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As construction workers wearing hard hats check their punch lists, developer Tim Baldwin leads a tour of the former Pierce School in the Village of East Davenport, soon to open as the site of 41 brand-new, loft-style apartments.

Baldwin and partner Pat Sherman put together nearly a $10 million financial package including federal and state historic tax credits, workforce tax credits, an urban revitalization tax exemption and conventional financing to make the project happen.

Pierce School Lofts is the first large-scale housing option in the historic Village and its completion is "very exciting news," said Todd Wiebenga, president of the Village's SSMID, or self-supporting municipal improvement district. This is an association of property owners whose members agree to a tax that goes toward improvements in the district.

Although Wiebenga is a landscaper, the Village contains many eateries, taverns and shops, and the lofts hopefully will mean "more people living, breathing and eating in the Village," he said.

Pierce School was built in 1899 as an elementary school, a use that continued until it was closed at the end of the 1939-40 school year. In the late 1940s through the early 1980s, the building was the corporate headquarters of Mast Development Co., a research and development firm.

From the late 1980s and until the early 2000s, the building was turned into a mall, with various retail shops renting space. A plan in 2005 to turn the building into condominiums floundered and one of the parties involved pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering. Remaining owners tried to sell the building on eBay.

Baldwin and Sherman bought the building in 2012 as a "repo" from American Bank, with a few tenants still occupying the building. 

Their work is nearly finished, including refurbishing 132 original windows, creating 65 new windows and building 18 skylights. Rents will range from $700 to $800 for a studio to $1,050 to $1,300 for a two-bedroom.

The units were designed by John Gere, a principal in the architectural firm now known as Studio 483. That company is the descendent of the firm, founded by Frederick G. Clausen, that designed the original school in the 1800s. The 1800s blueprints are still in Studio 483's files.

The second floor apartments incorporate the original, nearly floor-to-ceiling classroom windows that flood the rooms with light and the wood floors.

The configuration of the front units was largely determined by the school's load-bearing brick walls, Gere said.

But in 1977, Mast built a large addition in the back that more than doubled the building's space. This newer addition incorporated structural steel and concrete floors, allowing more flexibility in floor plans, Gere said.

The back area was virtually without windows, though, so 65 new openings had to be cut in the brick.

The attic, or fourth floor, is especially eye-catching because there is a "playfulness of space," as Gere describes it. In creating six units in what had always been unfinished space, Gere was able to incorporate 12 ornamental "spider" windows, numerous exposed timbers and several exposed brick walls.

As Baldwin said, "there was beautiful architecture in the attic, but no one got to see it."

The former school's principal's office, a large room with a huge, south-facing window, will be the fitness center.   

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Davenport's old Taylor School, 901 W. 5th St., is very much like Pierce, and Baldwin said he spent time touring that building to see how the renovation into senior-living apartments unfolded there. He also took some cues from it.

Pierce School is Baldwin and Sherman's second loft apartment conversion; they also turned the Democrat Building, 407-411 Brady St., Davenport, into 21 apartments. Gere was the architect on that project too, and the building originally was designed by his firm, just like Pierce.

Historic renovation isn't Baldwin's core business, though.

Baldwin and Sherman, owners of Bluffstone LLC, are principally in the business of developing student housing within a 500-mile radius of the Quad-Cities, from Wisconsin to Kansas. In the Quad-City area they have been involved in projects serving Palmer College of Chiropractic, Black Hawk College and Eastern Iowa Community Colleges.

Baldwin said they see some opportunities for developing student housing in historic buildings in other states but because the financing of these projects becomes very complex, they thought it would be wise to first get experience with such projects close to their home base.

"This and the Democrat were our way of dipping our toe" in projects involving tax credits, he said.

What they have learned, Baldwin said, is that tax credit projects are so much work and so involved — the legal fees alone were about $300,000 — that the threshold for making them financially profitable is about $10 million. The Democrat Building at $6 million did not work as well as the Pierce, Baldwin said.

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