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Developer seeking to rehabilitate Niles Masonic Temple built in 1923

NILES — In November, the historic Masonic Temple at 22 W. Church St. was included on a list of city properties declared “insecure, unsafe, structurally defective and / or unfit for human habitation.”

The establishment sat empty for several years. Vandals trashed the building and smashed every area of the structure they could reach. A corner inside the temple was even charred from a fire set in 2022.

The property, as well as 14 others throughout the city, was voted by council to be sent to the Trumbull County Land Reutilization Corporation for nuisance abatement and demolition with funds from the Ohio Department of Development.

Now, the building in Niles has the potential for new life after being purchased by a local developer in a sheriff’s sale earlier this year.

In January, Dominic L Gatta III, president of the Gatta Construction Co. and a city resident, acquired the building for $40,700, according to the Trumbull County Auditor’s website.

While walking through the building this month, every step Gatta took resulted in the harsh crunch of broken glass underfoot. Once-ornate lighting fixtures above had been shattered.

On another floor, what once was plaster lining the walls and ceilings of the temple sat on the floor in mucky piles. The mounds of plaster looked like sand but stuck to shoes like mud.

Religious literature lined the back of pews remaining from the building’s most recent venture as home to Genesis Christian Community Center. Half of a Bible-themed word search sat among the glass shards on the floor.

To most, the current condition of the Niles Masonic Temple would seem grim. To Gatta, the historic building brims with potential.

“It actually looks a lot worse than it is,” Gatta said. “You have original terrazzo floors and the concrete structure. Everything is sound. Like I said, it honestly looks a lot worse than it is.”

Gatta does not know yet what sort of business the temple could hold. A key factor of the rehabilitation will be handling the temple’s historic nature.

HISTORY

The Niles Masonic Temple was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

The register is “part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate and protect America’s historic and archaeological resources,” according to the National Park Service website.

According to documents provided by the National Parks, the Niles temple, which was completed in 1923, is considered significant as an example of early 20th century, classical revival style architecture.

The temple “is one of few remaining buildings located in Niles’

historic downtown from this early 20th century period of growth and development in the community,” the document states.

The document also indicated the building is representative of Masonic values in the city.

According to the auditor’s website, the building was sold by the Niles Masonic Temple Association to Genesis Christian Community Center for $60,000 in 2009.

Charles Chagnot, secretary for Niles McKinley Lodge 794, said the temple initially housed two lodges — Mahoning Lodge 394 and Sincerity Lodge 694.

Chagnot recalls Masonic emblems plastered throughout the building, including on the original door knobs, which were removed and installed on the doors in the Niles lodge’s new home on Shannon Road in Girard.

Chagnot said he joined the lodge in 1970 and has been with it since.

“There was a ballroom there; they used to hold dances back in the early days of it,” Chagnot said. “It was quite a lodge to begin with.”

On the auditor’s website, the property showed more than $26,000 in delinquent taxes last year.

Niles Mayor Steve Mientkiewicz said the temple has sat vacant for “quite some time.” He could not recall the most recent tenant to actually occupy the building. He said in his six years as mayor, multiple developers have inquired about the building, but none have gotten very far.

“It’s been a vicious cycle with that building,” Mientkiewicz said. “When we had thought we had developers or property owners willing to take the necessary steps to revitalize the building, they all of a sudden walk away. Then, we’re stuck with a vacant, blighted building in the city of Niles.”

Mientkiewicz said the Niles building department conducted an assessment of the temple to provide the city with reasons to apply for grant money for a potential demolition. Mientkiewicz noted several issues including water and fire damage.

“There is going to be, in my opinion, a substantial amount of money needed to be invested in that property to bring it up to code, to make it habitable for us to grant an occupancy permit,” he said.

Mientkiewicz said Gatta has the experience needed for such a project.

HISTORIC EXPERIENCE

Gatta said the budget for the temple renovation is about $5 million. He said the historic register designation creates some restrictions for its renovation.

“There’s guidelines for historic preservation, they call them preservation briefs,” Gatta said. “There’s a preservation brief for windows, wood flooring, paint, you name it, There’s like 40 different briefs. When you’re redoing the building, they want you to follow those.”

Gatta also said the register does not allow developers to alter the building’s “historic flow of traffic.”

