Downtown building gets facelift, new purpose

The Dunnings hope to return retail to the Whiteside Building and possibly have living space upstairs.

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Work continues Saturday morning on the historic Whiteside Building at 51 E. Main Street.

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A worker tapes plastic around windows of the Whiteside Building at 51 E. Main St. early Saturday morning as part of renovation work to the historic building.

WALLA WALLA - Memories of the Whiteside Building came back to Ron and Dana Dunning with every sweep across the facade Friday.

"I used to dance there when it was The Zodiac," Dana reminisced as she stood across the street from the 1890 property watching workers on a lift apply a new face on the building.

In the '60s, her husband added, scores of drivers would pass the Main Street building while they "cruised the gut." National and regional retail chains speckled the downtown landscape back then, he said.

The Dunnings' vision for the property's future is in some ways not so different. They see the building at 51 E. Main St. as a potential hub of downtown activity with retail on the main floor. But they also see a place for downtown residents on the upper level. And for a building that has been out of commission for several years, both facets are a major undertaking.

Gutted inside, the building's renovation has resumed after a quiet couple of years.

Long known as the home of Sporleders Clothing and, in more recent history, Walla Walla Clothing Co., it was virtually empty after the relocation of the latter. By 2004 after Walla Walla Clothing moved farther east of the property, the building housed seasonal operations that came and went.

That happened until 2006 when Raffaele Exiana and Ron Williams bought the property. The two had a plan for a boutique hotel, an upscale restaurant, rooftop garden and event space. They had gotten part of the way there with interior demolition and a healthy start into the facade restoration.

But after the economy crashed, they struggled to sell the property and it was eventually taken by the bank, officials said. It sat empty and without an owner for more than a year.

The Dunnings, who also own Dunning Irrigation Supply in Touchet, drove by it and wondered about the possibilities.

It took nearly a year to work out details, Ron Dunning said. According to the Walla Walla County Assessor's Office the Dunning's purchase price was $700,000 - almost half a million dollars less than the building sold for in 2006. The sale closed July 1.

Over the next several days the transformation of the facade with stucco work and fresh colors will be complete. That's a phase USKH Inc. architectural designer Alex DeMambro, who is working with the Dunnings on the project, said will be key to marketing the property.

"What these guys are doing is really a service to downtown," he said. "It's saving a piece of architecture."

It will also have had a lasting impression from its previous owners. Exiana, a designer, was able to recreate features from the original building's heyday for the facade.

"It's going to be elegant," DeMambro said. "It's going to be the building."

Dunning said he'd like to have work complete and tenants in place by June.

With work on the outside of the building nearly complete, general contractor Terry Brown of Brown's Construction can continue interior construction through the winter months, Dunning said.

The next step will be finding a retailer for the roughly 4,500-square-foot main floor. The Dunnings hope to attract a national or regional operator.

They will also determine how many units for the upper-level residences. Numerous details have yet to be determined, but that's the exciting part, the couple said.

"I like creating," Ron Dunning said. "I like seeing something happening. It's a nice challenge. I think it's going to be exciting."

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