Longtime roofing firm builds own roof over its head for new Southside HQ

Graham Aston, left, and son-in-law Jarrod Frakes outside the new headquarters of Paul Saunders Roofing Co. (Jonathan Spiers photos)

When Graham Aston got the keys of the Art Deco-style building he’d been eyeing for some time along Route 1 in Blackwell, he was faced with what the former auto parts store had been hiding from the outside: a collapsing, leaking roof.

Good thing he owned a roofing company.

Paul Saunders Roofing Co., which Aston has led for about half of its nearly 80 years in business, is wrapping up its renovation of the former Glidewell Auto Parts building at 129 Richmond Highway, where it’s moving its headquarters after three decades in a century-old warehouse at 1801 W. Marshall St.

The company sold that 23,000-square-foot Marshall Street building last fall to Sauer Properties, adding to the real estate firm’s holdings in the vicinity of its Whole Foods-anchored Sauer Center development.

But Saunders’ move to its new home had been in the works since 2018, when it purchased the three-building Blackwell property for $570,000 through Emsea Holdings LLC.

The deal included three other parcels on the same block at the corner of Decatur Street, with a separately owned parcel dividing the assemblage. The city most recently assessed the four parcels at $723,000 collectively.

Aston and Frakes in the front office. Frakes is set to take over the business from Aston, who likewise took it over from his father-in-law, company founder Paul Saunders.

The following year, the company started work on restoring the buildings, including the main structure that it’s taking as its office. Two smaller buildings on each side of it, 127 and 131 Richmond Highway, will be leased out to other contractors or small office users.

The 0.8-acre property at the recently renamed highway’s Stockton Street intersection dates to the late 1930s and once housed a grocery store, Aston said.

He’d noticed the buildings while on jobs in the area and worked with Commonwealth Commercial’s Ben Bruni on the purchase. Bruni also is handling leasing for the property.

Colliers’ Bill Mattox and James Morris Jr. of Morris Realty & Development LLC shared the listing, representing seller Giles Brothers Land Co. LLC.

Aston, whose English accent reveals his UK roots, said the area along that stretch of Route 1 also appealed to him. While he said it has its challenges, he sees the neighborhood on an upswing with nearby developments at Cowardin and Semmes avenues to the north, and redevelopments of the former American Tobacco and Model Tobacco buildings to the south.

“This area’s coming up so fast,” Aston said. “It feels like a good place to be at the right time.”

But since its final days as an auto parts store, the former Glidewell structure had fallen into disrepair — requiring a two-year effort from the company and subcontractors to fix it. Bob McClendon with Chesterfield-based OGK Consulting was the project manager.

The main building as it appeared when bought three years ago. (Courtesy of Graham Aston)

“The building hadn’t been maintained for a long time,” Aston said, “so the roof was collapsing, the tin ceilings were rusted. It was full of car parts, and the roof had been leaking for many years. But the outside shell was good.”

Tin roof, rusted

Following a full roof replacement, the company put in new ceiling tins for the building’s front office space, which features the company’s lime green-colored logo. Six or seven of its 30 employees will be based in the space, which was designed by Walter Parks Architects along with the rest of the buildings.

A warehouse space behind the office includes a tin-ceilinged storage room, which adds to outdoor storage areas that the company didn’t have at its previous location.

The rear warehouse space with new ceiling tins. (Jonathan Spiers photos)

Aston’s son-in-law, Jarrod Frakes, who’s set to take over the business from Aston in about a year and a half, said they’re in the process of moving their inventory with a goal of opening their doors there by June.

“We’re hoping within this month to be completely here. There’s a lot to move,” Frakes said. “We’ve been over there for 30 years, and we do a lot of historic roofing. There’s a lot of slate and tile and specialty copper products that we have over there, so moving that over takes time.”

When Frakes takes on the business, it will continue a family tradition of sorts. Aston, who moved from England to join the company in 1982, is himself the son-in-law of founder and namesake Paul Saunders, who died that year still active in the business. Saunders started the company in 1943.

Raising the roof

Aston would not disclose how much was spent rehabbing the buildings, which involved historic preservation tax credits with consultation from Sadler & Whitehead LLC.

The roof replacement included the entire roof system, with new rafters supporting new electrical, plumbing and mechanical configurations. New garage doors and windows were installed in the buildings, and the main building’s metal awning was restored and replaced. A coat of dark gray paint modernized the look of the building’s formerly white façade.

The inside of the 127 building, which is envisioned for a contractor’s office.

The main building totals nearly 9,000 square feet, while the 127 and 131 buildings are about 1,800 and 2,800 square feet, respectively. Aston said the smaller, standalone building would be good for a contracting firm, while the 131 building, which adjoins the larger structure, could accommodate a variety of business types.

“We’re thinking it would be a small tech company or a small office,” he said of the 131 building, which is closest to Stockton Street. He said they’ve received interest from several contractors in the buildings, which remain available.

“These buildings have a lot of older charm,” Aston said. Of the main building, he added, “I’m so glad we managed to keep the structure, as there are not too many examples of this period of American architecture still existing.”

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Zach Henderson
Zach Henderson
6 months ago

I think this is the building that was featured on an American Pickers episode some years back. With the brother Robbie and Danielle. It was a over packed junk garage then. Good to see it cleaned up, definitely a cool old building.

charles Frankenhoff
charles Frankenhoff
6 months ago

looks like a great addition to the neighborhood.

Brett Hunnicutt
Brett Hunnicutt
6 months ago

Great job! Thanks for saving these old buildings!

Boz Boschen
Boz Boschen
6 months ago

Excellent to see the building repurposed for a new future while maintaining its design charm. We’ve used Saunders on a number of projects on our historic properties and they always stand behind their work. They even went out of their way to help a neighbor who had an emergency while out of town. Great people, glad to see them securing their future in Richmond.