Six downtown sandstone buildings showing promise of being vital parts of Hot Springs’ future
By Brett Nachtigall
HOT SPRINGS – Over the past 17 months, the landscape of the historic district of downtown Hot Springs on North River Street has seen a considerable amount of change.
On Monday night, Feb. 17, 2020, a fire destroyed much of the 300 block of North River Street. Lost in the fire were a total of five businesses, including The Vault, China Buffet, Heartsong Quilts, Power’s Guitar and Gus’ Best Ice Cream, as well as the home of the Powers family, which was located behind their three businesses.
The structures that housed the five businesses – the Central Block building (The Vault/China Buffet) and the G.W. Montgomery Block building (Heartsong Quilts) – represented a significant part of Hot Springs’ history shortly after the turn of the century. Their creation helped to unite what were then known as two very distinct halves of the community – upper town and lower town.
On Wednesday, June 9, 2021, a demolition crew with RCS Construction took down the 1893-built Wesch-Oak building at 717 North River Street. The razing of the structure ended an approximate 35-year saga which saw the City of Hot Springs condemn the building multiple times, under multiple owners, due to safety concerns. The Hot Springs City Council even passed a resolution in October 1996 to solicit bids for demolition, but that was averted by a local grassroots organization called Save Our Sandstones (S.O.S.).
More recent attempts to save the building from demolition were not successful, which according to the owner of RCS Construction was ‘lucky’ for the city, as he said any attempts to stabilize the building from inside likely would have ended tragically with the deaths of those individuals, based on how easily the roof collapsed during demolition operations.
Despite the disappearances of these historic Hot Springs buildings, three previously under-utilized historic downtown structures have recently come under new ownership and show promise of not only remaining part of Hot Springs’ history, but also becoming a vital part of Hot Springs’ future. Those buildings are the Fargo-Mercantile, the Water Light and Power Company building and the Robinson Building.
In addition, the City of Hot Springs is also attempting to work with three other vacant building landowners to help ensure their fate does not follow that of the Wesch-Oak’s. Those buildings are the Bodega, the Petty building and another known as the Fowler Crum building next to City Hall.
New building owners Jeff and Kimberly Alley moved to Hot Springs in January 2021. The couple met while attending Montana State University but have lived in Colorado for many years and raised a family there.
The Alleys said they have been looking to move out of Colorado and fell in love with the community of Hot Springs, its architecture, its mild winters and its proximity in the Southern Black Hills.
While adding that part of their motivation to move to South Dakota was because they are big fans of Governor Kristi Noem, the Alleys said that when the opportunity arose to purchase the 1910-built Fargo Mercantile building from Tavi Loeks, they jumped at the chance to own one of Hot Springs’ historic downtown sandstone buildings.
Located at 321 North River Street – on the south end of the now-vacant space caused by the aforementioned 2020 fire – the interior of Fargo-Mercantile retains the original stamped metal ceiling and a mezzanine. Colored tiles spell out the name of “Fargo Mercantile” in the floor at the entryway. At the time of the building’s completion, the Fargo Mercantile was a dry goods and clothing store and was managed by prominent local businessman J.L. Denman.
In 1919, the building changed owners and became a furniture store on the main level known as Killingers, which was operated by Gordon Killinger until his death in 1969. The upstairs had separate owners and held various names during the early 1900s, including the Hagen Rooming House, Ham Apartments and Englebert Apartments and also the Western Hotel in the 1950s.
The Fargo Mercantile building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 as part of the Hot Springs Historic District. This district was listed in the National Register of Historic Places due to its areas of significance in commerce and architecture.
In the early 2000s, the building was owned by Dick and Liz Smith who operated the main floor as consignment store known Smith-Fargo Mercantile while converting the upstairs to themed guest suites. Most recently, prior to the Alley’s purchasing the building, the main floor was a coffee and sandwich shop with the upstairs being utilized as long-term apartments.
Shortly after taking possession of the historic Fargo Mercantile building in December 2020, the Alleys applied for a State Historic Preservation Grant to perform some repointing and masonry repairs on the exterior sandstones, as well as some cleanup on the back of the building and cosmetic work in the basement, due to last year’s fire next door. Repairs on the roof are however currently the top-priority, especially following this summer’s recent hail storm.
