Shreveporter Jim Malsch is an unintentional caretaker of history. After 25 years with Enterprise Computing Services- ECS-, a business he co-founded, he was ready for another phase of life. He had spent several years on the board of Cohab, a Shreveport coworking space whose goal is to give entrepreneurs the skills they need to be successful long-term, and had become a ‘serial investor’ in start-ups with a smart business plan, drive and determination. Along the way, he picked up ownership stakes in Shreveport Music, Whisk, SkyCoach, Red River Brewpub and other businesses with entrepreneurs at the helm that seemed to have the skill and moxie to make it. He invested not only money but smarts, willingly sharing his knowledge of owning and running a successful business. Malsh had a concept of what he wanted to do- create a space for entrepreneurs and artists based loosely on the Cohab model- but he needed a place to do it. Enter the remarkable building at 717 Crockett, a once ornate Art Deco car dealership designed by Shreveport architect Sam Wiener, Jr. By the time Malsch started looking at the building, its heyday was long past. Traces of its beautiful terra cotta ornamentation were still there, but it was a lifeless place with roof leaks, broken windows, and crumbling plaster whose owners were interested only in tearing down for additional parking. To Malsch and others, the building and its history were a part of the story of Shreveport and needed to be saved.
December 16, 1929 was a big day. It was the day Benton Howard announced the formal opening of his new Ford and Lincoln dealership at 717 Crockett Street. The festive grand opening gala was planned the following night from 8 until 11 pm and would show off a building ‘specifically designed to suit the character of the business’. The original building featured showroom walls with ‘natural tone textone (paint)’ and green and gray tiles on the floor to complement the vehicles sitting on it. Natural light from huge windows would flood the showroom floor so no artificial lighting was needed during the day.
At the rear of the ground floor car display area were the corporate offices for Howard Motor Co. president Benton Howard, and P. ‘Murph’ O’Neal, vice-president and general manager. Next to their offices was the used car display space, and up the ramp was the service floor where one could find ‘every conceivable appliance and apparatus necessary for the proper servicing of Ford and Lincoln cars.’ It was apparent no expense had been spared. The building, estimated at the start of construction to cost $55,000, came in at $100,000, a sizeable increase. Consider that the buying power of $100,000 in 1929 is $1.5m today.
Timing, as they say, is everything. The grand dealership, called the ‘most outstanding automobile building in Shreveport’ opened two months after the stock market crash of October 1929, heralding the start of the Great Depression. Millions of investors were wiped out, banks and businesses closed, homes, farms and jobs were lost and likely the last thing most needed was a fine new Ford or Lincoln car. In August of 1930, Sam Wiener, the building’s architect, sued alleging non-payment of a $40,000 note, forcing Howard into receivership. By 1931, two years into the Great Depression, Howard was forced to liquidate everything and the next owner, Redden Thaddeus ‘Thad’ Andress, a graduate of West Point who would become a veteran of both World Wars, became the person for whom the building was forever known.
Malsch and his general contractor CC&D, have been hard at work on the building, now called the Andress Artist & Entrepreneur Center, since February. Though construction continued through the COVID stay-at-home order, the pandemic has definitely slowed everything down- from government responsiveness to questions about historic rehab to manufacture of new windows. “I didn’t think it was going to be easy,” says Malsch of his first historic building rehabilitation. “There were just a lot of moving parts. I learned to be patient and to respect the knowledge of the contractor and his subs.” Malsch is glowing in his praise for CC&D and owner Fred White, a man he calls a ‘class act.’
The building is now at about 80% completion, according to Malsch. There have been no real surprises but Malsch continues to be amazed at the structure and original craftsmanship. The recent replacement of the signature stained glass inserts and large windows have made a stunning difference in the look. The Mayan-inspired molding has been cleaned and repaired, the roof replaced, concrete work finished, electrical, HVAC and plumbing systems are being installed. Malsch says knowing what he knows now, he would do it all over again.
His attention to detail is being appreciated by others- all eleven of the upstairs office spaces are rented as are three downstairs. The 2500 SF retail space on the ground floor will be the Downtown Art House, a new art, gift and home decor concept by 318 Garden & Art owner Cassie Stone. Additional ground floor space will house 15 to 20 small artist studio spaces, places for them to create and sell their works. The artists will also have a small gallery in which to show their creations. Malsch and Stone plan to host regular events. Once the Strand Theatre begins shows again, they will host pre- and post- performance gatherings. A small parking lot adjacent to the building will become a food truck court, and given Jim’s love of music, it is a sure bet that live music will be a regular occurrence.
If all goes according to plan, the city’s Certificate of Occupancy will come sometime in December and afterward, office tenants will begin moving in. By the first quarter of 2021, Downtown Art House should be stocked and open, signaling completion of the new Andress Artist & Entrepreneur Center. Malsch is hoping his commitment to the project will help others nearby and be a catalyst for additional activity.
Chances are good that will happen. Work is scheduled to resume soon on Every Man a King Distillery just around the corner at the Arlington Hotel, and plans are being finalized for a rehab of the old Lewis Furniture building in the 800 block of Texas Ave. Malsch is happy to welcome more people downtown. He will have a cool office to go to every day and will be around creative and artistic people in a beautiful historic building he saved for future generations. It’s hard to think what could be better.