Johanna Calfee envisioned a London storefront for the building at 801 Church Street across from the Virginian Hotel.
It was the project Johanna and her husband Daryl Calfee, owners of Penny Lane Properties, had been looking for for 10 years — ever since they rehabilitated their first downtown building at 1209 Commerce Street. The three-story building first was constructed in 1877 and added onto twice in its history, one of which took place in 1951, according to city records.
When the Calfees purchased the property in early 2018, it barely had been touched in decades. Years of stuff had accumulated in corners, and the top floor still reflected the building’s roots as a hotel with tiny rooms and narrow hallways.
“You could see opportunity, but I don’t think any of us would walk in the building and say, ‘Oh, it’s a beautiful building,’” Johanna said.
Daryl added, “It reminded me of a 1983 Oldsmobile. It still runs right. It wasn’t raining in the building. There were a few leaks, the electrical worked, there was plumbing, but, man, it just looked rough. There were parts of the building that had never been renovated, either.”
The renovation work took more than a year. For Johanna, it took her longer than usual to develop a vision of what the old hotel-turned-offices could become.
“It was big, it was choppy,” she said. “I can usually see things really fast but it took me longer here to see it to completion in my head. I was a little fearful but I felt good about it too. We exercised this muscle knowing it was right for our family. I just need to figure it out in my head.”
The first tenants moved into the lofts this past August, and while work continues on the first-floor business space, the lofts on the second and third floors mostly are occupied. The couple is using one unit as an Airbnb, which has remained rented out pretty much since it was offered.
Daryl described Jo’s aesthetic in decorating the loft spaces as a neutral palette with pops of color. Johanna added the couple is OK with a little imperfection if it saves the details. They love character and patinas and things that grow better with age, but the spaces also have to be functional.
“For this space, I saw modern life, so I saw a mix,” Johanna said. “This unit that we’re in, is a sort of mid-century part of the building, so we added mid-century fixtures. I’ve started to love brass fixtures in recent years.
“... It’s a little bit different than what I might do in a full residential property, but in this space, it fits. It’s clean and simple.”
The kitchen cabinets are a medium gray color with brass fixtures, giving nod to the aesthetics of the building while still creating a functional, modern kitchen.
Johanna’s London storefront exterior isn’t quite finished. It still needs some work on the dormers, and the couple plans to install crown molding to delineate the black lower portion from the white paint above.
The color, Johanna admits, isn’t what she had in mind when the envisioned the building’s exterior. She chose a charcoal color but when painting day came, she arrived to find the crew painting it black.
“I kind of lost my mind,” she said. “‘Where did you guys get directions to make this thing black,’ and they’re like, ‘Daryl told us to do this.’ I yank him around the corner and I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ Daryl’s aesthetic tends to be the right answer is always black and so we had a, I’ll say, conversation in the summer heat about the choice of colors made.
“I would say at the end of the day, he was right. After 16 years of marriage, it’s important to admit when your spouse is right, and I will say on the record he was right in choosing black.”
The building was constructed as the Piedmont Hotel. Later, it became office space, serving as the center for real estate transactions in the city.
“If you were doing real estate, you did it in this building,” Daryl said. “...What they would do is they would take their clients and customers across the street to the Piedmont Club in The Virginian. That’s where they would do a lot of business.”
After the building’s stint in real estate, it became a bail bonds site, and the home of C&C Amusement.
By the time the Calfees became interested in the building, it had just one tenant left — a CPA named Jerry Reynolds, who essentially brokered the deal for them in January 2018.
“To have an opportunity with a building this big across from the Virginian — at the time, the Virginian was still coming to life. It wasn’t done yet, but we knew where it was going, and we knew how wonderful it was going to be,” Johanna said.
“Finding a 10,000-square-foot building that was sort of untouched in a way, it hadn’t been updated in many decades. We had the opportunity to touch it and make it beautiful again.”
Johanna said the layout of the building’s top floor still was set up as an old hotel with tiny rooms and a close corridor. A lot of spaces had been “hacked together” throughout the years, Daryl added.
When the Calfees decided to tackle the Church Street building, many people told the couple it would end up costing about $200 per square foot to renovate.
“And Daryl laughed,” Johanna said.
“Well, we just couldn’t do it,” Daryl said of that estimate. “Architectural Partners was able to work with us to pull this together to meet our standards. Jo has a very specific aesthetic she wants for everything, and it has to meet those standards and provide a beautiful home for people.”
Daryl said Architectural Partners created a plan that used the natural firestops in the building where subsequent construction was added on for fireproofing, which saved costs and allowed the Calfees to create the aesthetic they wanted for the old building.
Residential renovations typically cost Penny Lane Properties about $32 to $35 per square foot. For this particular multifamily property, the Calfees needed to stay within $50 per square foot for renovation costs.
“I’m really proud of this building because it’s the downtown project we’ve been looking for for 10 years,” Johanna said. “We have walked through so many downtown buildings, offered on so many downtown buildings in the decade since [the Commerce Street building] and it just wasn’t the right thing at the right time. This was. It was really special to us to be back doing something downtown — something that we’re really proud of.”
The lofts at 801 Church St. are one of the largest projects the Calfees and their two daughters have undertaken. They have restored or rehabilitated more than 20 properties.
The Calfees began Penny Lane Properties after they sold their first home.
“We made $50,000 on our first house kind of by accident, and we learned that there was a lot of money to be made.”
The Calfees reinvested the money from the sale of their first home in 2009 with the Commerce Street property, now home to the Renaissance Academy of Martial Arts.
“I think we needed something new to dream on and she was like, ‘Let’s do this,’” Daryl said. “So we did.”
Johanna said the couple decided they needed to “put our hands to the work that’s available here and, to us that’s restoration and restoring old properties ...”
“We don’t want to be the people who just drive by the houses and think, ‘Somebody should do something with that.’ ... We just enjoy being the people to take a risk to do something with it.”
When the couple started the Commerce Street project, most of the work was being done by large developers doing large projects. The Calfees wanted to do smaller projects.
“They’re the perfect size for us,” Daryl said. “Plus, we love Lynchburg.”
Investing in downtown Lynchburg was riskier for the smaller investors.
“Daryl has a really cool memory of finishing up that [Commerce Street] building on a Saturday morning,” Johanna said. “He was painting the letters on the outside of the building and there was nobody on the street. He saw one person the whole morning and now you go down there and you can’t even find a place to park. That’s just a testament to how far we’ve seen downtown come.”
Penny Lane Properties, along with their partners, also is working to redevelop a former gas station on Bedford Avenue into a bagel shop. Most of their projects, though, have been residential in nature.
“The thing that is unique for us is this is our family business,” Daryl said. “I think we give hope to people who are just a married couple who are into real estate. We just enjoy doing this together. This is an ‘us thing.’ Every couple needs an ‘us thing.’”
Johanna and Daryl still have other jobs but this is where the couple meets in the middle, expressing their creativity and vision together.
“We are both creative types,” Daryl said. “We look at these projects as a representation of who we are. Good enough for Lynchburg doesn’t work for us.”