Eric Phagan and his parents, Jeff and Peggy Phagan, have received the Historic Preservation Heroes Award for their work on the Gallery 115 building. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/
Eric Phagan and his parents, Jeff and Peggy Phagan, have received the Historic Preservation Heroes Award for their work on the Gallery 115 building. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/
Eric Phagan's art often reflects Madison's landmarks - historic downtown business fronts, homes and the Broadway Fountain.

He deliberately includes tiny dark lines in some of his paintings to capture a look and feel reminiscent of vintage photographs taken decades ago.

And it's with that same mindset - but using a different canvas - that Eric and his family approached Gallery 115, an art studio, home decor store, cafe and rental suite location that opened in April last year.

It's a place that takes visitors back to the earlier days of Madison - much like the welcoming social environment with "vintage charm" that Phagan has spent years depicting through his paint brush.

"A lot of people in Madison, they experienced that time period," Phagan said. "There's just something that's so romantic and nostalgic about it, and we just wanted to bring it back."

The two-level structure, at 115 E. Main St., was built in 1840 and remodeled in 1917, had been vacant for about two years when the family purchased it in October 2011.

This week, the Phagan family received Madison's Historic Preservation Heroes Award for their renovation of the downtown shop which closely followed the city's historic code guidelines and helped uncover the building's history along the way.

The preservation award came on a special day last week - Jeff and Peggy Phagan's wedding anniversary.

The city's historic preservation planner Camille Fife started the Preservation Heroes award in late 2011 to recognize individuals or businesses that properly restore Madison's historic sites. The Phagans are the fifth recipients.

To be eligible for the recognition, the person or persons must have applied to the historic board for changes, followed proper historic code, displayed innovation and put sweat equity into the project.

"We tried to bring it back to its original state as much as possible and reuse a lot of things in the building to show off its beauty," Phagan said. "My dad always says, 'Let the building be what it is.'"

Jeff Phagan took the helm with the renovations, painting, wiring and installation work, often reusing found pieces to punch up the building's nostalgic aesthetics and easily meeting the "sweat equity" portion of the award. The project took six months to complete and focused heavily on the first floor.

One of his additions included creating the base of a concrete bar from old steam radiators found onsite.

Also during the renovations, the family uncovered and restored several windows and a few doors that had been hidden by wood paneling and other obstructions installed before historic guidelines were in place.

The building has gone through a number of transitions and actually started as two separate shops in the 1800s. During that time, the west side of the structure served as a meat packaging shop, while the east end was home to an undertaker and furniture shop.

In the 1920s, JCPenney took over the location, which at that point had been converted into one building. Mostly recently, the building was home to an antique store.

By the time the Phagans purchased the building, it had been decades since a full-scale renovation had taken place, and its original historic flair was in jeopardy. Wood paneling had been used to cover some of the site's unique perks and big fluorescent light fixtures blocked off some of the original decorative ceiling.

"It looked like the '70s threw up in here and got painted over with the '80s colors," Phagan joked.

One of the biggest transformations was to the building's facade, where the hopper windows, those which are hinged at the bottom, had been covered. Unveiling the windows allowed for more natural light to accompany the "(Thomas) Edison-style lightbulbs" that were installed, Phagan said.

Fife said uncovering the windows was a good way to show "the original fabric of the building" and something she and the historic board felt improved the site.

Separate from meeting the historic guidelines, Fife said Gallery 115 sets a good example because it has established a business that has several methods of income between the art, merchandise and food.

That's just what the Phagans were hoping to achieve.

The cafe has been a big and somewhat unexpected part of the family's success and has become a hot spot for downtown gatherings like Soup, Stew, Chili & Brew and Fourth Friday, Phagan said.

It started as a site where customers could enjoy coffee and simple treats - items that Phagan said remind people of "grandma's house" - and has evolved to soups, sandwiches and much more.

"And that's nothing we looked at taking on but it's just what people wanted," Phagan said.

The gallery even hosts gatherings for wedding rehearsals, church groups and birthday parties in its upstairs meeting room. They've also added employees for the cafe, which is run by Peggy.

"I think by having several things going on in one location, it opens you up to so much more," Phagan said.

Down the road, the Phagans are looking to continue expanding their ideas for the building. Already, they're planning to install a new staircase facing the alley, and they are considering painting a mural on the side of the building.

In the meantime, the family hopes to continue serving as a social setting for patrons.

And they don't expect to grow tired of hearing the opening line "I remember when ..." each time someone enters the shop.