Northwood native turning historic building into wine bar and art gallery

Published 1:16 pm Wednesday, March 1, 2023

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NORTHWOOD — A combined new wine bar and art gallery are being added downtown in Northwood.

The space, otherwise known as the Emery building, at 828 Central Ave., was originally built and owned by George S. Emery in 1912 and purchased by Axel Johansen in 1922, where it became known as Axel’s Place. There was a bar and billiards on the first floor and a bowling alley on the second floor before it closed in 1963.

The building was added to National Register of Historical Places in 2015 and is part of the Northwood Central Avenue Historic District. The building was purchased in November 2021 by Steve Hanson, a 1990 Northwood-Kensett graduate and building owner/developer. Hanson paid $35,000.

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“I bought it because it was a great building in an ideal location in the community that I grew up,” he said. “I sort of had an inkling that it would be some type of bar, but I didn’t know exactly what.”

His plan is to restore the Emery Building with the hopes of adding to the revitalization of the Northwood Central Avenue Historic District.

Purchasing in that specific area was important to him because he wanted to restore history. He had previously thought about buying in the area, but described the decision to buy there as “right place, right time.”

“I was sort of talking to community members about the opportunity to make it a wine bar by the spring of 2022,” he said in a phone interview. “Got positive response from people in the community, so that pretty much made the decision then that that was what it was going to be.”

And for him, it made perfect sense to buy the building.

“It made [sense] to honor the community, be something that I’m interested in — which is architecture and art — and make it something unique for the community to enjoy,” he said.

That’s his ultimate goal: to honor the history of the building and the community.

The building has two floors and a basement, and Hanson wants the first floor to serve as a wine bar and gallery. He described the bar as “beautiful” and said it was set in a good location and he didn’t want to move it. In other words, it was in the perfect place.

At the same time, he wanted to honor the legacy of the old tavern bar while putting in something the community didn’t have: a wine bar.

According to Hanson, the bar will feature local wines as well as those from around the world.

Hanson wanted a gallery because it was a personal interest, and he also owns a collection and thought it would be a great opportunity to highlight work from some of his artistic friends.

“Both the wine bar and art gallery are new businesses for the community,” he said.

The space will feature work by Gary Kelley, Richard Pinney and other Iowa artists, and some of the works will be for sale. Part of the art on display will be in a permanent collection.

“The vision is to basically get the project done, open it up and then have a place where people can enjoy coming in and have a nice glass of wine, enjoy conversation, enjoy looking at artwork from not only Iowa artists. Ultimately I’ll be doing art shows from other artists with local and international [artists].”

His goal is to have 20 to 30 pieces on each floor at any one time.

He also wants live music and for the place to become somewhere for visitors to discover the arts and for artists to feel appreciated.

Because of the limited options in the area, Hanson felt it was important to bring art.

“There isn’t an art gallery, there isn’t a live music venue,” Hanson said.

He also argued rural communities facing decline embraced art as a way to support economic development. And that support also attracted artists to move to the area, which in turn sparked tourism.

The second floor will contain one apartment, a business office and an art gallery.

While working on this, Hanson was surprised to see how much the building had changed from its origins as well as the time it took to restore it to its original state, and admitted the entire project wasn’t cheap.

“These projects are more a labor of love,” he said, adding cash flow wise these types of projects didn’t pencil out.”

His interest in the arts started when he was young and had the opportunity to visit museums with the local 4-H club.

His interest in collecting was after he started working for an advertisement agency out of college in Des Moines.

“The owner of that agency also owned the art gallery in Des Moines, or was part-owner,” he said. “He started exposing me to more art and artists and so that’s where my spark began.”

He currently doesn’t have a timeframe for when he’d like the project to break even by.

“The community has been very, very supportive, very excited about not only what it’s going to be,” he said. “Already the changes have been dramatic, and people are very excited about the renovation.”

The contractor for the project is Springer Construction. Northwood Electric is providing electrical power, while Thofson Plumbing, Heating & Cooling are responsible for plumbing. Northwood Sanitation did the tearout.

Spatial Designs Architects are the architects, and Mason City Glass is providing glass and doors.

“My heart’s been warmed by the response from the community and it’s been very grateful, very appreciative,” he said.

Hanson currently lives in Arizona, but plans to move back to the family farmstead in 2024.