Looking at the windowless brick building at 421 Main Street in Slater, it’s difficult to imagine the glory days this structure has witnessed over the past century. Now, thanks to the cooperation of new owners and city government, hopes for another century of life is becoming a reality.
The building originally sprang to life in the early 1900s, along side the automobile. According to local history, its carriage doors opened to one of the first automobiles in Story County. The car came to Slater on a flatbed railroad car and was delivered by a horse-drawn wagon. There the classy canvas-topped vehicle was unloaded by a cluster of anxious citizens attired in caps, bib overalls and suit coats … several sporting ties and smoking pipes.
The building became known as Slater Auto.
As the automobile gained in popularity, so did Slater Auto. It was the place to buy a variety of automobiles, including Paige and Liberty. Slater Auto became a Chevrolet dealership in 1944 when Clarence Ryg bought the building. That dealership ended in 1963. Ryg sold the building to Vern Hanson in 1966. Hanson operated an automotive repair shop under the name Slater Auto until 1979, when Bob Webster purchased the building. Webster and his son Dale carried on the tradition of auto repair, still using the name Slater Auto. Webster sold the building to the city earlier this year.
"We didn’t want another open spot on Main Street." Mayor Gary Halverson said recently as he watched workers trenching new water lines to the building. "When we found someone who wanted to go in on (the cost) we jumped on it."
That someone was Denny and Shelly Bernholtz. They had recently contacted City Hall, looking for a building in Slater to house their business and expressed an interest in Slater Auto.
Since then, Halverson and Jennifer Davis, Slater deputy clerk/economic development coordinator, along with several other Slater city officials, have been working with the Bernholtzes to bring new life to the aging edifice.
"The building was about to the point of no return," Halverson said. "It was either save it or lose it."
Former building owner Bob Webster said he is glad to see all the work being done. "I thought it would eventually fall down and go to pot."
In order to save it, Davies said, Slater took advantage of grant dollars available only to cities. The grant paid for asbestos testing and removal, an environment hazard study along with 50 percent of tuck pointing, new roof and new windows. After these improvements and grants are finished, the building will be sold to the Bernholtzes who will pay the other 50 percent.
"We needed to do something to the building or the city would have condemned it," Halverson stated. "The city would have done the same thing with the Websters that they are doing with the Bernholtzes. We are not trying to railroad anything."
Davies added, "This is all based on business development within the community. We want to see a business. We won’t give a grant just to renovate the building. We have to have a business plan on how the building is going to be used to get the grant loan from the city."
Davies estimates that when everything is done, the total cost will be about $250,000.
Inside Slater Auto, at about the same spot new Chevys once graced the showroom floor, Denny Bernholtz looked at the activity surrounding him.
"One thing we are trying to do is salvage as much as we can of the original building. There were four windows on the east side upstairs that have been all bricked up, were opening them all back up again. Salvaging as much of the old brick as we can."
Denny and Shelly are partners in Safe Building Compliance and Technology presently located in Huxley. They plan to house their business on the first floor and their living space on the second.
"We have been here every day since we started this two months ago," he said. "There’s a lot more than money invested. We’ve got a lot of blood, sweat and tears."
The old building is clearly something special to Bernholtz as he motions to the trusts supporting the second floor. Two of the structural engineers who inspected the building had termed it "an engineering marvel."
"We are going to try to bring this back to as close to original as we can," he said. "We will do everything to or above present building code."
Bernholtz said the support they have been receiving from the citizens of the area has been wonderful. They would love to get old pictures of the building – especially photos of the inside and upstairs. The second floor served many years as Slater’s American Legion Hall. It was the scene for the annual spring fireman’s dance and numerous community events. It was also the business location for a fitness center.
Standing outside and looking up at the newly tuck pointed brick he turned serious, "I have to stress the partnership with the city. Between the city workers and the city council they have put in a lot of time and effort. It’s a leap of faith for them to put in to two people from Huxley coming back to rehab a building and my hats off to them because without them this would never be happening."