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To operate, you must renovate

Becky Bosshart
Appeal Staff Writer
BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Pepe Robertson talks to guests at Cafe Del Rio in Virginia City recently. Cafe owners Brian and Ardi Shaw have invested two years of work and nearly $500,000 to make this 1873 building structurally sound and turn the former first-floor auto shop into an attractive restaurant.
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VIRGINIA CITY – The second floor of 394 S. C St. hasn’t changed much from the time when miners and laborers boarded beneath its roof. The spectral space has uneven and creaky floors and it traps in an old, musty smell.

Beneath all of this is a contemporary, Southwestern restaurant filled with the spicy aroma of pork carnitas, homemade black beans and corn bread.

Juxtaposed in this 1873 building are the two faces of Virginia City: post and pre-renovation.

Owners Brian and Ardi Shaw have invested two years of work and nearly $500,000 to make the building structurally sound and turn the former first-floor auto shop into an attractive restaurant.

They have aspirations for the second floor, possibly hotel rooms. The hand-painted room numbers are still affixed to the doors of each of the 11 rooms. Inside two of those rooms is an iron box that keeps the front of the building from sinking. The second floor has no electricity or water. The Fleur de Lis wallpaper is peeling. Some of the walls are open like a patient on an operating table.

It has its own ghost. Possibly. A welder who worked on the building’s structure told the owners that he saw a blue streak flash in front of him. A name popped into his mind: Margaret. The welder wrote a message on one of the support beams: “Margaret was here, 8 Nov. 2005.” While he worked, the ghost would come and knock over his coffee, says business owner Ardi Shaw.

“We haven’t seen anything, but we’re hoping,” she says, sounding tickled to have a home for her business in a place that might have a ghost.

In Virginia City, a ghost makes you a landmark.

All of these characteristics endear the second floor to Shaw. She and her husband bought the building for $210,000 in April 2004, according to Storey County records.

Brian and Ardi Shaw’s Cafe del Rio is one of about 200 major buildings within the Comstock Historic District that were renovated and restored in the last 20 years. A Storey County building official said another 300 buildings have been given smaller renovations. In a city with a population of about 900, Dean Haymore estimates that 70 percent of the homes have had some type of renovation.

The Shaws reopened the restaurant on Jan. 26, after a brief vacation to recover from the tribulations of moving and renovating.

“This is our new home, and we’re here for good,” she says.

The time and cost of renovation are two factors that many wanna-be VC residents don’t care to endure.

Haymore, a Storey County planning and building official, says knocking down and rebuilding a historic building is always easier than renovating. And it’s cheaper. He estimates that demolition and reconstruction can cost as low as $300,000. A renovation is easily double that.

“The Comstock Historic District is the largest in the nation, so a lot of time people come in and say, ‘We want to knock this down’ and we say, ‘No, you’re not going to,'” he said. “To knock something down you have to get the historic district to give you a demolition permit. They don’t like to do that at all. And I don’t like that at all.”

The Comstock Historic District, which encompasses Virginia City, Silver City, Dayton and Gold Hill, has strict construction requirements. In about 20 years, it’s granted less than three demolition permits for historic buildings. Even if the home is falling apart, and about five are in Virginia City, officials will leave it standing because they want the owner to rebuild. Even homes that burned have been rebuilt to match their predecessors.

One of the most infamous demolitions in Virginia City was Billy Varga’s home, which accidentally blew up from dynamite he had stored in the basement. Haymore, who talked to Varga after the accident, said the blast moved foundations, broke windows and even projected a jackhammer from Varga’s house, over the courthouse and through a Cadillac. Haymore said it happened about 10 years ago and created quite a stir.

Ron James, state historic preservation officer, said the district issues about 100 certificates a year for owners who want to change any aspect of their building exterior. James, who once presided over the Comstock Historic District, is still a little sore about the demolition of the Black and Howell building.

He says about 20 years ago the property owner brought the issue to court when he couldn’t get the demolition permit. He managed to sway the judge and the building was deemed unstructurally safe. The historic hardware store was leaning on the building north of it. The new owner has yet to redevelop the property.

“It takes a certain kind of person who loves the history to do that and make the large investment,” Haymore said.

The Shaws are those kind of people.

The dining room of Cafe del Rio has the original stone “rubble” walls. Brian Shaw said the pine floor may be from the 1940s. They incorporated elements from an old shed adjacent to the building, which they had to demolish and rebuild to make the lobby. The shed’s metal roof was reincorporated as a design element over the kitchen. The wood was used to build shelves and the bar.

Cafe del Rio has bounced around for a decade – at one time they were open in three different places in Carson City – until settling into its own building here.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll make a profit for our first year here,” Brian Shaw said. “We’ve been breaking even for 10 years.”

Cafe del Rio is open Thursday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. For information call 847-5151.

— Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at bbosshart@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1212.