Published on 07/10/2005
By Frederick Melo, Pioneer Press
HASTINGS – What’s a beauty school to do when the coifs are cutting edge but the digs are a drag? In downtown Hastings, history has a date with hair care, and their budding romance is funding the makeover of one of the state’s oldest hotel buildings.
Employees at the Hastings Beauty School like to joke that theirs is the “funner” school of cosmetology, where students, according to the school motto, “learn to help people feel beautiful” in a chatty, relaxed atmosphere.
But the school’s two-floor layout in a Second Street storefront has budding beauticians all but bumping heads. As students run up and down stairs, customers weave around them to get from a cramped waiting area to awkward twin rows of salon stations.
“It’s a dump,” said instructor Wendy Gardell, a mountain of highlighted, reddish-orange curls bobbing with her laugh. “It’s really outdated. And there’s no room for growth.”
Banking on the benefits of a beauty school makeover, school owner Dan Lynch has found his students a new home right next door in the Gardner House, a three-story building dating back to 1884. Lynch, who bought the site in April, said he is putting roughly $1.5 million into acquiring and renovating the former hotel, one of the downtown historic district’s largest and most prominent properties. He hopes to move by Monday.
Excited by the hammering of work crews, neighboring business owners call Lynch’s investment the largest private historic renovation project to grace the sleepy downtown main street in recent memory.
Once a bright spot for city events and social gatherings, the old hotel hasn’t attracted a sizable crowd in at least 30 years, say residents. From a series of antique shops to an old “Pizza Ranch” restaurant franchise, small businesses have come and gone through the property in quick succession.
“It’s just kind of been on hold for several years … but it used to be the life of town,” said 66-year-old Dick Reissner, of Reissner’s Meat and Grocery, recalling childhood days when the Gardner held free eggnog socials every Christmas Eve.
There may not be rum-laced drinks this Christmas, but the school’s relocation still promises to be an unusual blending of old and new. Soon, pedicure tubs and vibrating massage chairs will line new hardwood floors. Tiltable shampoo sinks will dunk clients into the 21st century, even as customers catch their reflection in long mantel mirrors above a century-old fireplace and beneath an ornate tin ceiling.
The city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority gave Lynch a $48,000 low-interest loan toward painting and refurbishing the building’s Italianate-styled exterior.
Employees are looking forward to classroom space, facial rooms and the salon clinic being situated on a single floor. Lynch is improving 11 upstairs apartments, which are helping to pay the mortgage on the $910,000 property. The Gardner House, which alone runs 87 feet wide and 140 feet long, includes the adjoining Fitch building, a narrower structure constructed in 1881 that once served as the hotel bar.
Lynch acknowledges the relocation is a pricey departure from tradition for the small beauty school, which has 32 students but hopes to grow to 60.
“As far as schools go, this is really upscale,” said Lynch, who hopes to draw more customers and more interest in the school’s newer services, like hair extensions and chemical peels.
Not everyone is pleased with the Gardner House’s new direction. As Hastings struggles with ways to attract tourists and foot traffic to its historic district, some residents had hoped to see the building accommodate an anchor attraction, like an upscale restaurant or high-end hotel.
“There are people who feel that this building should be returned to its original purpose,” Lynch said, who considers his school the proven proposition.
But risks have paid off for him in the past. Lynch, who has a degree in English literature with an emphasis on creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, bought the beauty school three years ago knowing little about the field. To learn, he sits in on classes and submits to facials and hair colorings, a human guinea pig for the student body. He also runs Lynch Capital Corp., which brokers the leasing of automotive, airport ground support and fitness equipment for companies and municipal groups.