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Finding its niche

Gary Gorman was just looking for a toehold when he started Gorman & Co. Inc. 25 years ago and took on his first project. But what he found with that historic renovation was a marketplace ledge large enough to support the growth of an entire company.

“I was looking for a project that could attract capital,” Gorman said, “and rehabilitation projects are eligible for a lot of loans and grants.”

In the years since, Gorman & Co., which is based in Oregon and has a Milwaukee office, has continued to build on its reputation as a renovator of historic properties.

“What began as a way to get a company up and running really turned into a niche for us,” said Gorman, company president. “It’s been amazing.”

Restoring historic properties often means jumping through hoops, he said, but Gorman and his employees enjoy the process.

“When you work on historic projects, you need to get approvals from local, state and national officials that what you’re doing is OK,” he said. “The extra approvals and attention to detail required for historic renovations are worth it, Gorman said, because old properties have such personality.

“Historic buildings are fascinating,” he said. “They have such stories, and it’s a lot of fun bringing those stories alive.”

Gorman & Co., for example, brought to life the story behind the Fairbanks Flats Rowhomes in Beloit. The row homes were built in 1917 as housing for black machinists working for Fairbanks Morse Engine, Beloit’s largest employer at the time. For years, the housing complex was an anchor for a thriving black community, but poor maintenance and ownership changes led to building deterioration.

In 1999, the vacant buildings were headed toward demolition. But the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority let Gorman & Co. take a crack at the project.

“We only had 16 total units, which made it more difficult to make the project economically viable,” Gorman said.
“But it was a project we really believed in, so we jumped in.” When embarking on a restoration project such as the row homes, Gorman & Co. works with consultants and area historical societies to determine a building’s original look and re-create it.

The company’s work on Fairbanks Flats recently was recognized with the National Trust for Historic Preservation/Housing and Urban Development Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation.

As the company’s portfolio of historic restorations grows, so is Gorman’s appreciation for the unique properties that are now his business’ bread and butter. “No one wants to live in a plain white box,” he said.