Tackling history’s leftovers

Where one person might see an old, dilapidated building in a rundown part of town, Larry Breidenbach sees hidden treasure.

The next step on his list of plans for Tiffin’s historical buildings is under way.

He has purchased an apartment building on North Monroe Street in the Fort Ball area across from Tiffin Train Depot, and he’s restoring the building to its original storefront look from the early 1900s when it was home to various businesses.

“Plural,” he said. “There was more than one.”

At the same time, he’s creating three upscale apartments inside, which are to be ready to rent in about a year.

“This is a hidden treasure down here,” he said. “It’s unique.”

The apartments’ first floors are to have an open living design, while the second floors will be devoted to bedrooms.

“These won’t be white, vanilla rooms. They will be exotic apartments,” he said. “Two of the apartments will have balconies.”

Those balconies overlook The Depot across the street, Breidenbach’s original renovation project.

From the balconies, residents will be able hear frogs in the ponds and birds singing in the trees across the street.

“There’s all kinds of wildlife down here because we put those ponds in,” he said. “One night, I got here and found a crane standing there eating my goldfish. … You never know what you’re going to find. It’s a little wildlife sanctuary in the heart of the city.”

Even the proximity to railroad tracks is a positive, according to Breidenbach, because it adds to the area’s historical flavor.

“It’s just neat to see the trains go by,” he said. “It’s neat to sit up there and watch them. They’re how the infrastructure of America rolls, literally.”

He looks back in his mind’s historical eye and sees vibrancy and life.

“The heart of the city was right here,” he said. “Lots of businesses started right here.”

His Breidenbach Painting business has been one of the occupants.

“One quarter of that building was the first building I ever bought,” he said. “I always said, ‘someday, I’m going to make it beautiful.’ … It took 24 years for me to get the whole building.”

But he didn’t wait until he owned the building to make an improvement. His first step was to paint the outside of the building.

“I knew the other owners would gladly let me paint it for free,” he said. “They bought the paint and I painted it.”

Now that he owns it, the building is getting new plumbing, wiring, windows and carpets.

The building was “remuddled,” as Breidenbach says, into 16 apartments in the 1960s and ’70s. It was divided into sections and drop ceilings were added.

However, the tin ceilings remain, as well as other architectural features he plans to uncover.

“The original ceilings will be shown and painted,” he said. “The tinwork is gorgeous. … The coolest thing is going to be making that front original. It has architectural features. They’re still there, just covered up.”

As he looks across the street, Breidenbach notices a young man sitting on a rock he placed along the walking trail next to The Depot.

He said that young person is a good example of the reason he works hard.

He has a personal refrain he returns to often.

“It’s positive for the community,” he said. “It’s good for Tiffin, for the community’s future. … We have two universities here. There are a lot of people who come here from out of town.”

He said the universities have rented The Depot for various events and he enjoys educating the students about the building and its historical significance to Tiffin.

“The trains left back in ’72 when Conrail took over,” he said. “Now, the trains are making a resurgence, which makes this even more important.”

The restored depot is one of six that originally stood in the same vicinity, serving three railroad lines.

“That’s why this is a treasure,” he said. “It’s the only one left.”

Breidenbach bought the depot in April 2001 and has spent 13 years working on it – so far.

After the first three years, he started renting it and hosting events. His annual event is a community Christmas party with a band and food.

“Admission charge is to bring a gift for a kid,” he said.

Gifts are donated to local organizations to pass along to children in need.

“It boggles my mind how this Christmas party does,” he said. “The acoustics in there are fabulous. I set the bands in the old freight room.”

The outside landscaping was a project new to him when he started.

“I looked at magazines,” he said. “The only thing I understood at first is you have to have rock to build, so I went out and got rock. … All the stone was donated by farmers.”

He simply put an ad in the newspaper making a request for field stone that would not be for resale.

“It’s all local stone,” he said.

He fashioned those rocks into ponds and walkways, and now he enjoys sitting by water features listening to water splashing.

“When I was restoring this, I went and found the coolest shrubs and conifers,” he said. “I wanted this neighborhood to look so neat. … I’ve had nothing but positive remarks about this down here, from city leaders to the different groups of people who come here,” he said.

“We’ve had several weddings here,” he said. “A city councilman got married here.”

The depot is next to a bike path where an old rail line used to run.

He invites people who are using the trail to stop for a rest in the parklike setting.

“That’s why it’s so good for the community,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what station you are in life, you can appreciate this. The little kids who come down here are just amazing. There’s always people here because it’s just fun down here.”

The setting fits in with plans to connect the walking trails in Tiffin and Seneca County to provide residents with an alternate form of transportation and recreation. He’s proud to have created a picnic spot along the way.

But local people aren’t the only ones noticing.

Breidenbach said The Depot has been a tourist attraction since he started renovations. People find it online when searching Ohio train stations and historical markers.

“My biggest dream is to get this thing on Home and Garden TV, or something like that,” he said. “Can you imagine how much attention that would bring to Tiffin?”

Breidenbach, a Tiffin native, admits he has invested lots of money into The Depot, but doesn’t get much back out.

His other renovation projects and his future apartment rentals will help recoup some of the money he has spent.

“We created something that was a negative and turned it into a positive,” he said. “Only a private investor would do this.”

Why does he do it?

“One, it’s fun,” he said. “Two, it’s what I do.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I just want to share this with the community. … Why not make our community a little bit better, especially since I’m blessed with the ability to do it. You can get lost in a quagmire of negativity. I’m Mr. Positivity. I’ve learned to persevere my whole life.”

Breidenbach attributes his work ethic to his parents, now ages 95 and 91.

“I own a painting company, Breidenbach Painting,” he said. “But while I was growing up, they said you have to have two jobs. You have to work.”

It was while doing that work his revitalization dreams emerged.

“One-third of that same building is what got me down here,” he said.

As he worked in that building painting shutters or countless other tasks, he would gaze across the street to a dilapidated train depot, and a plan began to form in his mind.

He wanted to restore the depot and make it beautiful.

“I just started buying buildings,” he said. “And I started with that one.”

One of his greatest joys is knowing his parents have gotten to see his progress, he said.

He proudly shows copies of a brochure from the visitors bureau and a past cover of the A-T’s Seasonal Guides of Ohio showing pictures of The Depot and the historical marker in front.

“Just look at the positive things this does for our community,” he said.

Among his keepsakes, he finds news and feature stories written about his progress through the years in the A-T. Among them are newspapers dated Nov. 2, 2004, Nov. 12, 2006, and Dec. 5, 2011.

One of them recounts his purchase and renovation of The Depot.

Another tells of his purchase and plans for The Berlin at 36 Hudson St., which was built and run as a brothel in the early 1900s before it closed in 1921.

That was the 12th building rehab project he had accomplished.

His latest project isn’t the end of Breidenbach’s plans for Tiffin’s historic buildings.

“I just bought another one at the junction of Rock Creek and the Sandusky River,” he said. “I’ll call it the 1871 Shoe Factory.”