Downtown’s new AJ Rocco’s reopening in May

Built in 1880 as a saloon topped by apartments, this three-story building on Huron Road just west of East 9th Street in Downtown Cleveland was added onto twice in its history and became The American Savings Bank. One addition was in back and the other was this terra cotta façade that was cleaned and restored to its former beauty to match the attention to detail of the renovations made inside for AJ Rocco’s new home and new full restaurant concept (KJP). CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE THEM.

Gateway District bank revived as cozy pub, apartment

If you remember AJ Rocco’s as a coffee shop in the neighboring Caxton Building in Downtown Cleveland, the new AJ Rocco’s is going to be a big change for you. Restaurant-bar owner Brendan Walton and building owner Paul Shaia spared no expense in renovating a 19th-century bank building at 828 Huron Rd. to its Gilded Age glory with all of the rich woodwork, brick walls and metal decorative elements one would expect in a cozy downtown pub.

Although the tiny, nearly 5,600-square-foot building received its post-reconstruction occupancy permit from the city, Walton is waiting on a liquor permit from the state. It could come in early May and, if it does, it will mark the end of a four-year saga of trying to open AJ Rocco’s restaurant and bar. That saga was lengthened by the pandemic and all of the economic, financial and legal complications that followed.

What has emerged from that is a thoroughly renovated building, one of downtown’s oldest that’s still standing, with modern features that have either restored and repurposed historic decorations or installed new ones that look old. The trick was fitting the right angles of the newly constructed two-floor restaurant and bar plus a third-floor apartment into a building that had settled and contorted over 144 years.

In that mix of old and new settings, patrons will dine on traditional American tavern fare in booths with padded benches and mahogany wood partitions topped by framed glass having a leaded appearance. Or patrons may imbibe at classically designed bars among mahogany walls and sculpted wooden pillars on the first or second floors.

Key players in the new AJ Rocco’s were on site doing some heavy lifting in the days before the new location opens. From left are AJ Rocco’s owner Brendan Walton, Head Chef Devin Cerjan, House Operations Manager Bridget Sweeney and General Manager Joe Galloway (KJP).

During that four-year saga of AJ Rocco’s return, Walton, Shaia’s development company Victory Properties and others poured their money, sweat and probably some blood into renovating this 1880-built saloon with apartments above. When built, it did not have indoor plumbing. That came 20 years later, said Jason Surdock, Shaia’s assistant.

The building was added onto in the front in 1898 and the back in 1910. Nine years later, the building was renovated for The American Savings Bank, including the addition of the terra cotta façade and, in the basement, a vault that remains there today. A first-floor bank vault was removed.

It stopped being a bank in the mid-1960s and, after sitting vacant for a decade, went through the next 50 years under various roles, including as a Camera City & Audio store, George’s Deli in the late 1980s, Fortune Cafe in the 1990s, Alesci’s Downtown in the 2000s and, most recently, Huron Point Tavern, closing on Dec. 31, 2018. Each new use partially removed or added new decor, equipment, wiring and more, turning the building into a misfit puzzle.

“We decided to gut the entire building from exterior wall to exterior wall,” said Shaia whose father Victor Shaia purchased the building in the early 1980s. “Everything except for the walls is basically new. Stairs were demolished and redone. Lots of reinforcing. Lots of all-new mechanicals. I’d rather not say on the record (how much we paid) for a few different reasons. I can say the ROI (return on investment) is very low because a lot went into this space. It was a labor of love.”

When fully complete, including the addition of the black key tile flooring as this rendering shows, the main bar at AJ Rocco’s will offer clean, modern lines but designed with historic-looking materials and elements like ceramic tiles, mahogany wood walls, pillars and cabinetry and original bricks and plaster (AJ Rocco’s).

