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Former barber supply building reborn as center for arts

Structure is one square city block

Former barber supply building reborn as center for arts
One of many artists to rent space in the Rialto Art Studios in the former Koken Barbers Supply Co. is Frank O'Brien. O'Brien is a painter with oil and photographs, showing his shoe paintings.

A building that once housed the largest barber supply company in the country is being converted into a destination for the arts.

General contractor Tim Ayres plans to spend $2 million to $5 million to turn the 100,000-square-foot warehouse building at 2500 Ohio Avenue into uses that include an art gallery, a jazz club, offices, art studios and apartments.

The 106-year-old building in the Fox Park Neighborhood once housed the Koken Barbers Supply Co., a major manufacturer of barber chairs and supplies.

"It's kind of an area right between Soulard and Grand. It's kind of like the next big thing," said Ayres, who has done both commercial and residential work. But this is the biggest project he's done.

The building takes up much of the square block surrounded by Victor Street, Texas Avenue, Sidney Street and Ohio Avenue. It had been empty about 1-1/2 years when Ayres bought it. On the north side of the brick building in faded white paint, the name of the company is clearly visible.

"The building structurally was in remarkably great shape. It just was filled with a lot of junk," Ayres said.

As part of his effort to renovate the building, Ayres has applied for National Register of Historic Places status for the block surrounding his building. Owners of buildings on the National Register may be eligible for federal and state tax credits for renovation projects that meet historic guidelines.

The St. Louis Preservation Board recently voted to back the addition of the property to the National Register. It is making a recommendation to the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation that the site meets the National Register criteria and should be listed.

The state Advisory Council on Historic Preservation will review the nomination. If it recommends listing of the properties, the nomination would be forwarded to the Keeper of the National Register of final review and approval.

National Register status "makes borrowing the money to fix the place up a lot easier," Ayres said.

Major work should start after the beginning of the year, Ayres said. The work should be done in a year to a year and a half, he said.

One business, the Rialto Art Studios, already is on the first floor, at 2500 Ohio Ave. It opened in November 2005. On Saturday night, it hosted its Second Group Art Show, featuring more than 15 artists presenting their works in various media.

There will be 10 apartments on the third floor, which is the top floor. Each will have about 2,000 square feet. Artists' studios will be on the second floor. On the first floor will be the art gallery, as well as offices for an Internet company, a woodworking company, a wholesale wood products firm and an architectural firm.

A restaurant is set to open in the building in late spring or early summer of next year.

Koken Barbers Supply Co. was the largest barber supply company in the country, said Mary M. Stiritz, who did research for the histrict preservation district application for the building.

The company was well known and famous for introducing the first hydraulic powered barber chair. Its founder, Earnest E. Koken, held a patent on the chair, as well as many other patents for barber supplies.

The building was nominated for the historic preservation designation because it was used for manufacturing barber supplies, Stiritz said. It is typical of St. Louis brick industrial buildings, she said.

The company went out of business in the 1950s. After that, a Japanese manufacturer purchased the company and continues to use the Koken name.

A check of Google revealed antique items made by the old company for sale over the Internet included barber poles, shop hat and coat racks and a restored oak barber chair.

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