Topeka businessman John Federico peeled back the ugly blue facade of his newly purchased downtown building last week, revealing a large expanse of windows that offer an excellent view of the capitol dome.
Joking that exposing the old brick and some plywood of the building at 106 S.E. 8th Ave. was his “gift to Topeka,” Federico laughed and admitted the windows, as of right now, are the best feature of the run-down building.
Although home to two tenants, Top City Shoes & Clothing and Debonair’s Barber Shop, the remainder of the 20,000-square-foot building is in rough condition.
Ceiling falling in, bad smells, pigeons flapping down hallways kind of bad condition.
“I’ve got two great tenants and a lot of pigeons,” Federico said.
Jokes aside, Federico walks, carefully, through the building with visions of potential in his head. For a man who has invested in the downtown area for years, taking on such challenges is important.
“If you believe in Topeka, downtown Topeka, then these are the types of projects that people need to take on,” he said. “And I believe in downtown Topeka. I really do.”
Federico was co-owner of Tucker’s, a downtown restaurant they opened in 2002 and sold in 2003. At that time, it was tough to get people to come back downtown in the evenings to dine or for entertainment, and that’s something Federico and others hope is changing with the area’s revitalization.
Federico is unsure if he’ll be back in the restaurant business at the new building. The priority before even thinking about tenants will be to get the place cleaned up, the water leakage stopped and all the pigeons out. The building needs to be secured against people who sneak in and sleep there, a challenge in and of itself. A tenant said people at one point were securing ropes up on the roof and dropping in through shafts to squat in the building.
Shaking his head at the state of the three-story building, which also features a full basement with high ceilings, Federico said he is looking at historic tax credits and has already applied for a grant from Downtown Topeka Inc.
Such programs, he said, are “critically important” for anyone who wants to invest downtown, particularly in a building in such poor shape.
But still, glimmers of what used to be appear throughout the building in bricked over archways and historical touches that add character. Early research indicates the building was once home to the Majestic Theater, Federico said, and at another point in its history it was the state printing office. Documents on historical buildings downtown also show it was a billiard’s hall around 1900.
Although unsure of the best use of 106 S.E. 8th, Federico said the plans will definitely include lofts. The top floors were at one point 18 apartments.
“It could be very fun,” he said, adding that he’d love to see some large balconies on the front of the building so that people could sit outside and enjoy the downtown. But design changes like that may not happen because of the historical value of the building, so Federico is moving forward carefully.
The building’s structure is solid, even if walking through it feels like a careful process lest walls or floors collapse. This early in his ownership, Federico said he’s unsure how much asbestos, lead or other things that might need mitigation are in it.
“It’s a hot mess,” he said.
Federico wants to support the two tenants already there, and plans to renovate their spaces and meet whatever needs they have.
Artemus Lewis, owner of Debonair’s, said he was concerned when he first heard the building was up for sale.
“We thought maybe we’d be out on the streets,” he said. “John showed us that there’s some potential here.”
Federico is excited to get the building cleaned up and begin making plans. Not even all the pigeons can intimidate him.
The building’s former owner, attorney F.G. Manzanares, reached out to Federico about buying the 8th Avenue building and also his former law office at 500 S. Topeka Blvd.
Federico bought both; he plans to sell the Topeka Blvd. building and use any proceeds from that to work on the other building. Asked what made him take on such a monumental project, Federico’s sense of humor took over.
“Don’t ever drink tequila,” he advised. He reached out to another downtown Topeka investor, Mike Fox who owns Celtic Fox, to ask for advice.
“He’s a friend of mine and we went through this building. I said, ‘Mike, you’ve got as good a vision as anyone.’ He goes, ‘John, by the time you finish this, I’ll be dead,’” Federico recalled. “Which didn’t really inspire me.”
Top City Clothes & Shoes
The building may present multiple challenges, but Federico was effusive about how much he appreciated the tenants in his building.
“These are the types of businesses that we want to keep downtown, that we want to attract,” he said. “I’m personally trying to do everything I can to make sure they’re successful.”
Angelo “Blue” Huffman, owner of Top City Shoes & Clothing, is pleased that upgrades will be made to the building, and generally, that downtown is moving in the right direction. He’s looking forward to the day he can extend his store hours into the evening when foot traffic increases.
“We need that after 5 foot traffic. I think that’s going to make the difference,” he said. “I was here before they started, and I was here during the construction. It was a nightmare. It’s getting a better feel about it. Everybody seems to be real excited about the progress that’s being made.”
Huffman has had his store in the 106 S.E. 8th building for more than four years. Almost anyone who’s ever wandered near the block would recognize the store, because there typically are at least three elegantly dressed men framed in the window. Huffman is helped in the store by his church bishop, elder and deacon, and all of them exhibit the same flair for a style that’s like a step back to the classiness of the 1940s and 50s.
The Top City clothing and shoe store caters to a certain kind of customer, Huffman said, which typically is a mature black man. But many clothes in the store are appropriate for others, though one of the challenges is getting people to stop in and check out their selection.
“What we’re trying to do here is bring a diversity to fashion here in Topeka because it’s so limited as far as what you have to choose from,” he said. “There’s really not much for a mature adult that wants to dress decently, or with some color, you understand. Not all men can appreciate flavor and color, but some of us can. We do know that all women can appreciate it.”
Bishop Steven Crowder, Deacon Phil “Pops” Morris and Elder Gary Hightower are often found in the store, laughing about who is the No. 1 salesperson (Hightower claimed the title over Crowder’s objections) and also who wears the clothes, shoes and hats the best. In fact, they’ve started a contest every Friday to determine who is best-dressed and invite customers to stop in and participate.
“We’ve transformed some guys,” Crowder said of helping customers get rid of their sloppy looks and adopt the creased pants, colorful clothing, hats and shoes the store sells.
“One thing we definitely specialize in is personal coordination of clothes,” Huffman said. “If a guy comes in here and he needs a head to toe outfit, we make sure that he’s coordinated, head to toe. So he don’t walk out of here looking more unusual than he wants to.”
The desire to dress nicely was something built into them when they were children, Huffman said.
“A lot of us was raised to dress with creases,” he said of the dangerous-looking lines that line their slacks. “Most of it is rooted in our upbringing. We’re trying to bring it back.”
Huffman said he appreciates his friends and church members who started as customers and eventually joined his sales team. “This is the clergy that keeps me movin’ in the right direction, so whenever I do need help, they’re willing to come in,” he said.
Their easy familiarity makes a visit to the store more than just a shopping trip. It’s almost impossible to leave without a huge smile.
Debonair’s Barber Shop
That laughter carries right over to Debonair’s where brothers Artemus and Randall Lewis exchange jokes and maybe a few brotherly pokes.
Artemus Lewis said he’s hopeful they’ll be able to make some service and product expansions as the work is done on the building. They’ve been growing in the location since moving there about three years ago, but would like to reach out to a wider customer base to let people know they cut all types of hair, men’s and women’s.
The only thing they don’t do is any styling for women’s hair — “no curlin’, no bumpin’ and colorin’,” Randall Lewis said.
The two men bring decades of experience to the profession. Artemus Lewis was the “trail blazer,” starting barber school and then being followed by Randall and their other brother, who owns a Manhattan barber shop.
Being in business as brothers isn’t too bad, the pair admitted, although there might be an occasional spat.
“Growin’ up as brothers, we just learned to get along,” Randall said.
They understand and respect each other, Artemus added.
“We both like cutting hair and pleasing customers,” he said. “I think that’s what makes us work together real well. Seeing the customers smile.”