Earlier this spring, the Alleys were notified that they were successful in securing a $16,050 reimbursable grant, awarded through the State Historical Society’s Deadwood Fund grant program. Funding for the program is from Deadwood gaming revenue earmarked by state law for historic preservation projects throughout the state. The program is administered by the society’s State Historic Preservation Office at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre.
In addition to performing repairs on the building, the Alleys, who also recently purchased a home in Hot Springs, said their short-term plans are to maintain the upstairs as apartments and then find a tenant to rent the main floor and operate a business of some kind. Their long-term goals include eventually converting the upstairs to an Airbnb, but they do not plan to make that switch until their current tenants decide on their own to move out.
Currently, there are six tenants in the upstairs apartments. Each apartment has three rooms which include a bedroom, sink and bathroom. Renters however share a kitchen, dining room and common area.
For careers, Jeff writes software and thus is able to work remotely, but recently landed a job with a company based in Rapid City. Kimberly has had a variety of careers in her life, which includes working in real estate, as well as retail, having previously owned and operated a sandwich shop. She however said that since suffering a traumatic brain injury during a 2004 auto accident, much in her life has changed, which is why she is so excited about their new life together in Hot Springs.
Aware of some local concern about people moving to an area and wanting to change it, Jeff Alley said, “We want to move in and fit in.”
The couple has said they have received a number of inquiries from potential business owners to rent the main floor for anything from a coffee/sandwich shop to a children’s clothing store, but as of yet, no one has committed fully to anything. The Alleys did however indicate that if no one else comes forward to rent the space, they are not opposed to opening up a business of their own by next year.
Water, Light and Power Company building
Bookending the north side of the now-vacant 300 block of North River Street at 401 N. River Street is the Water, Light and Power Company building, which also recently came under new ownership.
Jason and Resa Rutz of Hot Springs purchased the 1902-built sandstone structure in March of 2021 and immediately began remodeling the inside and preparing it to be the new home of Resa’s Polished Salon business, which was previously located inside the Simco Business Plaza.
The ‘new’ Polished Salon and Spa – which made its debut the last week of June and is located on the main storefront on the main level of the building – offers hair care, skin care, nails, full body waxing, threading, permanent makeup, massage, as well as spray tanning.
Originally constructed to serve as the town’s center for utilities, the building has a simple original design which was altered in the 1940s by the placing of “carrera” glass on the store front. This facing material was a result of the art deco movement, a decorative style of the 1920s and 1930s. Also a part of this decor is the oval window that appears in the structure’s entryway. Several additions were made to this building: the south addition was built in the 1920s and the north in the 1950s. The former has small, round arched windows with a fan-top light. Of note is how the stone sizes become smaller on the newer portions of the complex.
For the vast majority of the building’s history, it did house the town’s power company and its offices. A few years ago however, Black Hills Energy closed down its downtown Hot Springs office and sold the structure to a private individual who lived in the upstairs apartment, leased North River Street storefront to a clothier and operated a military surplus store out of the south addition.
In addition to being the new home of the Polished Salon and Spa, the Rutz family says they have plans to eventually utilize the entire building for commercial purposes to enhance the town’s business offerings.
Currently, a glass blower artist – who is owner Jason’s brother – has begun to utilize the south addition as his studio. The north addition, which has a overhead garage door that faces North River Street, is currently being cleaned up, but the Rutz’s hope to lease that to a tenant. The upstairs apartment, which at one time was used as a ‘model kitchen’ showroom for the electric company, will soon be remodeled and converted into a vacation rental that the Rutz’s will likely offer through vrbo.com.
Located next door to the north of City Hall at 309 North River Street, the 1909-built Robinson Building was purchased by Brent and Amanda Estep in 2018 and is in the process of an extensive remodel.
In terms of architecture, this building demonstrates the trend of commercial buildings becoming less ornate as the 20th century progressed. Yet, the rock-faced stone facade shows the same craftsmanship of many of Hot Springs’ downtown sandstone buildings. Only diminutive uncut modillions adorn the cornice line, while a pilaster and square column highlight the lower level. A recessed doorway with a larger upper light provides a good period example of this type of element. At one time the Robinson building housed an undertaking parlor; later a drug and variety store was here and also a dance hall on the upper floor.
Using a 1930s photo of the exterior of the building, the Esteps are planning to recreate the signage and exterior look of the building during its prime. They recently opened a family-friendly and pet-friendly General Store / Bar / Lounge where patrons are welcome to come in, have a cold beverage, play pool or throw darts. The name of the establishment is the 309 General, paying homage to their North River Street address number. It is currently open Tuesday through Sunday, from 2 p.m until at least 10 p.m., but often until 2 a.m., depending on the night and amount of customers.
