Tekamah entrepreneur restores elegant and historic bank to new glory
Cocktail bar, loft for overnight guests and apartments now grace 1884 structure that mayor said was ‘dead’
Built in 1884, the old Burt County Bank in Tekamah was crumbling away before a local businesswoman launched a project to restore it as an upscale cocktail lounge, AirBnB and apartments. The structure is pictured before new windows and doors were installed this fall. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
TEKAMAH – Cindy Chatt has a thing for old buildings.
In her former profession as a marketing consultant for corporations, she chose to live in the city cores of New York City, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Jacksonville, in structures that were part of those cities’ history.
When she decided to return to her hometown of Tekamah, she and a former partner renovated a long-closed repair shop on the town’s main street and opened a restaurant that features locally sourced food and craft beers and drinks.
The Chatterbox, now five years old, is handsomely furnished with repurposed wood tables and wall paneling, exposed brick and wood beams, along with historic photos of Chatt’s family and the Missouri River farm town about 45 miles north of Omaha. It hosts community events, like a farmers market each summer and a winter craft show.
But it was another building, the old Burt County Bank, that had always caught Chatt’s eye in Tekamah.
“It’s always been the coolest building in town,” Chatt said.
The red-brick structure, built in 1884, looms over U.S. Highway 75 as it extends through town.
The 2½ story structure features black, cast-iron stairs fabricated in Chicago, locally quarried sandstone and a large clock that provided generations of Burt County residents the time until it broke down, or was disconnected, a few years ago.
Originally, the bank was a “wildcat bank,” printing its own money, Chatt said, before the state began regulating the banking industry.
Relative had law office
At one time, Orville Chatt, an uncle of Chatt’s grandfather, had his law office on the second floor of the building, which was described as “tasty” and “elegant” by the local newspaper, the Burtonian, when it first opened.
But after the bank moved into a new building in the 1960s, the structure had been slowly declining as other businesses came and went. In recent years, only a couple of apartments remained.
Now, after gutting the building, scraping away glue from the bank’s tile floors, repairing bullet holes in the roof and installing new windows and doors, the building has a new look.
The top story is now a two-bedroom AirBnB, the BCB Loft, with repurposed wood trim, a modern kitchen and a living room that overlooks the town. There’s also a “travel wall” of photographs of Chatt’s trips to Mount Everest in Tibet, Victoria Falls in Africa and Ayers Rock in Australia.
The first story is the BCB Vault, a craft cocktail bar that will be open on weekends featuring exotic drinks like “smoked” old fashioneds and cherry Manhattans. Tables were constructed using bank vault doors, and the bar area is where the old bank vault used to be.
‘Amazing what she’s done’
Two apartments, renovated and refreshed, occupy the studio level and are ready for new tenants.
“It’s absolutely amazing what she’s done,” said Tekamah Mayor Jane Walford. “She’s brought two ‘dead’ buildings back to life.”
The renovation of the two buildings, Walford said, has helped inspire other improvements in town, which include a renovation of the local school, a new town swimming pool and new storefronts on other main street businesses.
“Cindy has brought so much energy,” Walford said. “People don’t say no anymore. They’re willing to invest in town.”
Chatt said that was a big part of her inspiration in returning to Tekamah.
Showed an interest
“It took someone having an interest in main street,” she said. “Now you can look up and down the street and see new windows, new paint and new facades.”
The renovation of the bank, which was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, was done over the past two years.
Chatt got some financial help from the city to do the work, through Tekamah’s Legislative Bill 840 economic development program, but she figures upwards of $300,000 to $400,000 worth of work was done on the bank, along with a lot of sweat.
“I scraped every single one of those tiles with a razor blade,” she said, pointing to the tile floor of the bank’s lobby.
The clock surprisingly started working as soon as an electrician reconnected the power, she said, and when weather permits, work will continue to see if chimes and lights can be restarted.
Chatt plans to seek a state grant to help finance renovation of the exterior. Other future plans include repainting the cast-iron steps and railings, fashioning a patio out back and perhaps adding a roof garden.
“So many of these old buildings get neglected or torn down, and people think it’s too much work to bring them back,” Chatt said. “But it still can be done.”
Her next challenge? While she said she has looked at other old buildings in town for renovation, her new endeavor is serving as the newly named Burt County Economic Development director.
“Maybe I can help someone else do this,” she said.
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