Downtown Living - Part 2

In Part 2 of a series, we visit homes in the heart of Huntington.

By Shelly Betz

Sitting in the executive conference room at the historic Frederick Building in downtown Huntington, attorney and businessman John Hankins has a special kind of energy. Hankins has spent the bulk of the past 40 years buying, renovating and selling commercial real estate properties. Admittedly, his real estate interests are primarily restricted to buildings that are far older than himself. You might say it’s a life-long passion.

“There’s just something really special about old buildings,” Hankins says. “They come with a story all their own. Enhancing them is a hobby for me.”

Frederick Building

As the son of a railroad executive and homemaker-turned-kindergarten teacher, whose family relocated from Richmond, Va., to live in Huntington when he was a young boy, Hankins’ incredible hobby of transforming seemingly burdensome aging properties into crowning jewels is what he knows best. When he speaks about his experiences with the many properties he has owned over time, there’s a history lesson attached to each one. He rattles off years, dates and special features as if he has made a mental notation about each of his most prized conquests. But none is more special than his current project at the Frederick Building.

“I bought my first buildings in the Village of Barboursville on Main Street and Central Avenue from the Poindexter family more than 40 years ago,” Hankins says.

Although he would later sell most of the buildings along that block, Hankins retained ownership over the space that is home to the Blackhawk Grille. Among the many other buildings Hankins once owned is the famed St. James Building in downtown Huntington. Over time, the first floor has been home to several banks, including one that failed during the Great Depression. “That building has some of the most exquisite architecture I have ever seen,” Hankins says. “There truly is nothing like it in town. When you walk in there, it takes your breath away and I’m in awe of its grandeur.” 

Still, it is the historic Frederick Building that has captured his attention like no other project has. Built in 1906, it was originally owned by the Ritter family. With its six floors and 240,000 square feet of space, it operated as Huntington’s most exclusive hotel. In 1947, the hotel underwent its first renovation, which included an art deco style. This is perhaps most evident in the main lobby of the building, replete with its 35-feet high Tiffany stained-glass dome and walls adorned with memorabilia from yesteryears.

Frederick Building

Prior to Hankins purchasing the Frederick Building in 1999, the Ritter family converted it to a combination of commercial office space and several exclusive corporate apartments in 1971. Back then, the railroad and steel companies flourished and executives welcomed the opportunity to stay in such luxurious living quarters. Even former President Richard L. Nixon once stayed in the property’s presidential suite.

Shortly after assuming ownership of the Frederick, Hankins focused on renovating the lobby area, whose rich tones and textured walls make it one of the most charming spaces in all of downtown.

“It is designed to impress everyone who walks through here. In 1962, there was a restaurant called the Elephant Walk,” Hankins says. “It was named after a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor.”

Frederick Building

Next on the to-do list was to upgrade the sprawling hallways and common areas of the floors above. The walls were patched and painted in warm, golden hues with improved lighting to lend extra beauty.

For John Hankins, having a revitalized downtown district involves having people live in buildings that provide convenience and luxury.

“People might be surprised to know that 50 percent of available office space in Huntington is not occupied,” Hankins says. “I’m trying to change that, because this town is special in so many ways.”

Over the past ten years, Hankins has renovated 16 of these upscale apartments, one of which sold as a condominium. Thirty more are planned. The majority of them are one-bedroom spaces, with nine-feet-high ceilings, rich tones and distinctive features that are simply breathtaking.

Frederick Building

The eclectic style and penchant for high-end furnishings and collectibles to improve the aesthetics of century-old buildings has some among John Hankins’ family wondering if it’s worth the money and time he invests. He has been known to spend as much as $100,000 on an antique fireplace, and bought an 1800s gentleman’s wardrobe to retro-fit into one of the units at the Frederick.

“One day these things might translate into a profit for our grandchildren if we hang on to them long enough,” Hankins says.

There is one feature throughout the Frederick apartments that might cause you to question whether John missed his calling as an architect or interior designer. Directly over the kitchen sink of each apartment is an artistic rendition of a classic painting that can be seen through a framed windowpane. From Claude Monet to Vincent Van Gogh, it brings new meaning to “kitchen duty.”

This unique design element is as deliberate as John’s intentions.

Frederick Building

“No two are the same,” Hankins explains.“If you’re washing the dishes, why should you have to look up and see a blank wall? At least for a short period of time, you feel as if you are in a faraway place. People appreciate it.”

John Hankins believes the future is bright for downtown living at the Fredrick. Over the next year, more than 200 apartments are set to be renovated in the downtown area alone. For naysayers who think he may be misguided in his efforts and passion to revitalize downtown living, he simply says, “They may be right, but I sure am having fun doing it.”

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