By Michaela Morris
Ten years ago, an excursion for barbecue turned into an adventure in renovation and recycling for Joel and Donna Bennett.
After years of hard work and hunting, the couple transformed the third floor of a former hardware store into a unique penthouse apartment with an eclectic mix of the past and present.
“I just wanted something different,” said Joel Bennett, who was born in New Albany and grew up in Blue Mountain.
The 2,800 square foot apartment with three bedrooms and three baths reflects the interests and life experiences of the couple, who have roots and family in Northeast Mississippi, but whose professional careers took them across the country and around the world.
“We were not antique collectors,” said Donna Bennett. “We both always had an interest in old buildings.”
The Bennetts were still living and working in Las Vegas when they saw the For Sale sign in front of the Hamilton Hardware store building in 2007 as they were heading to Westside Barbecue. The couple was traveling to Ripley every other weekend as they renovated the old Ripley Feed and Seed into the three-suite Inn on the Square.
Joel told Donna he just wanted to look at the building which dates from 1885 with an addition in 1887.
“I saw the elevator with the huge gears and said ‘We have to buy it,’” Joel Bennett said.
They began a seven-year odyssey to renovate the building into Hamilton Place. Creating the six second-floor apartments was the first order of business for the couple. They worked with contractor Jerry Bramlett, who also did the renovations for the Inn on the Square.
As the apartments were finished and the Bennetts retired – Joel from his work as a heavy equipment salesman for Caterpillar and Donna from work as a chemist for cosmetics manufacturers – and moved to New Albany full time.
It took 16 months to finish the penthouse and the Bennetts were able to move into their permanent home in 2015. Joel Bennett enjoyed digging into the work to create the space.
“I was the assistant plumber, the assistant painter,” working under Bramlett’s tutelage, Joel Bennett said. “I lived downstairs and worked upstairs.”
Mixing it up
Joel Bennett made his first foray into creative recycling a decade ago. He took discarded gears and parts from the Dumpster at the Caterpillar dealership and had the welders and fabricators create a steel and glass dining room table that is a centerpiece in penthouse.
“Everybody liked it so much,” Joel Bennett said. The dealership ended up making more of the furniture pieces when the recession hit.
“It didn’t make a lot of money, but it kept people working through the lean times,” Bennett said.
When the work started on Hamilton Place, the Bennetts had only two antique pieces in hand: a 1949 Coca-Cola machine Joel Bennett bought more than 20 years ago because it dated from the year he was born and an 1881 rosewood box grand piano that had been stored in the Hamilton Hardware building.
Outfitting the penthouses and the common spaces of Hamilton Place turned into a treasure hunt for the Bennetts. While the renovations were underway, he began his hunt for intriguing pieces of history that could be put to new use in the penthouse.
“I found stuff and Donna had to decorate around it,” Joel Bennett said.
He haunted the architectural garden section of eBay and visited antique stores and salvage companies.
“It was fun to find stuff older than me,” Bennett said.
A bank teller cage from Minneapolis now serves as a room divider between the living room and kitchen.
“They passed money back and forth,” Bennett said. “We pass biscuits.”
Several of his finds came together to remake the private elevator, which relies on a forklift for get up and go. The elevator cage came from a hotel in Davenport, Iowa. The doors came from the Biltmore Hotel in Ashville, North Carolina. Doors on the second floor elevator lobby came from a saloon in Kansas City. In the penthouse, the doors guarding the shaft came from a Bronx bank.
The belt-driven fans dotted through the living room came from the Sands Hotel poker rooms. An ice box door hides a modern laundry room that winks at the building’s hardware store heritage.
The doors on the built-in cabinets in the master bedroom hail from the offices of Lansky Bros. clothiers in Memphis.
Not all the pieces Bennett was looking for were big. He found post office box doors to create a clever wine cellar in the wall.
“Three of them are from the 1800s,” Joel Bennett said.
Now that the work is done, they get to relax and enjoy family and the new friends they’ve made. From their balcony overlooking Bankhead Street, they have watched New Albany blossom over the past decade.
“Our little town is booming,” Joel Bennett said.