The sturdy, box-shaped building at the corner of Eighth Street and Boardman Avenue in Traverse City looks like it was built to last.
And it has -- almost 100 years. But in order to survive, it’s had to become a lot of things. It started as a cigar box factory, then it was a power company service building, then it was a furniture store and then a fitness center.
For the 21st century, the building recently took on another identity -- home.
Its new owners, Victoria and Matt Sutherland, fell for the building, which they’ve dubbed The Box. They love its high ceilings and huge windows and storied history.
But they knew they would have to be creative to turn it into a place where they could live.
Now, the main floor of the building has undergone a stunning renovation, a living suite is almost complete, they plan to create a garden in front of the building this spring, they’ve opened up the offices upstairs and the long-vacant building has become a center of activity.
RUSTIC AND MODERN
Most of the work to date has taken place on the 4,000-square-foot main floor (each level is the same size; the entire building is 12,000 square feet). They’ve turned one side of that level into a sleek, modern commercialgrade kitchen and dining area, complete with a 20-foot black granite marble counter, an eight-foot marble slab for dining, and elm cabinets that somehow look both rustic and modern; the south end of the building is a common room complete with walls of book cases and a raised stage for readings or other events; and the east side of the main floor is undergoing renovation to become a bedroom suite for the Sutherlands.
They’ve used local, recycled material whenever possible, and in some cases, they’ve been able to recycle the building itself.
When they ripped out old carpet that had been there when the building housed the Fitness Center, they found incredible original wood floors that required very little work to bring to life. All of the imperfections in the wood -- gashes and gouges and spots where nails were shot through seemingly at random, speak to the building’s decades of history.
Upstairs are offices which the Sutherlands use for their business, ForeWord Magazine, and the lower level, which consists of men’s and women’s locker rooms and a former aerobics studio, the Sutherlands imagine one day might be lounges and a large dance floor for events.
‘PERFECTLY FIT OUR NEEDS’
The Sutherlands hope soon to be able to rent out part of the building for special events and to do things like host cooking classes or parties.
Matt Sutherland said the building was on the market for two years without an offer before he and Victoria came along. He wonders what would have happened had they not moved in.
“We’ve had engineers in here. Structurally, it’s in incredible shape. People had no idea what to do with it. We were unique in that it perfectly fit our needs and we had the patience to do what we needed to do here.” he said. “I hate to think that it would have been torn down, but who knows?” Right now, the building and the Sutherland’s use of it are unique on the Traverse City landscape. Who else is trying to turn an old cigar factory and long-time fitness center into a multi-use commercial/ residential space?
EARLY ATTEMPT TO SAVE IT
The Sutherlands are not the first to worry about the fate of the old cigar box building.
In 1981, Traverse City stalwart Sara Hardy tried to get the building designated a national historic landmark.
She wrote a letter to the State Historical Preservation Office but the application was ultimately turned down.
At that time the building was a furniture store and warehouse. Since the late 1950s, the building had been rented by Wilsons Furniture Co. and in 1974 was purchased by Wilsons for $25,000. In pictures included with Hardy’s 1981 application, a glowing sign on the south face of the building read, “THE FURNITURE PLACE.”
Traverse City History Center volunteer Dave Pennington noted that a furniture store on that stretch of Eighth Street in the 1980s would have been fighting a losing battle to stay in business -- retail business by then had moved out of downtown to the Cherryland Mall and Logans Landing.
CAME ALONG AT THE RIGHT TIME
Hardy must have been afraid the building wouldn’t survive the modern world.
“As traffic pressures increase at this intersection, so will pressures for removal of this building,” Hardy wrote.
She noted that it was “ideally suited for adaptive reuse” and that it would make a good location for law offices.
Hardy argued the building was worth saving because of what it meant to Traverse City in the 1920s and the 1930s, when Northern Michigan was going through hard times.
The Great Depression may have struck the nation in 1929, but it may as well have hit Traverse City in 1920, when the lumber industry collapsed with the last of the hardwoods.
The Traverse City Cigar Box Co. constructed its new factory in 1920, the same year one of the region’s main employers, the Oval Dish Company, a manufacturer of disposable dishes from maple trees, relocated out of state.
‘KEPT FOOD ON THE TABLE’
So the new cigar box factory, which had previously been located across the street, was a godsend.
Almost all males smoked cigars then, and the cigars were manufactured locally. Bales of tobacco were imported for local cigar makers. (There were 10 cigar factories in TC in 1906.)
Of the cigar box factory, Hardy wrote: “It certainly played a significant role in keeping food on the table for many families during a very bleak period in our history.”
It provided steady employment for unskilled workers, particularly for women who lived in the Boardman neighborhood. They cut and nailed cedar boards and turned them into boxes, and they printed the labels on site.
“There is definitely a big soft spot in the hearts of the community’s older residents for the Cigar Box Company,” Hardy wrote.
The cigar box factory stayed in business until just before World War II, but it was the first war that doomed the business. World War I introduced soldiers to cigarettes, and when the men came home, they stuck with those and didn’t smoke cigars anymore.
In a nod to the history, the Sutherlands have installed a collection of cigar boxes in the foyer.
‘HAVING A GREAT TIME’
The Sutherlands consider themselves lucky to have taken over the landmark.
“We pinch ourselves everyday,” Matt Sutherland said. “We love this space. We’re having a great time.”
Victoria Sutherland said she’s delighted to be living in the building, even if it is a massive space that is not a conventional home.
“We’ve lived out in the country in Cedar by Sugar Loaf. We moved right downtown on Union Street into a very small Victorian. Our architect said, ‘Victoria, I don’t think you realize how big this space is.’ I said, ‘Oh, yes I do.”
Even being on such a busy corner hasn’t been a problem. The windows are high enough so you don’t notice the traffic going by. And the old cement block building is pretty sound-proof.
“I don’t even notice the traffic any more,” Victoria said. “All I see is that river, the beautiful Boardman River right here.”