By NEIL JOHNSON
JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) — When Shawn Reents broke open the ceiling along a partition at the back of his wife’s storefront on Janesville’s West Milwaukee Street last summer, he knew he’d uncovered something uncommon.
He hacked away at decades-old drywall, plaster and paneling, making a hole big enough for a flashlight. Underneath, he saw mahogany-colored oak spanning the upper reaches of the storefront across the entire width of the room.
“I just couldn’t tell what it was at first, but I could see it was pretty well-preserved. I could tell it was something beautiful,” he said.
Reents had uncovered a carved wood double arch, part of the storefront’s original architecture, from its earlier years as a butcher shop, the Janesville Gazette reported. He found it during renovations to the 1,800-square-foot storefront that he and his wife, Kari Reents, bought last year at 217 W. Milwaukee St.
The storefront is now an industrial-chic women’s fashion shop — Velvet and Tulle Boutique is the name — that Kari opened in January. The shop’s original wood floors — dark in spots from decades of heavy use — are refinished, and the original brick walls and wood ceiling are exposed.
But the double arch the Reentses uncovered is what grabs the eye, rising high above the rest of the store.
“We didn’t touch the arches. They look exactly the way they did when we uncovered them. The whole look of the store is built around them. They’re like a centerpiece. As soon as we saw them, we knew they would be,” Kari said.
The Reentses’ renovation of the West Milwaukee Street storefront is the latest example in a series of such projects taking place in downtown Janesville.
It comes alongside recent work to turn two other storefronts, at the southeast corner of South Main Street, into a consignment shop and a jewelry and coin shop. Extensive renovations have also been made to various few tavern and restaurant properties up and down Main Street.
That work coincides with a newfound interest in downtown. The momentum has been helped in part by the city’s public-private ARISE plan, which is meant to revitalize the riverfront corridor.
Optimism has also been boosted both by work to install a pedestrian plaza and festival site between Court and Milwaukee streets and the recent announcement that ground will be broken for a downtown hotel this year, some downtown business operators say.
Joan Neeno, who recently opened Lark, a South Main Street restaurant, specializing in cocktails and small-plate fare, renovated her space last year with her husband, Richard.
Neeno said she thinks the work being done on downtown storefronts is a sign that optimism is becoming widespread. Neeno said it’s validating to see she’s not the only entrepreneur who thinks so.
“It’s great. It’s encouraging. It’s an investment, but the more people that come down and invest and make the downtown more attractive and vital, the better all of us do. The more, the merrier,” she said.
Velvet and Tulle sells basic women’s apparel, dresses, locally made hats and jewelry from Chicago artisans.
The shop is currently open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. And come March, it’ll be open six days a week, Kari Reents said.
The Reentses, who live in Janesville, bought 217 W. Milwaukee St. in May 2017 for $113,000, according to Rock County Register of Deeds records. Shawn said he, Kari and a friend did much of the work renovating the storefront, the apartment space upstairs and the façade.
As soon as they uncovered the wooden arches, they began to really dig into the building’s history.
As far as they can tell from research and old photos, the shop was a meat market for much of its life. According to Gazette archives, the storefront housed two meat markets: Yahn’s Meat Market, which operated from about 1887 to 1947, and Vogel Meat Market, which ran from 1947 until it closed in 1977.
Kari said the rear gallery in the shop was once a cold-storage area where smoked meats cured. In that part of the store, she can stil catch a faint whiff of history.
“It’s a smell kind of like beef jerky, but not exactly, and then it’s gone,” she said. “It’s enough to remind you of what this place once was.”
A photo the Reentses dug up shows Yahn’s Meats in about 1920. The store’s wooden arches were then visible. A photo of Vogel Meats from the 1940s shows the arches completely covered with painted paneling, just the way they were when the Reentses found the store.
From what they’ve gleaned from their research, the Reentses now believe the storefront was a ladies hat shop in its earliest days. So their latest venture is in many a return to the building’s roots in women’s fashion.
“It’s pretty neat when you think about it,” Shawn said. “We’ve kind of brought the place full circle.”