Historic downtown Brownstown buildings undergoing renovations


Two buildings in downtown Brownstown are being renovated to look modern yet maintain their historic charm.

The storefront of the 1902 building at 128 S. Main St., owned by 128 Properties LLC, was rebuilt to bring it back in line with others on the block. The office of Edward Jones financial advisor Ryan Kemp occupies Suite A on the right, while Suite B on the left is for rent.

On the north side of the courthouse square district, which recently was added to the National Register of Historic Places, Brownstown native Jim Gillespie purchased the 1875 building at 111 E. Walnut St. and plans to live upstairs and find a tenant for the first floor once renovation is complete.

Bill Hiday with 128 Properties initially talked to the Brownstown Town Council in the spring of 2019 about a national brand’s intention of using the first floor of the Main Street building, and he wound up splitting that into two suites.

“It was available and it was a good buy, and we saw opportunity,” he recently said of what drew him and his business partner, Steve Cissna, to the building. “Brownstown reminds me of the little town I’m from (Fortville), and I said, ‘This is a good deal,’ and to do projects like that, it just helps the town.”

Hiday has made a living by rehabilitating old buildings in communities around the state. He can now add Brownstown to the list.

When a building transformation is complete, he said it gives him a sense of accomplishment and pride.

“If you go over to the Edward Jones space, it is modern office,” Hiday said. “But whoever rents the other space, Suite B over there, if they say, ‘You know, I want it as historic as you can make it,’ you’ve got the flexibility.”

A past owner had moved the storefront back into the building, and Hiday said he wanted to bring it back out and also expose the brick walls inside.

“That’s taking it back to how God intended it,” he said, smiling.

The building also has a second floor with 3,000 square feet of open space, but Hiday said they are undecided on what to do with it right now.

“It’s completely gutted down to nothing upstairs, so we’re still kind of toying with a couple of ideas up there,” he said.

Kemp said his office has been in the building for three months. He and Kathy Barber, branch office administrator, previously worked in a building on the corner of Tipton and Chestnut streets in downtown Seymour with Adam Jackson and Cinda Burris.

“When I was looking for an office space, I knew I wanted to be located downtown with easy access to parking for the convenience of my clients,” Kemp said of moving to Brownstown. “In a small town, that posed a few problems, so when I got in touch with Steve Cissna and met with Bill Hiday of 128 Properties, I knew it was the one. Bill shared his vision, and it just seemed to fit.”

Part of what he loves about the restored building is that while Edward Jones is a new business in town, he said it feels like they are honoring Brownstown history.

“So all the boxes were checked: Convenient for my clients, honoring the history of this great town and simply put, a beautiful space,” Kemp said.

There are many things to love about the dichotomy of historic and modern in one space, he said.

“Bill and 128 Properties did such a fantastic job bringing the space up to speed with the modern business necessities, which makes it feel fresh,” Kemp said.

“At the same time, you have features like the original brick wall that adds design interest and is something most of my clients like to talk about,” he said. “We already loved Brownstown and couldn’t wait to open our doors in this community, but pulling up to the square every day to a piece of Brownstown history is the cherry on top.”

Over at 111 E. Walnut St., Hiday also is involved in that renovation, but the building is owned by Gillespie, who grew up in town and graduated from Brownstown Central High School in 1984.

After earning a business administration degree from Hanover College, he moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and later New York City to start a career. He now holds a senior position at a large commercial mortgage banking company, works in real estate and is a developer.

Gillespie said a few years ago, he tried to buy the building from Bessie Royalty, but she didn’t accept his offer.

Then in the summer of 2020, she called and asked if he was still interested in the building, and they struck a deal.

“I bought it from Bessie in September and started demolition right away,” Gillespie said.

He also had been interested in the 128 S. Main St. building, but Hiday and Cissna got to it first. Once he bought 111 E. Walnut St., he hired Hiday as the contractor.

“He has been great,” Gillespie said. “He has really got an eye for these old buildings and has done it a lot, so he has been a good fit so far.”

The Walnut Street building has been completely gutted.

“We’ve basically stripped everything out of the building,” Gillespie said. “There were two apartments upstairs, so we basically have stripped everything out, from the walls to the floor, the ceiling and the utilities. The wiring, electric, plumbing, everything is gone. … Everything has come out, so now, we have to put it back together.”

The plan is for Gillespie to have a live-work space upstairs. That way, he can be closer to his father, Dr. Robert Gillespie, who is retired after a 50-plus-year career as a veterinarian in Brownstown.

“I currently am going back and forth between Louisville and New York,” he said. “The idea is when this building is finished, I’ll homestead upstairs.”

For the first floor, he is looking for a tenant. Over the years, the building has housed a saloon, a hotel, an Odd Fellows lodge hall, a hardware store and most recently a bakery.

“I’ve heard from a few people, but I do not have a tenant down there yet,” he said. “I’m interested in hearing ideas. I would prefer it be like an active retail use, more of like a cafe or a coffee shop or retail. You could put a law office in there. I just want it to bring some kind of street activity, a place for people to go. Ideally, that’s what I’d like.”

That floor is unique because during renovation, the brick walls were exposed and an old pressed tin ceiling was still intact.

“There was a fire next door, so some of it is damaged, some of it is missing, so we’re going to try to repair that,” Gillespie said of the ceiling.

“We’re finishing it out as like a white box space and will work with whatever tenant to finish it out for their needs,” he said of the first floor. “It should be a pretty cool space.”

Gillespie said the new windows were expected to arrive this week, and he looks forward to seeing the building take shape.

“This is the first renovation of this magnitude where we’ve taken a building down to its walls and roof, so it’s kind of fun,” he said, comparing it to other development projects with which he has been involved.

Owning a piece of history in his hometown makes it special.

“Brownstown is my hometown. It always will be. I love the place. It made me who I am,” said Gillespie, whose family has been in Jackson County for seven generations. “It’s an honor, it’s a privilege to have this opportunity. Hopefully, this building will spur a lot of new development downtown and allow people to see what these old buildings can be.”

Now that the courthouse square district is on the National Register of Historic Places, building owners can apply for grants and tax credits to help with renovations. Gillespie said Brownstown Ewing Main Street is willing to assist them as a way to incentivize property owners to invest and encourage development downtown.

“When I grew up, downtown was different back then,” Gillespie said. “People went downtown, there were stores downtown, so I’d love to see that come back. Instead of driving to Walmart, drive downtown. Walk down the sidewalk and run into your neighbors and say hello and be friendly. I think we all miss that. … It’s character. It’s charm.”

Hiday said while driving through many towns, there are vacant buildings, and that’s not attractive to people who may be looking to relocate and put down roots or start a business there.

Brownstown, though, has done a pretty good job of keeping buildings occupied, he said.

“Just breathing some life into them, it just helps everybody,” he said.