New retail facade

The JS Cooper Block: From a Diamond-in-the-Rough to Main Street Gem

The JS Cooper Block is the architectural cornerstone of Independence’s well-preserved historic downtown.  Built in 1895, the building represents Independence’s history as a hub for pioneers who arrived on the Oregon Trail, and its subsequent prosperity as an agricultural community.  The building’s original owner, JS Cooper, was a prominent banker who later became a key figure in the region’s booming hop industry which eventually led to Independence being named the “hop capital of the world.”

Before automobile use became widespread, the Cooper Block’s iconic tower was used to watch for riverboats sailing up the river from Salem.  When one was spotted the watcher would ring a bell in the tower to alert the community.  The bell is gone, but the tower remains as one of the most recognizable (and photographed) features of Independence’s downtown.

Despite its storied history, the Cooper Block sat vacant for over 20 years.  A series of remodels, the most recent in 1980, replaced the historic storefronts with dark, bunker-like walls and windows, and some  were completely bricked over.  The second floor remained untouched and represented the potential that remained for someone with vision.

For many years the Cooper Block languished in the possession of a classic absentee landlord.  From their home in California the owner declared tenants to be “too much of a hassle” while also complaining that nobody would meet their $1M sale price.  Finally, in 2014 after some family changes and maneuvering by the City, a local developer was able to purchase the building at a reasonable price.

Restoration of the Cooper Block required a significant investment, but Florin Drutu – the new owner – and Bodie Bemrose – the owner’s agent – understood the value that revitalized historic buildings can bring to a main street.

The Cooper Block is a two-story corner building, meaning it had a lot of façade to restore.  The City provided additional assistance with a $50,000 façade restoration grant, and also secured a $12,000 Diamonds in the Rough grant through the historic preservation office.  With these funds and their own matching funds, Drutu and Bemrose repointed all the brick, cleaned and repaired all the original windows upstairs (they remain functional double-hung windows with original glass) and restored all three original storefronts on the building.

Little remained of the original storefronts, but they found as many historic pictures of the building as possible and used them to guide the restoration.  Through a stroke of luck, the original steel columns of the C Street storefronts were found between the exterior brick and interior sheetrock.  These columns allowed those storefronts to be replicated exactly as they originally existed.  Nothing remained of the original Main Street storefront, but the many pictures of the building proved invaluable for creating an accurate representation of the historic look.

In addition to their attention to historic detail, Drutu and Bemrose were very creative with their restoration efforts.  The original storefront had decorative spindles below the windows, and they used these spindles in the new storefront to add ventilation in the basement to prevent mildew and dry rot..  They used traditional clear lumber for storefronts and sandwiched the steel supports required by code between wooden beams where they would provide support without being seen.

While the exterior of the building required some renovation and upkeep, the interior had to be almost entirely gutted and replaced.  Ninety percent of the building’s 30 foot 2×12 floor joists had to be replaced with beams that were custom milled to true 2”x12” dimensions.  While the downstairs had been “updated” over the years and retained little historic value, the upstairs still retained its original wood floors. Drutu and Bemrose painstakingly removed and preserved the original floor and reinstalled it during renovations.  They were also fortunate to find a piece of original window molding in the rafters of the building, and used it as the basis for all the trim on the second floor.

After more than a year of work, the project is finally wrapped up.  The Cooper building has once again become a mixed-use keystone in Independence’s downtown with three commercial spaces on the ground floor and four apartments and two offices on the second floor.  Shortly after advertising the units, the office space and an apartment already have tenants moved in, and the other spaces are getting solid interest. The building will no doubt be filled in the near future.

The importance of this project in Independence cannot be understated. It is great to have any long-vacant historic building put back into use.  But the Cooper Building is at the heart of Independence’s character and history.  When you ask someone about Independence’s downtown, this building is what first comes to mind.  To have such a critical and beautiful building sit vacant and derelict for so long was a psychological drag on the community.  Almost a hundred people showed up for the celebratory walkthrough when Drutu first purchased the building.  I expect many more when they have their final open house in a few weeks.

Downtown Independence has experienced a significant revitalization in the past 15 years,.  The revival and restoration of this building continues the positive momentum and has truly inspired the community.

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