HUNTINGTON — Dr. Joseph Touma is nationally known for his medical expertise, but in Huntington he's equally well known for his continuing effort to breathe new life into the city's downtown. In recent years, he's purchased and painstakingly restored half a dozen downtown buildings. Now, he's putting the finishing touches on two more.
The two, located side by side at 935 and 937 3rd Ave., were once part of the Anderson-Newcomb department store complex. They've been vacant and neglected since 1996, when Stone & Thomas, the successor to Anderson-Newcomb, closed the longtime store.
"The building at 935 was built by the Broh family and the building next to it at 937 was built by the Gibson family," Touma said. The Broh building is the earliest of the two, he said. "We think it was built in the 1890s. We know it was built before the Gibson building, which was erected in 1910."
Old city directories show the two buildings were occupied over the years by a series of shoe stores, including Broh's Shoes, Kinney Shoe Co., Alfred's and Nobil's. Ultimately, Anderson-Newcomb signed 100-year leases for both buildings and expanded into them, remodeling their fronts to match the look of the main store building.
In 2013, Marshall University purchased the Stone & Thomas building and subsequently transformed it into a spectacular home for its visual arts program. But the two next-door buildings weren't included in the project.
The problem with the two buildings, Touma explained, was that they were under long-term leases, with the lease on one in the hands of a bank trust and the other in a trust made up of widely scattered third-or fourth-generation beneficiaries. Escalator clauses in the leases steadily increased the rentals charged.
"So no one had any incentive to sell, restore, remodel or do whatever," he said.
Meanwhile, the buildings were badly deteriorating. The roofs leaked and a tall tower built at 935 to house the Anderson-Newcomb elevator was beginning to crack from the top.
Touma said he made a decision to try to acquire the two buildings from the trusts.
"It seemed an almost impossible task, but I have a brilliant lawyer, Steve Bartram, who took on the problem," he said.
After the city of Huntington warned that the tower posed a serious safety hazard, the trustees agreed to take down its top two stories. And Touma credits the city's action as an important factor in convincing the trusts to turn loose of the buildings.
"That's when things started to move. The city really got their attention," he said.
After a four-year effort, Touma was able to gain possession of the buildings. He then was faced with a major rehabilitation project that's taken about a year and is now finishing up.
Anderson-Newcomb had placed marble across the front of both buildings, matching the marble on the store's main building. When the marble was removed, Touma said, it revealed that many of the bricks under it were decayed and crumbling.
"We had to chisel them out and replace them with new brick," he said.
The rehab project included taking asbestos out, putting new steel beams in, installing new roofing and building new interior stairwells.
The front portion of the Broh building at 935 burned in 1953, so the front has been restored to the design that was used when the front was rebuilt in 1954. The facade of the Gibson building at 937 now looks much as it did when the structure was built in 1910.
The upstairs spaces of the two buildings are connected and have been leased to a local law firm. Touma declined to identify the firm, saying "they will want to make their own announcement." He and Matt Sticker, the manager of Touma Real Estate Holdings, LLC, are currently seeking retail tenants for the two first-floor spaces.
And Touma has already scoped out his next project: Rehabbing the two upstairs floors at the Mug and Pia shop, located next door to the two buildings he's now finishing up.