UPPER JAY - Decades ago, workers pieced together the now-iconic Ford Model T automobile at a plant in this picturesque Adirondack community. Now, the building is home to a business that breathes new life into furniture and a nonprofit center for music, art and drama.
Set between state Route 9N and the East Branch of the AuSable River in Upper Jay, the Recovery Lounge and Upper Jay Upholstery building is owned by brothers Scott and Byron Renderer. The property was recently nominated to the state and national registers of historic places, opening up the possibility of preservation grants and rehabilitation tax credits for the Renderers.
Once an assembly plant and showroom for the Model T, the building is now home to an upholstery shop and a multi-dimensional performance space. Scott Renderer took the Enterprise on a tour of the historic landmark earlier this month, sharing stories of its past and plans for its future.
Scott Renderer poses outside Upper Jay Upholstery and the Recovery Lounge. Scott and his brother, Byron, purchased the building in 2001, moving in their upholstery business and launching the Upper Jay Arts Center, which includes concert and theater space and the Floor 2 Gallery.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
Formerly known as the Keith & Branch Ford Motors Factory & Showroom, the building was constructed in 1921 and still has the look and feel of a small factory. At three stories, it towers above nearby buildings, which include a small post office and the Brookside Motor Inn. Two garage doors are visible from the road. Decades ago, fully assembled Model Ts emerged from these doors after workers put the finishing touches on them.
The first floor is now reminiscent of an antique shop, with old signs and other artifacts adorning the shelves and walls. An assortment of chairs, rockers, recliners, love seats and couches serve as seating for the plays and concerts held year-round at the Recovery Lounge.
Perhaps the most eye-catching feature is the huge elevator shaft positioned in the back of the building. To move the elevator up and down, Scott tugs on a thick rope, which activates a flywheel on the third floor. Scott said the flywheel is a "unique piece of machinery" that's "probably worth as much as the whole building.
"It's not easy (to use); it's like being on a ship. It's why my muscles are so big," he joked. "It's actually easier with more weight on it."
After about two minutes, the elevator platform arrives at the first floor with a stack of chairs that have been reupholstered in the shop above. The elevator has also been used as a set for past theater productions, including the play "K2," which takes place on a mountain.
"We built, from the basement all the way up to the top floor, a 30-foot mountain that the climbers climbed in the play," Scott said. "The play took place on a ledge where they were stranded. The whole play took place in the elevator."
The elevator was originally used to move partially assembled Model Ts from floor to floor.
"They would ship a chassis and an engine to Keeseville from Detroit, then they would drive just a bare frame to here, and it was an assembly plant where they put on the doors and everything else you needed and drive them out," he said.
When each car reached the basement, it could be driven up a ramp and onto the street. Today, Route 9N isn't one of the busier North Country highways, but when the Model T plant was in full swing, it was bustling, Scott said.
"This road was a main thoroughfare from Montreal to New York City," he said. "Upper Jay used to be a much more thriving community. Across the street, there was a building similar to this but bigger, which was a big destination for shopping. It was like one of those general stores that had everything."
When the Renderer brothers first bought the property in 2001, the basement was filled with old automobile parts. Now, the brothers - who play in the rock band Monsterbuck - use the basement as a recording space, and a place to build sets for the plays held upstairs.
Like many buildings along the AuSable River's East Branch, the Recovery Lounge was damaged by 2011's Tropical Storm Irene. The basement was completely flooded when the river spilled its banks.
"The flood gave us the final cleansing," Scott said. "The water was right up to the rafters. It blew all the walls out; we had to rebuild the whole thing. Now, it's pretty clean."
The upholstery shop is located on the second floor, where there's also an art gallery, the Floor 2 Gallery, and a stylish apartment used by many of the bands that visit from outside the area.
Before the Renderers bought the building, it was an antique shop. The brothers' upholstery business had been located nearby, and they needed to expand.
"It was not insulated; there was no heat or anything," he said. "It was really just a shell - broken windows in front, starting to fall apart. It had been for sale for many years, and nobody really wanted to take it on.
"So we insulated all of this and kept it as intact and as original as possible."
The Recovery Lounge and the art gallery fall under the umbrella of the Upper Jay Arts Center, a nonprofit organization the Renderers created to "share their passion for music, theater, and visual art," according to their website.
Scott said the brothers plan to take advantage of the historic preservation grants that will soon be available through the historic designations.
"We do have some plans in the works for clean energy here and bringing it up to date with its septic, which is so old here," he said.
"The one thing that's nice, which I had reservations about to begin with, is when you're designated as a historic building, it prevents you from making certain changes to the building. In our case, it's really good that we can't change windows now. I never would, but people keep coming in and saying, 'You've really got to put in replacement windows because you're losing so much heat." And I would say, 'Aesthetically, I really like them.' So I'll have to sacrifice whatever it costs me to keep the old windows, because they're the original ones."
Scott said there's not much else he wants to do to the building.
"The historic designation will prevent the next owner from coming in and turning it into some kind of an apartment complex, or a fancy restaurant that's going to change the whole aesthetic of it," he said. "It also sort of honors the history of Upper Jay and that curious decision Henry Ford made to build an assembly plant here, which is a mystery."
The building has become a hub for arts and culture in the area.
"There's a lot of activity here now," Scott said. "It's been great for the whole community."
Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.