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From the street, there is little noticeable difference in Moline's Fifth Avenue Building, except for some crumbling terracotta masonry overhead.

But inside the longtime office building, Mike Whalen and his Heart of America Group team can plainly see big changes in the circa-1929 building. It is becoming a boutique hotel. The high-profile structure at 1630 5th Ave. will be the 19th hotel project for the Moline-based hospitality company. 

Still home to its final tenants — an Edward Jones office and the Bozeman, Neighbour, Patton & Noe law firm — initial work is focused on "getting the box water-tight," Whalen said during a recent building tour. The preliminary construction work comes after months of clearing the building of items left by past tenants, then demolishing walls that were not original to the structure.

On the exterior, crews are tuckpointing the brick while the terracotta is inspected piece-by-piece to determine what should be replaced.

"We're going to bring it back to what it was,'' Whalen said. The project includes renovation of the adjacent building, which had been a Sears Roebuck store and, most recently, Barnett's Fireplaces.

The estimated $20 million project, first announced last fall, will convert eight stories of office space into 105 boutique hotel rooms — just blocks from Heart of America's headquarters on River Drive. For now, the working name is Historic Fifth Avenue Building and Sears Roebuck Block.

"We're blessed with something that has character and structural integrity," said Caleb Rogers, an architect for Heart of America. "We're finding details buried everywhere."

Working with the city and state's historic agencies, they are maintaining its history while creating a modern, efficient space, he said.

Details such as wainscotting and terrazzo tile floors, marble wall panels, and Art Deco trim will be restored and retained, but the building will have all new mechanical systems, including an innovative geothermal system to be built under the attached parking ramp.

The former 90,000-square-foot office building will contain a unique design that will include suites as large as 750 square feet, or twice the size of a traditional hotel room. Many of the upper-floor rooms will have sweeping views of downtown and the Mississippi River valley.

"We are like the cavalry," Whalen said. "This building was literally falling down."

He said he has been "obsessed" with the building since he and his wife, Kim, noticed it on a lunchtime stroll a few years ago.

Built at a cost of $550,000, including the land, he estimated rebuilding today would surpass the $30 million mark. Plans still are being considered for uses of the adjacent Sears building.

The hotel should open in late 2018.

"It's hard for us to express the great things that are going to be in here; it's just not visible from the outside," Rogers said. "But we are going to do something that is not offered in this market."