CINCINNATI -- Chad Scholten drove by the abandoned bank building on East Walnut Hills' DeSales Corner his whole life.
When it went on the market last year, he and business partner Michael Berry couldn't resist the challenge and the promise of restoring it to its art deco glory.
Now, their company South Block Properties is diving into a $1.2 million restoration that will transform the neglected property into a restaurant and bar featuring a menu created by Shoshannah Hafner, who also runs Northside's The Littlefield.
"The restaurant group is going to be working on an interior design, but a lot of it is already here," Michael Berry said as he cast his eyes to the vaulted ceilings, dyed coffered plaster and other architectural gems.
To the best of their knowledge, the building has been vacant since the late 1960s. Central Trust Bank built it in the 1920s and infused the structure with old-world craftsmanship.
A walk-in safe with six inches of reinforced steel remained in tact, with an enormous door full of gears and bolts visible through a glass panel still on its hinges. They'll keep the door there with a new exit out of the side of the vault that took a week to cut out.
Huge windows facing Madison Road bathe the restaurant in natural light, and a revolving door at the entrance is in disrepair but fixable.
"The coffered ceilings will also be restored as well as the plaster on the walls," Berry said. "Pretty much all of the original features that are salvageable will be refurbished or redone or restored and kept in place."
It's a painstaking process that requires the most skilled craftspeople. Berry said several plaster contractors toured the building but declined to even offer a bid because of the complexity. Valley Interior finally took up the torch.
"We don't steer clear of challenges. As difficult as it is, I'm happy to come into a project like this every day," Scholten said.
The first-floor restaurant and bar will seat about 90, and 20 seats will be tucked into the basement bar, which will have its own entrance as well as access from the restaurant.
Hafner said she'll offer an array of small plates that allow for diners to sample multiple dishes -- an expansion of the sort of dishes that people have been clamoring for at The Littlefield.
"I am highly influenced by French, Mediterranean and Italian (dishes), and I have such adoration for Asian cooking -- Chinese, Thai. I love that fusion of what can happen with all those great flavors," she said.
Berry, who helped develop and is a part owner of The Littlefield, said the popularity of Hafner's food forced that restaurant to shift its original focus of being a bourbon bar that offered food as a secondary enticement.
"We think this (new restaurant) is going to be a great showcase of her talent," he said.
The bank is on the bottom left (southwest corner), just above the bike shop.
East Walnut booming
These are boom times for multiple old business districts in Cincinnati neighborhoods, including College Hill, Walnut Hills and Northside. Berry and Scholten are working on more projects throughout.
"We're pretty bullish on Cincinnati neighborhoods," Berry said.
East Walnut Hills, centered around DeSales Corner at the intersection of Madison and Woodburn avenues, is growing.
"The kind of programming they're doing, like the Walk on Woodburn, has not only helped create these new businesses but also created opportunities for new community interaction and for people to get out of their house and meet their neighbors," Berry said.
The developers expect a lot of the crowd who head from east-side neighborhoods to Over-the-Rhine will be attracted to the location.
"I don't think it's a bad business decision to open a restaurant that's closer to home for a lot of people, and we're suckers for old buildings," Berry said.
Bob Driehaus covers economic development. Contact him and follows stories on Facebook, Google, and Twitter.