Michigan building remodel uncovers surprise family tie
Niles — A downtown business venture that developed seemingly out of the blue has taken on a personal meaning owner Melanie Kennedy never expected.
Kennedy and her husband, Donny, lifelong Niles residents, bought the former Elks Temple this past spring. They plan to turn the 21,000-square-foot, 1928 brick building, which has fallen into disrepair, into an events center that features a variety of rentable spaces for parties.
In fact, the lower level is already refurbished and being rented this summer while the rest of the building awaits transformation.
It was only after the project started that Melanie learned her late parents’ wedding reception had been held in the lower level of the building. And learning that, she said, gave her a new perspective and enthusiasm for the huge undertaking.
The project wasn’t even on the Kennedys’ radar until late last year after a conversation with Lisa Croteau, program manager for Niles DDA Main Street, an agency that aims to bolster downtown development.
They were talking with Croteau about the possibility of locating a taproom in the building on Front Street they own that houses Melanie’s salon, Luminous Hair Spa.
The conversation turned to the limited selection of party rental spaces in town — friends of the Kennedys planning a wedding were having trouble finding a space — and that led the couple to the empty Elks site.
The Elks had built a new, smaller lodge on Canal Street and moved out by 2003, selling the old site to Residential Services of Southwestern Michigan.
The nonprofit operated on the lower level for several years and did some upgrades, but the building was sold at auction a few years ago, Croteau said. More recently, the American Legion rented the lower level.
The Kennedys saw a lot of potential in the rambling building — Melanie calls it a “diamond in the rough” — and by April they had become the new owners. The couple tackled renovations themselves, starting on the lower level.
In the middle of the initial rehab, a thought struck Kennedy that her parents’ wedding reception had taken place in that spot. She didn’t know why. She’d always assumed the reception was at St. Mark’s. But she couldn’t ask them.
Kennedy lost both of her parents, Lennie and Vickie Bybee, to cancer in 2008. They died within six months of each other.
“I called my uncle and asked him about it and he said (the reception) was downtown somewhere,” Kennedy said. “I rummaged through everything I had. Their photo album didn’t really show much, but I found one wedding invitation and it said the Elks Temple for the reception.”
She pored over pictures from her parents’ Sept. 28, 1974, wedding day and of the 10 or so candid shots from the reception, one stood out to her.
In it, her mom, dressed in white gown and veil, beams as she tosses her bouquet over her right shoulder to a group of females, their arms outstretched to make the catch. At the top of the photo, the ceiling shows fluorescent tube lights and a crepe paper bell and streamers. At the bottom, part of the wood floor is visible.
An enlarged, framed copy of the photo now hangs on a wall in the newly renovated space.
“If you look closely, you can see the bowling lane flooring,” Kennedy said about the picture.
It’s the same bowling lane flooring under her feet today, and its flooring she now wouldn’t change for the world.
“We had talked before about pulling these lanes up or covering it or what we would do with it, and then it became clear that absolutely not, they don’t go anywhere, they’re staying here,” Kennedy said.
Discovering her family connection to the building “changed everything” about the project for her, she said, and for her husband, too. She said Donny pushed for a business name that would honor her parents, whom he’d never met, and they came up with one fairly quickly.
They named the new business The Grand LV. The L and the V stand for her parents’ first names. If you look at the letters as Roman numerals, though, the combination means 55. The Kennedys decided to give the lower level room its own name: Fifty 5.
Kennedy said they did that to give the space some distinction since they were opening it before the rest of the building.
Renovating the rest of the structure could take a while, she said, since a lot of the work may be beyond “our DIY skills.”
The top floor is an enormous space with an old gymnasium on one side and a ballroom and band stage on the other. Once it’s refurbished, it could accommodate up to 550 people, said Kennedy, who can envision large wedding receptions and maybe even area proms in the space.
The main floor has a variety of potential spaces to renovate, including a billiards room, a women’s lounge and a full kitchen and dining room.
Kennedy hopes that within a year the barroom space at the front of the building on the main floor can be renovated and start operating as a taproom or restaurant, maybe if they can find a business tenant who wants to lease the space.
Croteau, of Niles DDA Main Street, said the Elks Temple rehab could be eligible for grant money through state economic development and historical preservation agencies. The Main Street program could help out, too, with a façade grant or low-interest loan.
Croteau’s thrilled to see a “glorious” old downtown building vacant for several years find new life.
“It’s going to be quite an investment of time, energy, money, vision,” she said about the Kennedys’ venture. “They love this town and see an opportunity and are willing to make it happen.”