Blackhawk Community Credit Union’s planned rehab of the former Chase Bank downtown would bring the oldest part of the building back to its original, 1913 glory.
But it would be a double-preservation project.
For one, the building at 100 W. Milwaukee St., originally known as the First National Bank, will be restored to its original look. The credit union plans to remove a glass and granite facade that has covered the building’s 1913 exterior for more than 40 years.
Inside, the credit union plans to uncover the building’s original cathedral ceiling as part of a restoration that will make the building’s three-story interior open and visible from the first-floor lobby for the first time since the late 1970s.
Then there’s the credit union’s planned use of the building.
The credit union plans to create and operate the Legacy Center, a museum-like space designed to keep alive the memory of thousands of local autoworkers who worked at the General Motors assembly plant in Janesville.
The center would showcase thousands of artifacts from the plant that Blackhawk has spent more than a year collecting and archiving.
Sherri Stumpf, CEO of Blackhawk Community Credit Union, and local developer Jim Johnson, the Chase Bank’s most recent owner, confirmed the credit union this week closed on buying the three-story, 24,000-square-foot former bank.
Johnson’s development group, the Johnson Ryan Partnership, sold the property to the Legacy Foundation, a new nonprofit organization Blackhawk has established to rehab the building and then operate the Legacy Center.
Stumpf announced earlier this year the credit union’s plan to buy the former bank, which has been vacant nearly two years. The announcement was made after the credit union decided against building Reflections Plaza, a multimillion-dollar, combined corporate headquarters and Legacy Center along the Rock River on South Water Street. That plan fell through amid concerns about the environmental complexities of redeveloping the riverfront parcels, Stumpf said.
Under the credit union’s new plan, it purchased the former Moose lodge on Rockport Road to be remodeled into a new headquarters. The former Chase Bank would be home to the Legacy Center, Stumpf said.
By September, Stumpf said, crews from JP Cullen will begin to remove the former bank’s granite and glass facade that was installed in 1977. Inside, crews will “completely gut” and open up the building’s original construction.
Anyone visiting the future Legacy Center will be able to look up and see the ornately molded plaster ceiling that has been hidden for decades above a drop ceiling.
A balcony will be reopened to view floor exhibits of items large and small from the General Motors plant, Stumpf said.
Blackhawk is working with museum curating consultants, but early plans for displays, Stumpf said, include a miniature assembly line in the lobby that people can view from the balcony—a sort of recreation of a 1933 World’s Fair exhibit in Chicago, during which GM workers showed the public how vehicles were built on a line.
The bank’s vaults will be repurposed as research and reading rooms with collections of hundreds of manufacturing and maintenance manuals for vehicles built at the GM plant.
Blackhawk originally was a credit union established for union autoworkers at the GM plant.
“We’re trying to make it very interactive. It is not a museum. It is a Legacy Center—the idea of the Legacy Center being that we’re trying to provoke memories, conversation, give people a place to gather and talk about why the plant was important. And how it affected their family and this community and what made it different. You know, other General Motors plants for years traveled to (the) Janesville plant to find that out. It was looked at as a model,” Stumpf said.
The credit union’s goal is to have the Legacy Center up and running by 2021, which was the original timeline for the Reflections Plaza.
Stumpf said the credit union plans to re-open the parking lot surrounding the former bank to help create more parking on the west side of downtown.
Stumpf wouldn’t say what the remodeling will cost. She said the Legacy Center would run through the Legacy Foundation, which will operate separately from the credit union.
Stumpf believes the Legacy Center would be “self-sustaining.” She said its nonprofit status would make it eligible to receive grants and tax-deductible donations. Also, she said, the property would generate some of its own revenue. It would have a coffee shop, and the credit union would remodel the building’s newer, west wing as space that could be leased for office or event space.
Multiple GM retirees have volunteered to staff the center and guide people through the displays of items Blackhawk salvaged from the plant during its recent demolition. Others have donated local GM artifacts.
Stumpf declined to disclose the sale price, but she said it was “far less” than the $2.4 million the building was appraised at in 2017, before JP Morgan Chase & Co. sold the property to Johnson. It carried a 10-year deed restriction that prevented the building from being re-used as a bank.
Johnson said he sold the property for cash, along with an agreement he would donate to the Legacy Foundation.
Johnson bought the former Chase Bank in 2017 for for $550,000. He said he had offers from multiple developers, most saying they would demolish the bank. One developer had wanted to clear the property for new apartments.
Johnson’s father and father-in-law both were directors at former banks in the building. He knew and remembers its original face, the one under all the drop ceilings, granite and glass.
He said he didn’t want to sell the old bank to a developer who’d tear it down.
“We resisted doing that. It’s an important historic property in downtown Janesville,” Johnson said. “We wanted to make sure it was redeveloped and part of the future of Janesville for a long time to come.”