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Apartments in Former Grocery Store Revitalize Texas 'Hood

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Here now, Past Lives, in which Curbed explores what some of the country's most interesting residential buildings used to be before they became livable homes. Care to suggest a building with a fascinating past life? Do drop us a line.

Mixed-use developments may be all the rage right now, but one property in Fort Worth, Texas, has been mixing commercial and residential space since before it was cool. Way, way, way before.

The Sawyer Grocery Building on Fort Worth's South Main Street was built in 1909, but the history of the property goes back even further. Beginning in 1888, Henry E. Sawyer operated a grocery store on the site. But when a fire swept through town in 1908, he was forced to rebuild, and the current Sawyer Grocery Building was constructed the next year. The two-story building had a dirt floor on the lower level, where the grocery store was located, and apartments on the top floor—one of which was occupied by Sawyer and his family.

Business was going well. So well, in fact, that Sawyer constructed another two-story commercial building next door to his original business and expanded his grocery operation to fill both of them.

But by the early 1920s, Sawyer closed his business and the buildings entered new chapters in their long lives. The second floor of the original grocery building was advertised as "gentlemen's apartments," which were largely occupied by traveling salesmen. The building next door, known as the Joyslin Building, housed retail and restaurant space on its ground floor, and a single-room hotel with one bathroom on the top floor. Rumors circulated that the building was, in reality, a bordello.

In the 1950s, the Landers Machine Company moved in to the Sawyer Grocery Building and used the ground floor as a machine shop. At some point in time, the ground floor storefront was bricked in (↓).

By the 21st century, the Near Southside neighborhood where the Sawyer Grocery and Joyslin buildings are located had become a largely abandoned no-man's land that was home only to industrial operations. But where others may have seen urban waste, developer Eddie Vanston saw opportunity.

Vanston had been working in real estate since the 1990s and had moved into residential property development. In the early 2000s, he was already familiar with the Sawyer Grocery Building, but never gave any thought to developing it until a real estate agent with a listing on the property brought it to his attention.

That was when he knew he had serious potential on his hands. The quality of the construction was one of the biggest draws for him as a developer, he said."Everything built today, it's all kind of disposable," Vanston said. "But these buildings, it's unbelievable. Even with the wear and tear and neglect, they were built so well they can still be viable."

Vanston was taking a step into uncharted territory. When he purchased the buildings in 2005, there were no people living in the neighborhood to even voice an opinion on the project. The Sawyer Grocery and Joyslin buildings were the first to be renovated and developed in Near Southside, and Vanston was able to take advantage of a variety of government tax credits aimed at historic preservation and development in run-down areas.

His gamble paid off. Finding tenants to be the original pioneers in an industrial, uninhabited neighborhood wasn't all that difficult, Vanston said. The Sawyer Grocery and Joyslin buildings attracted a crowd looking for interesting, eclectic places to live that have a lot of character—largely single women with a smattering of single men.

The attention to detail during the buildings' renovations may have something to do with the tenants' enthusiasm. The buildings each have their original hardwood floors, and features such as claw-foot bathtubs add to the historic feel of the 14 apartments housed on the second floors of the buildings. Rents range from $700 to $1,350 a month for spaces ranging from 451 to 992 square feet. And, one might say the Sawyer Grocery and Joyslin buildings have returned to their roots—businesses are again housed on their ground floors. Currently, they include an advertising firm, a hair salon, a computer support business and a bakery.

Today, the Near Southside neighborhood is unrecognizable when compared with its former self. It has become an eclectic hub for musicians, restaurateurs and trendy urbanites. The renovation of the Sawyer Grocery and Joyslin buildings turned out to be a catalyst for spectacular development over the past decade. After the conversions were completed, a variety of residential and commercial tenants sprang up around them, and today some of their neighbors include a theater and a political campaign headquarters. One of Fort Worth's public bicycle sharing stations is right next door and more families have begun moving into the area.
—Caroline Keyser

· The Sawyer Grocery Building [official site]
· All Past Lives columns [Curbed National]