Their application for a state historic tax credit in 2020 showed an estimated renovations cost of $1,534,766. But the price has gone up since. The stylish front canopy and electric signage by themselves were projected at nearly $40,000, two city permits showed. The desire to renovate more of the building increased as time went on. Then came the post-pandemic inflation and supply issues which weren’t anticipated when the project began four years ago.

Some renovations will have to continue after AJ Rocco’s opens next month. In the first-floor is a mix of ceramic and wood flooring. But the wood flooring is temporary, Surdock said. The reason is that the intended white and black key tile flooring, a traditional look often found in 1920s-era bars, is on back order.

The building’s certificate of occupancy says AJ Rocco’s can accommodate up to 199 people on its first and second floors, both of which have bars and lounge areas. Walton said the second floor also has “a bourbon-whiskey drink bar” mezzanine overlooking Huron to the north and a back patio which has a southern view of Progressive Field where the Cleveland Guardians play baseball. The occupancy limit doesn’t include the landscaped front patio, however.

On game nights at Progressive Field and nearby RocketMortgage FieldHouse where the Cleveland Cavaliers play basketball, crush crowds may test AJ Rocco’s occupancy limit. Walton says he wants to accommodate the crowds as well as offer a cozy place for a drink and a sandwich, or chicken, steak, fish and other entrees. And you’ll be able to get a cup of joe from Cleveland Coffee Co. which Walton also owns.

The opening up of the rear, or southern portion of the building with a new staircase and the addition of eight windows provide views of Progressive Field from AJ Rocco’s mezzanine. Lounge-style seating near the second-floor bar will be offered here (KJP).

The old AJ Rocco’s, set on the ground-floor of the Caxton Building from 2001-2019, didn’t have a kitchen. So its food offerings were limited to flatbread pizzas, oven-baked sandwiches and other traditionals. But with a full, openly visible kitchen on the first floor of the new space, plus a prep kitchen and cold storage in the basement, Walton says he and Head Chef Devin Cerjan are looking forward to doing more.

“We want an elevated experience with what we can do with the kitchen,” Walton said. “We want to be consumer friendly with all the events going on, and those surge crowds want to have the foods that are timely. But we’re also creating a space to have people find this as a destination on non-event nights.”

Anticipated hours are from 11 a.m. to midnight during the week, but opening at 10 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays for brunches on both days. AJ Rocco’s will be closed on Mondays. Shaia said it may open for breakfasts in the mornings sometime in the future.

“Downtown needs some more restaurants,” Shaia said. “A lot of them closed in the last four or five years.”

One of the new features of the building is the addition of a back staircase for the public that opened up the southern part of the establishment. It required removing a large portion of the second floor. And eight new windows were cut into the exterior which was a challenge considering Shaia’s company Plau Inc. won a state historic tax credit of $168,000 for the renovations.

A small view of the 828 Huron apartment’s living room that looks out on to Huron Road and Prospect Avenue, plus a part of the kitchen’s granite, custom-made counter top is at far right. This living room fills the width of the building (KJP).

Building owners that win historic tax credits are often under tight constraints as to what they can change in the original building. Then again, this rear portion wasn’t part of the original 1880 building.

“Diana Wellman (principal at historic preservation consultant at NaylorWellman, LLC) did a wonderful job advocating on our behalf,” Shaia said. “I’m not sure how we did it but I’m grateful we did.”

Above the two-story bar is an apartment with one permanent bedroom plus a den/office that converts into a second bedroom by lowering a Murphy bed in the wall. The 1,500-square-foot apartment has one-and-a-half baths, the building’s address in the shower’s tile, granite countertops in the kitchen, in-suite washer/drier, smart home features and security, plus and a view out on to Huron and Prospect as well as access to the walk-out terrace in back.

Rents are projected at about $3,200 per month. In its historic tax credit application, the apartment is described as “a third-floor hospitality unit available for short-term rentals” such as Airbnb. But Shaia said they’re going to market the apartment for long-term rentals for now. Interested persons may call 216-622-7556 or e-mail he said.


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