The hulking five-story building at 216 S. Sixth St. once employed hundreds of people to make military uniforms and Gene Autry brand bluejeans.

Soon, the historic building will enter its second century of life as luxury lofts.

Gradel Printing, which occupies the first floor of the old warehouse, sold the building earlier this year to a partnership that includes Bicycle World owner Todd Behringer and downtown developers Shane and Cody Turner.

The print shop will move next week to allow the Turner brothers to begin work on what will be called the Altura Lofts. The loft condos will sell for between $250,000 and $415,000 each, Shane Turner said.

Shane Turner said he has about 10 potential customers already lined up to buy the lofts, including well-off Baylor University alumni who want a home away from home while visiting their alma mater.

“The whole reason we decided to do this is that we’ve been approached by so many people looking for lofts,” he said.

The Turners have created about 15 lofts in old buildings on Austin Avenue, while renovating the Hippodrome Theatre and building the Tinsley Place apartments. But Shane Turner said this project is special.

“This building is by far our favorite building, as far as doing lofts,” he said. “It’s 100 percent concrete inside, with great views of the Baylor campus, the river and downtown.”

Built in 1917 as headquarters and warehouse for Waco Dry Goods Co., it is the last of the giant downtown warehouses to be renovated. Since the 1990s, other multistory warehouses from that era have been turned into projects such as RiverSquare Center, Behrens Lofts, Insurors of Texas and Balcones Distilling Co.

Turner said the building on Sixth Street is “built like a fortress,” with thick steel-reinforced concrete floors and roof and massive columns spaced 15 feet apart.

The metal-framed windows will be replaced with high-efficiency windows but salvaged for use in the interiors of the lofts.

Meanwhile, a car entrance will be punched into the wall for access to the basement level, which will become parking for 25 cars. A creaky freight elevator, which still works, will be replaced with a stairwell.

The partnership, called Gradel Lofts, will seek Tax Increment Financing Zone financing to help with external improvements, Turner said.

The Gradel building is across Sixth Street from the Franklin Place housing-retail project, which is about to start a second phase. Across Mary Avenue is a renovated building that soon will house Apex coffee roasters and Brotherwell Brewing. Within a few blocks are the soon-to-open Magnolia Market and the Waco Hippodrome.

David Gradel, founder of Gradel Printing, recently sold his business to longtime employee Tim Brooks but maintains a book publishing company under the same roof. Gradel and Brooks will move next week to a former pawnshop location at 1701 Franklin Ave.

Gradel said the old warehouse was not on the market, but he was happy to sell it to the Turner brothers.

“It was time,” he said. “Waco is coming of age, and there’s a new energy in downtown. I know this building is better served by someone with the ability to do something new with it. I’ve seen what they’ve developed, and I like the way it looks and know they’ll do this right.”

GRADEL3

A company publication from the 1940s depicts the building, which housed J.M. Wood Manufacturing Co.

Gradel moved to the building in 1995, knowing it was far more space than he needed but hoping that it would become valuable someday.

“I wasn’t looking for a building that big, but when it became available, I said, ‘Wow, what a wonderful building,’ ” Gradel said. “Most people didn’t want these buildings down here.”

When he bought it at a bargain price, the building had been empty for several years and had broken windows. It had most recently served as a screen-printing operation for Amaco, which made pennants and other merchandise.

In its heyday, the building housed some of Waco’s biggest employers.

A group of Waco-area investors built the structure in 1917 for $85,000, boasting in a trade journal at the time that it would be equipped with steam heating and sprinkler systems.

A 1924 city directory describes the businesses as “importers and jobbers of dry goods, furnishings, notions, white goods and hosiery” and lists its president as T.A. Cheeves, of Marlin.

In August 1945, the Waco-based J.M. Wood clothing company announced in a local newspaper ad that it was moving its 400 employees to the facility and would be transitioning from making military uniforms to making civilian clothes.

gene autry

Music and film star Gene Autry and officials with J.M. Wood Manufacturing Co. observe workers making Gene Autry blue jeans in this undated publicity photo taken at the Waco plant.

That included work clothes, Western-style clothes for children and a popular Gene Autry line of bluejeans, named for the country-and-western pioneer and movie star known for singing “Back in the Saddle Again” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

By 1972, the company had 900 people working at its flagship Waco plant, and hundreds more at plants in Hillsboro, Temple and Dublin, according to records from a labor lawsuit. That would make it one of Waco’s largest employers at the time. The building sold to Amaco in the mid-1970s.

Gradel said he and his wife, Lulu, have mixed feelings about leaving the old building behind.

“We have loved it,” he said. “It’s been like home to us. I love Waco history. It really was a blessing to us. I give thanks all the time for it.”

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