Old newspaper buildings never die. There are too many memories in their walls, of Lindbergh landing in Paris and troops storming ashore on D-Day and wild-and-wooly Quad-City bootlegging. I thought of that this week as I sat by a marble counter of the old Democrat building and made a telephone call. The first call I made in that hulk of a building was 70 years ago.
The building quit turning out newspapers a half-century ago, and in years since has been everything from a dog training school to a vacuum cleaner salesroom and a dance hall. Not many buildings have survived so many lives, but now the old girl is back from the dead — a first-class apartment complex.
It's been named The Democrat Lofts, in homage to the downtown Davenport landmark newspaper building that has been gutted and quite amazingly turned into 21 first-class apartments. She was a child of the razz-ma-tazz 1920s, and the public is invited to look her over — with the guidance of Gatsby guys and cigarette girls — from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
My heart is still in the old place that was dedicated in 1924, the year I was born. I was there in 1951 when it went kerplunk as a newspaper building. The Democrat merged with the Daily Times to evolve into the Quad-City Times.
I was hired at the Democrat as a lettuce (meaning very green) reporter. Now, the city room and my old desk area is a small carpeted apartment to be named "The Wundram Suite," renting for $599 a month.
It is no wonder the Democrat has been turned from a rough stone into a diamond. Developers Tim Baldwin of Port Byron and Pat Sherman of LeClaire have put a ton of money into the project at 411 Brady St. "We've spent $6 million on it," Baldwin says. "I fell in love with the Democrat building two years ago when we saw that magnificent lobby. It took our breath away. We wondered why someone hadn't purchased it long ago for apartments."
Mark Ridolfi, our opinion page editor, and I looked over the place that has been undergoing major remodeling for 18 months. There is no trace of the essence of newspaper ink and the sweet smell of big rolls of newsprint. All we smelled was fresh paint. Everything is quite keen. One of the suites with an exceptionally tall bedroom ceiling and birch floor has a bedroom with a basketball hoop. That is in case you can't sleep at night and want to shoot a few. There are other unusual amenities: The proper publishers of old would grow faint to find their walnut-paneled office now is a pool room.
So, here I am, blinking at 70 years ago when I tapped out copy on an Underwood typewriter in the city room that is now three apartments, one of them a two-room suite to be called "The John O'Donnell" for the late, revered sports editor.
Ridolfi and I agreed it was a miracle that this bulwark of a newspaper building — with walls of a bomb shelter — could be turned into one- or two- bedroom apartments, some with two bathrooms.
One apartment is so svelte it has a winding stairway to a second floor. It can be rented monthly for $1,399. It once was a part of the pressroom.
With a name of Democrat Lofts, it is hoped that Republicans will not shun the place.
The immense lobby has been unchanged since it was built in 1924. The Democrat Publishing Co. name is intact on the safe in the lobby. Peek inside (no money and no locks) to see an enlarged vault that can be used as a conference room.
Andrea Helfrich, a director of public affairs for the developers, says seven apartments already are rented. One tenant is a graduate of Dartmouth College and new to Davenport. Helfrich said that tenant was surprised at the low cost of rental compared with the East. Another apartment has been taken by a recent University of Iowa law school graduate
Wandering the old Democrat Lofts with the help of an elevator, I spotted a spiral staircase. I shuddered. As a cub reporter, I would lug matrices — asbestos slabs the size of a newspaper page — up and down those tricky stairs to be cast into semi-circular lead plates for the press. I never fell once!
So much of the old newspaper building has been fully changed, but the builders have been careful to maintain portions of the old place. The giant iron criss-cross windows have been replaced with identical modern versions. An original wood shelf remains inside a front door where Democrat readers could come in off the street and pick up the news.
Let’s hope they keep stacking newspapers there.
In all this facelifting, I could feel the place as a newspaper. Nostalgic craziness, I guess.