DAYTON — If anyone could pinpoint the weaknesses in a 137-year-old building, it would surely be the roofer.

That’s what Kim Lyonnais told himself as layer upon layer of roofing material came off the Day Block building while he and the property’s co-owner Blaine Bickelhaupt braced for the worst about their new investment.

But two months after the start of a massive revitalization at 211 E. Main St., the building that sat vacant more than a decade continues to pleasantly surprise them.

“The bones are here to do it right,” Lyonnais marveled last week.

A major revitalization of the historic property carries promise of more economic development for the county already reaping the construction benefit of the straw pulp mill outside of Starbuck and the “re-powering” of the Marengo wind project.

This time, though, the investment is on Main Street, bringing back to life a building that helped the town get its start.

“It’s been an eyesore for a long time,” Bickelhaupt lamented.

Popularly referred to as the Frontier Too property for the name of a longtime tavern that operated there, the building was named to the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation’s Endangered Properties List in 2009. It’s remained there ever since.

A real estate broker and co-owner of Blue Mountain Realtors, Bickelhaupt had listed the building several years ago before he approached his friend, Lyonnais, about buying it together.

A union carpenter before joining the public sector in government work as a planning director, including for Columbia County before retiring in 2017, Lyonnais was immediately drawn to the project.

In April, they began the work of tearing down the drop ceilings, unearthing artifacts from the tavern days, finding a way to explore the upstairs and discovering the pristine brick that sits underneath the plaster on the walls.

It’s not all intact, of course. In late 2008 the building reportedly closed because of a partial roof collapse. But the damage is not nearly as bad as originally feared. The removal of a hatch and lack of support caused the damage, Lyonnais said. Nevertheless, it’s hardly irreparable.

For those who remember the spot as home of the best pizza in town — which is most people who remember the late owners Harry and Sylvia Gladden — walking into it was almost as if stepping into a time capsule.

Nearly completely intact from a period when the couple’s sons made a go of the business following Harry’s 2006 death after 25 years of ownership, keys to some of the equipment were still dangling from a hook at the bar, a photo of Gladden’s Bronco hung on the wall, paperwork was still in the drawer of a desk someone could easily have been sitting at a week ago. That also left items such as the air hockey table, dart boards, beer signs and a beloved jukebox stocked with 45s inside, too.

The open door of the building has been an invitation to passers-by to drop in and see it, too.

“A lot of people have come in to revisit their past,” Lyonnais said.

Lyonnais and Bickelhaupt said the basement is practically impeccable dating back to the 1930s when the space was used as a parts house and service center, lined with shelving for tools and more.

The building is a half-block remnant of what was a larger structure constructed in 1882. It’s what remained after a fire burned the other portions.

According to a description reported in 2009: The original Italianate-style Day Block featured 11 round-arched windows, cast iron storefronts and a bold projecting cornice at the roofline.

Separate from its architectural significance, the building’s history is associated with the Day family and stands as one of the earlier two-story commercial structures in the town.

Miraculously, Lyonnais and Bickelhaupt found the original 10-foot windows that had been removed and boarded.

What they don’t yet have is a staircase leading to what will be the initial focus of their revitalization: upstairs apartment units.

“The one question we get most often is ‘What are you going to do here?’” Lyonnais said.

“The goal is to have apartments done and open in a year.”

The space upstairs has been unused since the 1950. A lot of the walls are already finished on the upper floor, he said. The goal is to offer four apartments, but if it doesn’t work there could be two two-bedroom units instead. Ceilings will be 16 feet high, and some will have skylights.

Main Street has had no shortage of demand for residential units. Even before they’ve been constructed, one potential resident has already asked to be added to a possible tenant list, the duo marveled.

The main floor ideas are still a work in progress. Bickelhaupt said the space could be built-to-suit for potential merchants that come forward.

Next door to their building is the Weinhard hotel, the gorgeous property meticulously revitalized 25 years ago and serving as a gem on Main Street.

“The bar was set with the Weinhard, and now we’re next to it,” Lyonnais said.

What they envision is a building that sparks demand.

Part of the crowning glory and the final piece will be the facade work, Lyonnais said.

“We’re saving the best for last when we put the hat on the front,” he said. “It’s going to be a ‘Wow.’”

When it’s finished the building could be a draw for Main Street, they hope.

“I think Dayton’s a gem to be found,” Bickelhaupt said.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321, vickihillhouse@wwub.com or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/VickiHillhouse.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.

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