The Esteps completely remodeled a portion of the upstairs and have been living in it since moving to Hot Springs from Waxahachie, Texas. Brent, who is a musician himself and the former manager of Charlie Pride and his band, often came through the Black Hills when performing in Deadwood. He said he got to know the city’s building inspector Scott Sogge which opened the door at the opportunity to purchase this building which was formerly Rick’s Retro. Amanda works in the 309 General with Brent but is also a Special Education teacher in the Hot Springs Elementary School. The couple have a combined three children who all live elsewhere.
Future plans for the rest of the building include remodeling the other half of the main floor into dining area and kitchen where they will offer a limited menu featuring only Tex-Mex tacos. The venue will also feature live music on weekends, featuring a house band as well as a rotation of other traveling musicians. Bretn said he also hopes to create a studio in the front window where local veterans will have the opportunity to do therapeutic recordings.
The Esteps also plan to remodel the rest of the upstairs, which currently allows space for at least three more apartments, which they plan to rent out on long-term leases.
The Bodega, The Petty, and The Fowler Crum & Perdue buildings
According to Hot Springs City Administrator John Gregory and Building Inspector Scott Sogge, letters were recently sent out to a three owners of vacant historic downtown buildings informing them of the city’s preservation expectations. Both Gregory and Sogge indicated positive movement with all three, which they said will hopefully ensure their fate does not follow that of the now-demolished Wesch-Oak building.
The Bodega Building, located at 611 North River Street next door to the Red Rock River Resort, was built in 1892 and has been vacant for many years and currently does not have a roof. It was owned by the Tennessee-based Milton Cattle Company, LLC, but was recently purchased by Black Hills structural engineer Lance Redinger of St. Onge.
The Bodega represents another of the Lakota sandstone structures with a denticulated cornice. Second story windows have flat-topped lintels with voussoirs. It was at one time Hot Springs’ most popular saloon and gambling hall for over 23 years. A bordello once operated on the upper north side and it has also housed a law office and a dry goods store.
According to Gregory with the City of Hot Springs, the new owner, Redinger, has indicated he will soon begin restoration efforts which includes putting in a roof.
The Petty Building, located at 143 S. Chicago, has been vacant for about a decade after a fire partially gutted the building when it was being operated as a bar known as The Hot Springs Gathering Place. The current owner is the aforementioned Milton Cattle Company, LLC, which recently sold the Bodega.
Officials with the City of Hot Springs said the owner has now hired local contractor Martin Malenke to begin work inside the building to repair the damages caused by the fire and get it ready to sell. Sogge said Malenke has also been cleaning up behind the building as well.
The first Petty Building on South Chicago was constructed in 1889 but burned soon after. It was rebuilt in 1893 and is one of the very-first stone businesses in the city and features a wide variety of stone tooling. Made from red sandstone, there are nine arches over the windows which are separated by hand-carved columns. There is also a unique carving over the doorway – the figure of a woman’s head. For many years, including during the 1970s, the building was home to the Fowler, Crum & Perdue department store.
Prior to the Fowler, Crum & Perdue moving into the Petty Building on Chicago Street, it was at one time at located between City Hall and the Hot Springs Theatre at 243 N. River Street.
That vacant building – built in 1909 and also known as the Transfer, Feed and Fuel Building – is currently owned by Robert Johnson of Arizona, who is also the same absentee owner of the now-demolished Wesch-Oak building.
In addition to the numerous retail businesses the structure once housed, the post office also occupied this building, which has a symmetrical facade. Pilasters separate the stone front’s openings with glass block being used as infill. A corner entryway has a three-quarter glass door with transom as does the southern doorway. Small modillions appear along the cornice. The streetscape displays important aspects of historic areas- rhythm and scale. Also, the utilization of the same facing materials adds a cohesive element to the historic district.
City of Hot Springs officials have attempted to contact Johnson to inform him of the need to show proof of the structure’s condition, but thus far, they have not received a response. Gregory and Sogge both said the city is currently working on securing a warrant to enter the premises to inspect the property themselves to help determine what their next steps will be.
The source of the historical information about many of the aforementioned buildings is www.soakinhotsprings.com, which is operated by the City of Hot Springs.