When Shawn Reents broke open the ceiling along a partition at the back of his wife’s storefront on 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. He found it during renovations to the 1,800-square-foot storefront 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. It’s a testament to the building’s history, but it also gives the shop distinctive and noticeable flair.
“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’ reboot of the West Milwaukee Street storefront is the latest example of a renaissance of renovations in downtown Janesville.
It comes alongside recent efforts to renovate two storefronts into a consignment shop and a jewelry and coin shop at the southeast corner of South Main Street, and it comes months after a few tavern and restaurant properties up and down Main Street did extensive renovations.
That work coincides with a new focus on downtown that stakeholders say is gaining momentum, in part through the city’s public-private ARISE strategy to revitalize the riverfront corridor.
People’s confidence has been boosted by efforts to create a pedestrian-friendly plaza and festival areas between Court and Milwaukee streets, as well as the news that a downtown hotel plans to break ground this year, some downtown business operators say.
Joan Neeno, who recently opened Lark, a South Main Street restaurant that focuses on specialty cocktails and small-plate fare, renovated her space last year with her husband, Richard.
Neeno said she thinks optimism is rising, and it shows itself in work being done on downtown storefronts. Neeno said it’s both exciting and 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 handmade by Chicago artisans.
The shop is currently open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, but by 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 occasionally catches 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. At that time, the store’s wooden arches were visible. A photo of Vogel Meats from the 1940s shows the arches completely covered with painted paneling, just the way the Reentses found the store.
Based on their research, the Reentses believe the storefront was a ladies hat shop in its earliest days. Today, it has returned to those 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.”