Once, the upstairs of the Lyric Hall building on State Street hosted cotillions, concerts and theater. Retail shops did business on the street level of the red brick building, located just down the sidewalk from the Mohican Hotel.
Now Lyric Hall is filled with debt and dreams. It is one of three buildings on upper State Street where a row of six street-level vacancies illustrate many of the city's challenges: old structures in desperate need of major renovations; an out-of-state owner who did not try to market the property from afar; and small businesses that try to succeed on their own, hoping they aren't swallowed up by the emptiness on either side of them.
When Dylan Gaffney and Gregory Nersesyan bought the building at 243 State St. in November 2004, they inadvertently started in the hole.
First, they probably paid too much. The previous owners, BF LLC, paid $200,000 for the 5,092-square-foot building just 14 months earlier, intending to convert it into condominiums. When the condo plan faltered, BF LLC sold it to Gaffney and Nersesyan, doing business as Russia on the Sound LLC, for $350,000.
The business partners, fueled by their vision of international theater and exchange programs in the grand old building, invested another $250,000 - mostly their own money, Gaffney said - for asbestos abatement, a new roof and windows.
Then, as is often the case with an enormous project, the pair lost momentum. They were staring at $600,000 in debt, and possibly another several hundred thousand in renovations. And their resources didn't extend much past their personal bank accounts.
They put the building on the market for $525,000. There was hardly a nibble.
"The last two years," Gaffney said, "we've been hobbling along. We're not corporate. We're just individuals who love the building."
Now, the two have decided to try again. They are renovating a street-level space where The Whaler restaurant used to be and hope that, by filling the two first-floor retail spaces, they will earn some capital to restore the upstairs.
The layouts of the second and third floors are conducive to classrooms and meeting space, and Gaffney pictures apartments on the fourth floor.
They hope to use their nonprofit ASTI-USA Foundation - created to support Russian theater and arts initiatives - to raise funds and make the renovations happen.
"We're circling back around to it now and trying to … spread your losses over a few years and kind of soldier up and get ready for the next bout, really," Gaffney said. "What we really don't want that building to turn into is condos. We're trying our hardest to hang onto it and to lovingly restore it."
Gaffney said she feels the setbacks when she is away from the building for any stretch of time.
"But every time I walk back in," she said, "I get renewed hope."
Lori Hopkins believes a widespread investment in the city's buildings would help landlords charge higher rents, which would help them maintain the buildings. That would break the cycle in which decrepit buildings mean low rents, which means less money for maintenance.
Hopkins considers her purchase of the building at 253 State St., known as the Barrows Building, a bargain even though she bought it "in very poor condition."
"I put over $200,000 into the building, and you'd never know it," she said.
Hopkins said she installed new heating and HVAC systems and new roofs - there are two, and she just did the second - and finished the second floor.
Now the building is vacant after a burst pipe last winter caused damage from the third floor down, forcing out a street-level tenant, Roberto's Bakery. Rat traps line the interior walls.
She'd like to turn the building into Class A office space, the kind that commands the highest leases. For the high-end apartments she's considering putting upstairs, Hopkins would need to install sprinklers.
Hopkins said start-up businesses ask her constantly whether they can receive free rent for a time if they put money into the building. Hopkins' answer is always the same: "No, I want to put money into my building and then you pay for a good space."
Hopkins believes in an international-shops concept once proposed for the downtown: a collection of stores with international or ethnic themes, which would pool their efforts in promotion.
"It's going to start with the landlords, and it's going to start with a plan, like a vision and someone to implement it," Hopkins said. "And that's it."
281 State St.
Two of the three storefronts at this address have been vacant, said broker Susan Howard, for as long as she's been in real estate, 15 years.
"I can't ever remember anybody there," she said.
The Mohican Historic Housing Association, based in New York, owns the property, including the Mohican Hotel and the building that houses the Yah-Ta-Hey Gallery and the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra.
Howard said the company finally agreed to list the building with her firm, U.S. Properties, last December. No local broker had ever had a key to the building, she said.
Howard said she has shown spaces in the building to a photography company and a hair and nail salon.
Jeff Brodsky, president of Related Housing Corp. in New York, which is listed as the management company for Mohican, said in a voice mail message that he didn't have any information about the building; Brodsky said he has information only on the hotel.
Howard said upper State Street, with the Garde Arts Center, Hanafin's Irish Pub and new businesses, is loaded with potential.
"People like that end of State Street," she said. "There's a lot going on there."