His hands and shoes covered in dust, Charles Keck shuffled around the main floor of the Model Tobacco Co. building Thursday afternoon as workers began organizing piles of items and old equipment.
“Things just kind of accumulated over time,” Keck said. “I figured now is the time to just let most of it go.”
Keck, and his late wife Eileen, have owned the former tobacco complex at 1000 and 1100 Jefferson Davis Highway since the late 1980s.
Now, he’s preparing to sell the property to Maryland-based developer Chris Harrison, principal of C.A. Harrison Cos.
Harrison put the 15-acre complex under contract in August 2017, with plans to convert the main Art Deco-style building into 275 apartments. The project also would include a 47,000-square-foot entertainment venue that would house a beer garden and space for a restaurant.
Brokers Ryan Rilee and Tom Rosman of One South Commercial are representing the Kecks in the sale, which is imminent.
But before the building can be sold, tons of memorabilia, equipment, tools and other items scattered around the premises must be cleared.
To help with that effort, Mechanicsville-based Grindstaff’s Auction Marketing Group LLC is holding an auction March 16 onsite at the Model Tobacco building.
Jimmy Grindstaff, who owns Grindstaff’s with his wife Anne, said the event is open to the public, with preview tours of the items beginning at 8 a.m. He said the auction will begin around 10 a.m. and could last until 2 p.m. that day.
“There is a variety of everything … ranging from original fixtures that date back to the building’s opening, to stuff that’s been stored here over time by other companies that leased warehouse space after Model closed.”
The hodgepodge of items includes antiquated industrial equipment, such as original brass fire hoses that date to when the building was constructed, and large fire extinguishers from the 1940s.
“These were their only modes of fire suppression back then,” Grindstaff said. “They never got rid of them, and they’re in pretty good condition.”
Other items include several tobacco weaving stations, and tobacco hogshead units — a large wooden box used to transport tobacco throughout the facility.
“A lot of this could be repurposed into something else, like a coffee table or shelving,” Grindstaff said. “There a lot of opportunities for someone to use this as decor or for art, and it’s very sturdy.”
Bookshelves, display cases, trunks, industrial sinks, signs, tables, chairs, dollies, ladders, work benches, woodworking stations and storage trunks — even old bags of tobacco leaves are also set to be auctioned off, Grindstaff said.
While most of the items can be bid on separately, Anne Grindstaff said some of the items will be able to receive group bids.
“There are some items, like some of the games and books that can be bid on in bulk,” she said. “It will help us with moving the bidding process along.”
Waiting for redevelopment
The Model Tobacco complex is comprised of seven buildings, most notably the Art Deco-style, six-story, 222,000-square-foot building fronting Jefferson Davis Highway that dates to 1940.
The site was one of 13 properties that the state’s Department of Historic Resources added to the Virginia Landmarks Register last month. The state division plans to forward that list of properties to the National Park Service for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.
As crews moved items from place to place Thursday afternoon, the scent of tobacco still wafted throughout the facility — the aromas amplified by the warm spring day.
Keck, 83, remembers the Model Tobacco building growing up in Richmond.
“My father owned a slaughterhouse and he would take his meat to the A&P not too far from here,” Keck said. “The railroad had an old stockyard on Cofer Road where people would come to pick up hogs and cattle from who knows where. Coming down here you would see that building, and even then, my father would talk about what a beautiful building it was. I don’t think he ever would have thought I would own it someday.”
Parting with the facility will allow Keck to focus on family and other smaller projects at home.
“I’m getting older and this is a large place,” he said.
The Model Tobacco facility has been eyed for mixed-use redevelopment for decades — part of the city’s plan to jump-start investment along the struggling Jefferson Davis corridor.
The Kecks have fielded ideas from developers through the years, including one proposal in 2012 to convert the site into 600 apartments and include a mix of commercial uses.
While reserving comment about Harrison’s plans for the site, Keck said the time has come for the site to be redeveloped.
“It looks like it’s finally going to happen,” he said of South Richmond’s wave of redevelopment. “I love this building, but it’s time to for me to move on.”