Hidden gem.” “10 out of 10.” “Stunningly beautiful.” “Perfect weekend getaway.”
Locals love downtown Forsyth, but those may not have been the words they would use in the past.
But those are exactly the words overnight guests are using to describe the new CityLine Loft on Johnston Street in Forsyth.
Bolingbroke developers Joel Kennedy and Joel Bartholf, owners of CityLine Commercial Holdings, converted an historic but dilapidated two-story Johnston Street building into an upscale two-bedroom loft two years ago. The response has been overwhelming.
Cityline invested heavily to restore what was known as the Berner building to its original 1895 look, and to make it a jewel of downtown.
“I think that we hit the nail right on the head of what we were trying to accomplish,” said Kennedy. “We knew that Forsyth did not really offer anything in the upper end of overnight hospitality. We are looking to fill a niche need and I think we have done just that. We have had guests from as far as Maine and as close as just around the corner.”
Kennedy said they have rented The Loft for bridal showers, in-town guests, passing-through traffic, people in town for festivals and shows, as well as people just looking to get out of their house for the weekend.
“We have a very comfortable loft with all of the modern conveniences,” said Kennedy.
The Loft has also been popular with visitors in town working at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center or the Department of Corrections at Tift College
Meanwhile, the downstairs offices are the home of State Farm agent Charles Pelt. The front of the building harkens back to its original 1895 look, with an awning, wooden features and window sashes.
“Everybody’s excited about what we’re doing here,” said Bartherow.
The response has been wholly positive from guests.
“This is an awesome space! Great location as well! Very clean! Very thoughtful host,” wrote a visitor in September 2019.
Another guest, Kimberly, wrote: “The loft is stunningly beautiful and does not disappoint. The pictures do not do it justice. Amazing host. Beautiful town. Dinner at Grits Cafe. Makes for a perfect weekend getaway!”
Kennedy said The Loft is part of a wider renaissance of the downtown district that he’s excited to be part of.
“Downtown Forsyth has huge potential,” said Kennedy. Asked how Forsyth can take advantage of the current growth, Kennedy said the city should plan some type of bypass to move the large truck traffic that passes through the square.
“Besides the increased traffic flow, the noise and general safety issues with pedestrians and the larger trucks will at some point hinder future business and residential development,” said Kennedy. “In town residential development is booming across the state and country and Forsyth is missing out. We don’t have any new projects planned currently but are not at all opposed to doing another project in downtown Forsyth.”
Asked if he has advice for other developers looking to build lofts in historic buildings, Kennedy said they should see if they qualify for any tax incentives for their project, adding that renovating old buildings can be very costly.
“Make sure you plan for contingency reserves,” said Kennedy. “Most importantly in my opinion, do a quality job and its success will happen much easier.”
While The Loft is unlike anything Forsyth has seen, the building has a rich history. Lewis and Barbara Waldrop owned the building from 1953 to the 1980s, and they’re perhaps the best-remembered tenants of the recent era as they had Waldrop’s 5-and-10 store there. But the building’s original owner was Robert Leigh Berner, a colorful state legislator from Forsyth who erected the building in the 1890s, according to Monroe County historian Ralph Bass. Berner had bought the lot in 1895 for $175 to build his law office. Later, a fire broke out in a bakery next door and destroyed all the buildings to the east — but the Berner building survived. A lawyer by trade, Berner served several terms in the Georgia house and senate, becoming president of the senate. He was called a silver-tongued orator. He ran for governor on a temperance and anti-monopoly platform but lost to another former Forsyth resident, Allen “One-Eyed” Chandler, in 1896.
Banks Stephens, an orphan who went on to become a famed Forsyth banker and the namesake of the local middle school, recalled that Berner took him under his wing, educating him and sending him to college.
“That noble and kind offer proved to me that he then had a tender and kind heart in his breast,” wrote Stephens. “He was then a poor, struggling young lawyer. I have never forgotten it, and I never will.”
But it had fallen into disrepair when CityLine bought it. One of their first tasks, said Bartherow, was to remove mounds of bat poop that had collected in the building over decades of vacancy. It was so bad that the building had become known as The Bat Building. But you would never know that now.
Cityline used cranes to put building materials on the second floor to make it a two-bedroom loft apartment. The upstairs has lots of windows and they re-created a fireplace there as well. The two-bedroom loft apartment is accessible from the street complete with a barn-style door at the top of the steps. The kitchen area in the front overlooks downtown Forsyth. Cityline also put a new roof on the building.
Anyone interested in staying in The Loft can search for CityLine Loft Forsyth on www.airbnb.com. Rates start at $210 per night.