With sale imminent, contents of Model Tobacco complex up for grabs

The Model Tobacco complex is known for its Art Deco-style main building. (All photos by J. Elias O'Neal)
Dozens of items, including this old fan blade, were being arranged by Grindstaff's Auction marketing Group Thursday afternoon as crews prepare for items to be auctioned off March 16 at the Model Tobacco Co. building in South Richmond.
The line-up of items awaiting auction.
A cigar box.
A handmade cigar press.
A variety of old signs up for auction.
Antique fire houses with brass nozzles.

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.

A sign at the Model Tobacco complex.

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.

Saturday auction

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.”

Jimmy Grindstaff showcases an industrial fire extinguisher that dates back to the 1940s.

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.

A tobacco hogshead.

“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.

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.”

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Marcus SquiresMichael DodsonMatt FarisBruce Milam Recent comment authors
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Bruce Milam
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Bruce Milam

275 units is a reasonable number for an apartment deal though I’m concerned with them being in the same building. Logistics during the repurpose will be a challenge that could adversely affect absorption. it’s important that Harrison succeed and I wish him the best with it. The Citys renaissance will turn a corner with this development.

Michael Dodson
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Michael Dodson

Not holding my breath on this one. Under contract for 2 years, still not closed and all parties use “hope” and “soon” too much in their references to the sale over the years. And 47,000 sq ft event space with Beer Garden….I still waiting on the Stone site. The January Bizsense article said its closing was just “weeks away” and construction would start in the 2nd quarter of this year. Weeks does not mean 2 months after an article…..and still not heard of a development plan filed at City Hall. Tax credit application filed?

Marcus Squires
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Marcus Squires

I agree with you, look at C.A. Harrison’s project in Petersburg. He closed on the property took the grant money from the state and has yet to even start work on the project. While the building crumbles, I’m sure the state is going to go after him.

Michael Dodson
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Michael Dodson

Marcus thanks for the reminder of this developer; I went ahead and let out my breath as I’d probably pass out waiting for results. C.A. Harrison sued his architect first (2017) and then his asbestos contractor quit in a dispute over payments (2018). I drive by the site several times a month and it still looks like it is in middle of it demolition stage. But Harrison told the Progress-Index they’d be “aggressive” and soft open the hotel in September 2019. He told BizSense this past January they were “preparing” to begin work soon in Petersburg. The building has had… Read more »

Marcus Squires
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Marcus Squires

From what I have been listening to at city meetings the city of Petersburg may impose code violations with fines that exceed the price of the structure in order to obtain ownership of the failed Harrison project.

Matt Faris
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Matt Faris

I grew up nearby. This is my favorite building in Richmond and it directed me toward the architecture field. I actually ended up in engineering but did a cell site on the water tank a while back. I just stared at that beauty for an hour. The masonry work is amazing.

I can’t wait to see it shined up! Thanks to Mr. Keck.