In Monday’s post I mentioned that I have successfully sold my house at about a $9,000 profit, sans realtor. And I also mentioned that legally, I currently don’t own a home. With February 1st (my deadline for new occupancy) fast approaching and my moving target of 1/22 – 1/25 just around the corner, I am spending every waking moment this week scouring Harrisburg for decent apartments.
The first place I checked out has the most checkered past out of all of Harrisburg’s complexes. If you’ve had the pleasure of visiting Grayco Associates sometime prior to the early- to mid-2000s, you already know exactly what I’m talking about. If not, well … put simply, the previous owners let an otherwise-beautiful 1930s-era art-deco midrise decay into a dump.
This week I took a tour of the place just to see if anything had actually, you know, fallen in on itself. I invited my friend Jamie along for the ride. “If it’s such a dump, why are you even going to see it?” she asked. “Same reason you test drive a Hyundai,” I replied. There was an awkward silence when we were both expecting a clever second part to my reasoning that never came. The best I could manage was “Look, there’s Firehouse. We’re here.”
It turns out that back in 2000, a new owner bought the property as a distressed building. They’ve spent the past ten years fighting to reverse the building’s decay, and they’ve made amazing progress. I never thought I’d say this, but aside from a few shortcomings, Grayco may actually be the best midrise in downtown Harrisburg.
I know. Read it again; I said what you thought I said. I’ll wait while you ponder that.
Grayco is located on North Street between Front & Second, more or less across from the Y. It was built in 1938 and at one point was owned by Ollie Rosenberg (yes, that Ollie). The building is a deco-style 7-story midrise with a U-shaped footprint and miniature terraces flanking the setback. The signage is minimal, but the building is impossible to miss.
I buzzed the office and met with Ann, the building manager. Ann was very well versed on the building’s history, as well as its reputation, and did not hesitate to explain all the improvements they had made. Ann was extremely friendly and helpful, and even stayed well past her normal closing time to put up with our barrage of questions.
Grayco is one of two downtown apartment complexes that includes ALL utilities — even electric — with your rent.
What makes Grayco unique is that it’s now the oldest surviving large apartment complex in the city. Riverview was actually older by about ten years, but it’s been pimped out as condos. River Plaza hails from the 1950s, and both Executive House and Towne House are from the 1960s. Pennsylvania Place is from the 1970s, and although Old City Hall outlives them all, it was only converted to apartments in the 1980s. Ditto for Simon-Cameron School.
Ann told us about all the improvements the new owners had made in the last ten years. Regular exterminators have wiped out the persistent pests (downtown living in ANY city requires CONSTANT pest control). Lease-free tenants were put back under lease or evicted. The lobby was refreshed, leaks were fixed, the rooftop deck was re-opened, and it appears they’ve done everything they could to favor renovation over demolition.
Buried under decades of neglect are shiny parquet floors, vintage 1930s fixtures, and art-deco accents out the wazoo. The hallways have been restored to an almost-original cream-and-navy-blue scheme. The windows and refrigerators have all been replaced with modern high-efficiency units. The elevators have been modernized, though the original hall buttons remain. And as far as I can tell, the original tile bathrooms have been polished up but left fully in-tact.
But the retro character of the building didn’t fully hit us until we walked into the apartments. Take the doors, for example. Art-deco backplates on the doorknobs and one-inch-wide peep holes (without lenses) let you know that the building is from a completely different era. And in addition to the main door, each apartment has a second “screen door” leading to the hallway. Only they’re angled wooden slats instead of a screen. This allows some degree of privacy (and pet control) while improving ventilation. The building has large fans on the roof that draw air through the hallways — state of the art climate control for 1938, and considerably less power-hungry than air conditioning.
Craftsman-style built-in bookcases line the exterior walls in the main room and some dining rooms. Walk into the bathrooms, and you’ll see period tilework and mirrors (the sinks and toilets are all being replaced as the apartments vacate). Steam heat completes the draw back to the pre-war era. Dark parquet floors are a far cry from today’s neutral-everything take-no-chances color palettes.
But what impresses me the most is the quality of the restoration. It’s obvious that a lot of time and care went into turning the place around. And having seen the building before the new owners were in charge, I can confidently say that the differences are noticeable. Back in 1998 I took a tour of the building as a prospective tenant. What I remember most — aside from the garbage piled in the leasing office and used-car-dealer attitude of the leasing agent — is the way the elevators would shake violently when they abruptly stopped at a floor (“What the hell was that all about?” I asked the leasing agent. He just shrugged and said “springs”).
Although the elevators are much better now, the building still falls short in a few areas that are important to me. There is no on-site parking, there are no dishwashers, and there is no air conditioning. They will provide you with a window AC unit (which they will install) for $40 / month, but you only get one. If you have a one- or two-bedroom unit, that’s a problem. And since these are major disadvantages when compared against the rest of Harrisburg’s apartment complexes, I think the price of $750 for the one-bedroom is a little high.
My decision is going to be harder than I thought. I initially assumed I would just be moving back into Executive House, but after seeing Grayco I’m not so sure.
Tomorrow I’ll check out Pennsylvania Place. This week I’ll also be checking out Towne House, Old City Hall, and Executive House, as well as a few private downtown & midtown rentals. If you have an apartment or townhome for rent in the downtown / midtown area, drop me a line and let me know.