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Jerome Karam's plans are to convert the Berdon-Campbell space into lofts. (Rita LeBleu / American Press)

Jerome Karam's plans are to convert the Berdon-Campbell space into lofts. (Rita LeBleu / American Press)

Old Berdon-Campbell building to become new lofts

Last Modified: Monday, April 14, 2014 12:54 PM

By Rita LeBleu / American Press

Just in time for the season associated with rebirth – the long-vacant building at 619 Ryan St. is on the cusp of having a shot at a new life, probably as lofts.

The new owner, Jerome Karam, Oakdale native, is no stranger to the Lake Charles area where he has family — or the process of breathing life back into strong structural survivors.

One of his latest acquisitions is the oldest commercial building in Galveston, the Hendley Building. Empty since 2000, Karam will reinvent this landmark into part commercial property and part luxury residences, while retaining historically significant elements of the structure.

Other Galveston Karam properties are the Eibands building and the Harborside Ice House.

“I see a lot of similarities between the architecture and potential of these historical Galveston landmarks and the potential of Lake Charles downtown development. I’m excited to be working in Lake Charles,” Karam said. He also said that the building will be converted into 12 – 16 lofts.

Historic building was furniture business

The two-story brick building at 619 Ryan St. is over 80 years old (perhaps older) and managed to survive the wear and tear of time, storms and the mindset that demolished many such buildings in the name of progress.

When the facace was torn away in 2006, the building’s name was revealed once more: Berdon-Campbell.

The name was a reminder to some and news to a younger generation. According to a 2006 American Press article, the building was named for Clarence Emile Berdon, who had the distinction of being the youngest furniture merchant in the state according to “A History of Louisiana.” C.J. Campbell was Berdon’s partner. They came to Lake Charles from Crowley and opened the furniture store known as Hemenway’s before moving to the Ryan Street location and starting BerdonCampbell in the ‘30s.

The current owner of the building, Tim Vaughan, thought the old furniture store would make the perfect downtown hotel. The first floor mezzanine soars to 19 feet and the original wood-railed and wrought-iron balustrade is intact. But developers didn’t seem to appreciate the possibilities of the lasting structure.

So the old furniture store sat vacant for almost 20 years, unless you count the brief period when pigeons called it home. But those openings were boarded over a few years ago. The awning, loaded with bird droppings, was removed much to the relief of Sha Sha’s Restaurant, the building’s neighbor to the north.

According to Century 21 Mike Bono Real Estate Listing Agent Bonita Sedano, the opening found by the birds was probably through one of the series of windows across the front of the building that faces Ryan and makes the Berdon Campbell building unique. Furniture was arranged near these windows and the windows draped to resemble rooms in houses for what was once the largest furniture business in Southwest Louisiana. Much of the old, wavy irregular glass remains intact.

During Sedano’s tour of the building soon to undergo great transformation, she points out other clues to its past. In a storage area there’s a list posted of Samsonite luggage pieces and prices dated 1969. Another list shows the price for a 92-piece set of Noritake for $119.95. Old Mullers boxes are nearby. Sadano is hoping the door to the office that’s marked A.S. Marx and belonged to the son of the store’s founder, Julie Kaufamn Muller, won’t be tossed away.

Part of Mullers Department Store since 1943

To the south, the Berdon Campbell Building shares a “party wall” with what is now called Mullers Lofts in the three-story building that was Mullers Department Store from 1913 until is closing in the early 80s.

In 1943 the Burdon Campbell Building became part of Mullers, the party wall opened to display housewares, furniture and luggage. In 1972, the two buildings got a modern makeover. This look included facing both buildings with aluminum paneling and enclosing some of the display windows with aggregate paneling according to an American Press article.

In 2006, Vaughn contacted the Louisiana historical preservation office to request that 619 Ryan St. be placed on the national register listing based on the fact that the building had been part of Mullers, a registered landmark.

This led to the removal of this 1972 add-on and an addendum or “boundary increase” to the Muller’s national historic listing.

But more importantly, it’s kept the building safe from demolition until the right market met the right buyer.

Jerome Karam

“Scott Moffett has been running point on this project for me and he’s been awesome at putting a team together in Lake Charles to handle this project,” Karam said.

Karam said that Jeffrey of Karam Construction in Alexandria will oversee the construction and that he’s been talking with Kevin Shipp of Jeff Davis Bank for local financing. Federal and state tax credits will also be available for work on the registered landmark.

Karam finished his undergraduate studies at LSU before moving to Houston to attend law school and practice law. “I moved to a city of five million people and I didn’t know a soul but I met some folks right away who knew my family. I’m from a big Lebanese community that settled in the Oakdale area. My father had nine brothers and one sister and most people around Allen parish are familiar with the name.”

When asked whether new loft tenants will be able to look out through the rows of windows that made the Burdon Campbell Building unique, Karam quickly answered, “Yes and we’ll be adding even more windows.”

It sounds like the old Berdon Campbell Building has a chance to become something new and still retain its roots in the past, the perfect place from which to view the changing landscape of downtown Lake Charles.

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