The Venezuelan owner of a growing New Haven real estate empire has snatched up a storied downtown property—with plans to return a ground-floor coffee shop to Pitkin Plaza.
Juan Salas-Romer (pictured above) and his family real estate business, NHR Properties, bought the property, the Palladium Building, at 139 Orange St. for $1,950,000 on March 26, according to land records. The four-story brownstone building, erected in 1855, is the former home of the Young Men’s Institute Library. It now houses offices and three street-level retail spots: Tikkaway, a popular new fast-food Indian restaurant; a recently shuttered salon; and the former home of Bru Cafe, which has now become a pop-up art gallery.
The sale marks the next chapter for a storied downtown landmark—and a new frontier for one of the city’s largest landlords, which has been quietly built up a portfolio of over 45 buildings with 250 apartments.
Salas-Romer outlined plans for the building in an interview Tuesday in his office at 900 Chapel St. He said he plans to rent Bru’s former home to Whole G, the local German bakery. Whole G currently bakes grain-rich, high-end breads at a commercial bakery on Hamilton Street and also runs a retail outpost called G Cafe in Branford.
Salas-Romer said his brother was having breakfast at the G Cafe when he started chatting with the owners. He learned that one of Whole G’s co-owners, Kiara Matos, hails from Venezuela. The two connected and started talking about the possibility of G Cafe moving into the old Bru.
Salas-Romer said he hopes to lease the space to Whole G in June. The bakery would then undergo serious renovations and aim to open in September, he said. Salas-Romer said he hopes the bakery would serve not just coffee and artisanal bread, but also wine. The cafe could create a fenced-off area in the plaza where people could sip wine in evening hours, as they do across the way at O’Tooles.
Reached through a spokeswoman, Whole G co-owner Andrea Corazzini said the bakery is considering the space, but has not signed any papers yet and does not know what kind of cafe the bakery would open at that spot.
Bru Cafe was a hotspot for workday coffee meetings among city government workers as well as nighttime poetry slams and concerts. The coffee shop closed in 2012 amid some flooding and a years-long dispute between the tenant and the landlords at the time, Lynne and Brian Franford of Orange Palladium LLC.
Salas-Romer said luring Whole G downtown would provide the chance to continue reviving Pitkin Plaza and serve a growing population of neighbors at 360 State and other apartment buildings. Salas-Romer noted that Tikkaway serves samosas until 9 p.m., an indication that there’s an appetite for nighttime eateries on that block. The brick plaza itself—ringed by O’Toole’s and Devil’s Gear Bike Shop and 360 State, with its ground floor Elm City Market—has become an urban hub, with lots of formal and informal gatherings.
Salas-Romer said he is looking for a new tenant for the space next to the old Bru Cafe. That spot until recently held Style 2000 hair salon, which just decided to move to Whalley Avenue instead of renewing its lease. The three floors above the retail spaces hold various offices, including those of Turning Point, a drug rehab program for young men. Salas-Romer said his NHR Properties plans to keep all of the tenants in the building and move its own offices there as well.
NHR Properties owns 250 units of housing citywide in about 46 buildings. The company, which has a half-dozen employees, is currently renting office space on the sixth floor of 900 Chapel.
The Palladium Building is the second commercial building NHR Properties has bought since it jumped into the real estate business about five years ago, Salas-Romer said. The first was 299 Whalley Ave., which houses START Bank.
Stop The Presses
The Palladium Building, which comprises 16,144 square feet, is rich with history. Robert Merwin Treat built it in 1855 to house the Young Men’s Institute Library, according to local historian Colin Caplan. (The historic private library has since moved around the corner to Chapel Street and dropped the “Young Men’s” part of its name.) When it was built, the Renaissance Revival/Italianate building was among the tallest in New Haven, with clear views to the Harbor and East Rock, according to a history written by the New Haven Museum for a recent exhibition in the Palladium windows.
In 1859, the top floor became home to New Haven’s first high school, James Hillhouse High.
In 1867, it housed the Home Insurance Company, which built the famous row houses on Court Street, according to Caplan.
The Palladium got its current name when James Babcock, editor of the Daily Palladium newspaper and a member of the Institute Library, bought the building, Caplan said. The paper was printed right in the building.
The Palladium endured a serious fire in 1921. The New Haven Redevelopment Agency bought it in the 1950s and scheduled it for demolition in the ‘70s, according to the New Haven Museum. Adjacent buildings were torn down; the Palladium was saved from the wrecking ball. Nicholas Merletti, owner of Nicholas Furs, bought the building in 1977. There’s still an empty 700-square foot cooler in the basement that used to store furs, according to Salas-Romer.
The Palladium was renovated in 1981 and restored “to its former glory as a gem of New Haven architecture,” according to the museum. Two years later, Pitkin Plaza opened next door as a new public square.
Salas-Romer came to New Haven from his native Venezuela just 10 years ago. While he is relatively new to town, he said his family’s roots stretch back for decades: His father and three uncles went to Yale. His family members founded the Bank of New Haven in 1978 and the Bank of Southern Connecticut in 2001, he said.
“We have a long history in this city,” he said. He said he is looking forward to writing the next chapter of the Palladium’s history.
“It’s a lovely building,” he said. “It has a nice presence.”