Brandy and John VandeWalle have unlocked a new use for the former Wheelan-Pressly Funeral Home with the opening of their Skeleton Key Art and Antiques store.
The building, located at 520 18th St., Rock Island, has sat mostly unused since Wheelan-Pressly moved to a new facility in 2007 at Rock Island's 7th Avenue and 30th Street.
"This is something we talked about doing for years," Brandy VandeWalle said of their startup business. Describing it as "a vendor mall," she said they have about 40 area vendors renting floor and wall space. "We're all art, antiques, crafts and unique items."
The couple purchased the old funeral home last spring from Steve Pressly — making their family home upstairs and their new business in the funeral home part of the building. After some cosmetic improvements, they opened the business Aug. 1.
Neatly arranged displays of antiques, furniture, art work, photography and other collectibles fill the 5,000 square feet on the main floor, including what once were the funeral home's viewing rooms. Her husband, who works full-time in the floor-covering business, is one of the Skeleton Key artisans with his original metal sculpture on display and for sale.
John VandeWalle, a Rock Island native, had long eyed the building after having spent time in it when one of his friends worked for Wheelan-Pressly and getting to know the Pressly family, she said.
But Brandy became just as enamored with it. "He told me for years if we wanted to buy a big old house, it was going to be Wheelans," she said.
Brandy recalled how someone had converted an old mansion in her hometown of Centerville, Iowa, into a similar operation. In fact, the couple considered buying the Wheelan-Pressly building a few years earlier but it was not the right time with their young family. Their daughter, Addison, is now 9, and son Alex is 5.
"One time I thought Steve had it sold," she recalled, adding when the sale fell through she knew "this was meant to be my building."
Pressly said for the past 5 1/2 years, the building had sat mostly empty except for when it was rented out three or four times a year to an antique dealer for estate sales.
But Pressly said they kept the maintenance up so that the nearly 120-year-old building would not deteriorate. "It had too much history and panache with the leaded glass and stained glass windows (to not care for it well)."
Other potential buyers ran into building code issues for what they wanted to do, he said. "We thought this was a good use for the building," he said of the VandeWalles business. "It's great they're living there and the kids are there."
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VandeWalle said they are being picky about what type of vendors they will rent to, and have turned away a few who thought it was a flea market. In addition to art and antiques, she said they will accept "something that is upcycled or repurposed in a unique way."
Skeleton Key has drawn vendors from across the Quad-Cities and as far as Clinton and Maquoketa in Iowa and Prophetstown and Aledo in Illinois.
Bob Stone began as a customer but last month, he rented booth space with his business partner, Dan Travis, to sell their punch needle creations, hand-knitted scarves and other items. "This is a new venture for us," he said, adding that they had given the items away to friends and relative for birthdays and holidays, but now are trying to sell them commercially.
"We had no idea we were going to open a section here," he said. "It's just a beautiful building in terms of the history."
VandeWalle said vendors and customers alike are struck by the building's history and its reuse. While some start off unsure about being in a former funeral home, especially if they had loved ones there, she said "I've had people say 'it feels fine in here.' I think everybody is happy to see the building in use."
After they opened, a man brought in a nameplate with the words "In Memoriam C.R. Wheelan, 1859-1928." VandeWalle said someone had ripped the metal plate off the building and was trying to sell it for scrap. But the man knew where it belonged and returned it to its rightful place.
"The first time I walked through, I felt peaceful here," she said. ''This is an important building for a lot of people. It has such a great spirit and something needed to be done here."