As an example, Gatta pointed to the temple’s first-floor ballroom and auditorium. He said altering the auditorium by turning it into several, smaller rooms, would not be allowed as it would go against the building’s historic standard.

“It’s stuff I would probably do regardless,” Gatta said.

The Niles Masonic Temple will be the fourth historic building Gatta has had a hand in renovating.

He said he renovated and still owns the Federal Building in Youngstown, which holds V2 Wine Bar Trattoria restaurant and apartments. Another Youngstown building Gatta renovated was the Gallagher Building.

“I actually got that building listed on the national registry and went through the whole historic program and got the credits,” Gatta said. “I ended up selling that.”

Another of Gatta’s Youngstown projects was a historical mansion in Wick Park.

“The preservation work … we’ve done a couple things commercially, but for the most part, it’s been personal projects,” Gatta said.

Comparing the Masonic temple to those he worked on in Youngstown, Gatta called the Niles property a gem.

Because of the temple’s historical nature, Gatta can apply for state and federal tax credits.

He said the state credit, through the Ohio Department of Development, could cover 35% of the project’s qualified renovation expenses.

The federal credit, through the National Park’s State Historic Preservation Offices, could cover 20% of the project’s qualified renovation expenses.

“So when this thing’s all said and done, we potentially have 55% of the building, through qualified renovation expenses, paid for,” Gatta said.

Gatta said the application for funds through SHPO is due Feb. 29, and the ODOD application is due April 1.

He said he already has been working with Phillips Sekanick Architects Inc. of Warren on developing floor plans and other details.

CITY’S ROLE

As Gatta stood in the third-floor lodge room of the Masonic temple, describing how he plans to give the structure new life, another historical building in the city was facing a strikingly different fate.

Construction crews have continued to chip away at the former Niles theater on South Main Street throughout February.

The theater was a popular site in Niles from the 1930s through the 1950s before closing in the 1960s. It sat vacant for decades.

The old Reisman’s Furniture store next to the theater was demolished last year.

Mientkiewicz called historic buildings “a good thing to have,” in smaller, downtown areas.

The mayor said the city went as far as including Gatta’s plans in the city’s application for grant dollars through the state’s Appalachian Community Grant Program for “consulting, funding for architecture and engineering for the building, for his property.”

He said Gatta’s project was included along with aspects of the city’s downtown revitalization plan which includes constructing a urban entertainment district downtown, at the site of the former theater, and a canoe and kayak launch on the bank of the Mahoning River.

“We are trying to facilitate methods of funding for that property owner through a public-private partnership,” Mientkiewicz said.

Mientkiewicz said any such partnership requires private developers with “a little bit of vision and a lot of financial backing.”

“Again, that is ultimately what I would have liked to see for the theater building,” Mientkiewicz said. “I said it 100 times, if there was a developer willing to present a viable plan to me and to the city to rehab that theater building, we would have stopped that demolition immediately.”

As the Masonic temple is just one of two buildings in the city on the National Register of Historic Places — the other being the McKinley Memorial — Mientkiewicz said he hopes Gatta can present a viable plan and has the financial backing needed for the project.

OTHER TEMPLES

Standing outside the temple, Gatta pointed to pieces of the building’s facade and its front stairway that either needed to be repaired or completely replaced.

“A lot of this stuff could be replicated,” Gatta said. “This is definitely craftsman stuff here, but again, this is like a fun project. We’re going to find that molding and we’re going to find this piece, we’re going to find all these pieces. … Even the spindles and stuff over there, we can replicate all that. Hopefully, it’s going to look like it did 100 years ago.”

Gatta, a 1997 graduate of McKinley High School, said he always drove by the temple growing up, but he never knew what was inside.

“I love the historic preservation part,” Gatta said. “You learn a little bit about each building, some stuff you would’ve never (known).”

Gatta said there are about five other historic Masonic temples that have been repurposed in Ohio.

“Some of the other ones have been in larger cities,” Gatta said. “The one in Columbus, it’s a music venue / convention center type thing. A little different, we don’t quite have that opportunity. We have to be a little more selective and I think creative with what the use is going to be. But, again, they’ve seen these masonic temples go through this same historic preservation process and they’ve been successful. I feel this is going to be just as successful.”

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