wife, Kelly Dantinne, plan to turn the property into by late December.
In a nod to Excelsior Hall, the venture is called simply Excelsior.
"The concept of taking it back to a gathering place made perfect sense to me for two reasons. One, people get to have accessibility ... and two, you didn't have to go all the way out to $250 (or more) a square foot in construction costs," Dantinne said.
"Everybody loves this building. I just saw it as a challenge that could be solved," John Dantinne said.
WATCH: John Dantinne talks about the Excelsior project:
John Dantinne figures that by rehabilitating the property instead of making it into something else, he'll be able to keep construction costs to about $100 a square foot.
"Everybody looks at this and says, boy, what a big project. But the only thing we're building is lobbies and a deck ... it's all restoration," he said.
The thinking won over Community First Fund and EDC Finance, which are providing financing.
"The economics work for this type of project," said Dan Betancourt, president and CEO of Community First Fund. "Developers were seeing a $10 million project (or an) $8 million project, because they saw they would have to invest 300-plus dollars a square foot and that becomes a very difficult equation. So what John figured out was, let's scale this to a very economically viable (project) without any public subsidies."
Said EDC Finance President Lisa Riggs: "It's a great project, that like any good tough project, needs extra tools to make it happen ... the fact that it's a manageable project certainly helps and reduces everyone's risk."
Riggs, Betancourt and Bob Shoemaker, president of the Lancaster City Alliance, all noted the project fills a void in a block that's being revitalized.
"It's bringing a light to a building that's been dark far too long and is really essential to that block," Shoemaker said.
EDC helped secure a Small Business Administration loan, which Dantinne closed on earlier this month. EDC and Community First Fund have worked on projects together occasionally.
In all, the project is about $2.5 million. The Dantinnes put in about $450,000, Community First Found put in about $1.2 million and EDC Finance about $835,000.
Dantinne said everyone has been great to work with, from the city administration to EDC and Community First Fund.
The Dantinnes hope to keep as much historical character as possible incorporate green building practices, including developing two courtyards on the property.
It's a dilapidated mess now, with chunks of plaster missing from the walls, broken windows and paint flaking from the tin ceiling.
The plaster will be restored and the ceiling cleaned up some and sealed, but the tin won't be fully painted, Kelly Dantinne said. The Dantinnes want to keep a rustic edge to the property. The narrow-plank maple floors will be lightly sanded and finished in tung oil. A curving staircase leads to the second floor Empire Room.
Promotional materials provided by Kelly Dantinne lay out their vision:
The first floor of Excelsior Hall housed Sprenger brewery's a bar and social hall. The 30-by-100 foot room has an 18-foot-high ceiling supported in part by five cast iron columns. Called the Grande Salon, it will be able to accommodate at least 200 seated guests.
Other spaces include:
• The Chamber: A room in the brewery is envisioned as a bridal party salon space "for preparation and retreat" or as meeting space for up to 30 people.
• The Catacombs: Underneath the brewery are two connected arched rooms made of stone, where beer was stored before refrigeration. Figure cocktail parties.
• The Garden Courtyard: A sunken area on the foundation level of John Sprenger's former home that will have landscaping, water features and space for seating and outdoor ceremonies.
• The Terrace: An open air area that will require demolishing an annex building connecting the back of Excelsior Hall and the brewery.
The Dantinnes obtained a demolition permit last week and electricians were working in the building last week. Scaffolding will go up around the property soon.
John Dantinne anticipates all the work will be done by the end of the year. Already, 10 weddings are booked, starting in April, and several businesses want to have holiday parties there.
The Dantinnes expect the project will create 30 permanent hospitality-related jobs.