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Then and now: Greencastle's downtown

By Leah Williams
On December 6, 2013

  • Greencastle's downtown square. CLARISSA ZINGRAF / THE DEPAUW

The wafting smell of fresh bread from the bakery, the harmonic voices of the opera house and the husky chunks of meat hanging in the butcher's shop were all signs of the businesses that once made up the vibrant scene of downtown Greencastle.
Today the square is undergoing a "face lift" to restore its historic appearance and feel.
Two years ago, Greencastle was awarded the Stellar Community grant by the state of Indiana to support its efforts in revamping the community. Because communities with a population under 50,000 often don't have the same resources as larger towns, Indiana introduced the Stellar Communities program in 2010 to offer aid.
The grant was dispersed in increments of $500,000 during the period of three years to fund the town's projects. The goal of the project is to restructure the store fronts of each business, restoring each one to its true historical face. One noticeable change has been the restoration of historical façades downtown. When the project was first introduced, the city presented the opportunity to all the property owners on the square in addition to one block south on Indiana Street and one block east on Washington Street.
Of the buildings that had not been recently worked on, only two declined.
"We didn't dream we'd have the interest we had," said Laurie Hardwick, Greencastle's city attorney.
With such a turnout, the city had to make a decision whether to scale back the project or to make a greater contribution; they chose the latter.
While the completion of the face lift of the businesses is still underway, Department Head for Local History and Genealogy at the Putnam County Public Library Tony Barger still marvels over the square's rich past.
"It was completely different than it is today," said Barger. "It was kind of a one stop shopping place."
Barger described the various specialty clothing, hardware and groceries stores that once existed in the square. The well-known International Business Machine computer corporation (IBM) was also another sector that brought money to the town before it closed down in 1986.
"It was absolutely the center of everything that happened in town," said Barger.
Based on the development of the construction in the square, Barger notices that the city is returning to a more historic appearance.
"They're trying to stay as true to the original structure as they can," he said. "You're going to see increased foot traffic and you're going to see more businesses and more restaurants and more of an attraction to downtown"
The façade project has not been without difficulty however. One initial delay arose from simply finishing all the paperwork in time. By the time the city had finalized details with the contractor, it was almost winter and they had to wait to begin. The project began in 2010 and was expected to take three years, but Hardwick says it will take longer.
Even when the work finally was underway, problems arose. When the upper siding was removed at Almost Home, there was no façade underneath. With no bricks, there was no way to restore the bricks.
However, these issues are minor compared to a recent fire, much like the fires the town experienced in 1874 and 1875.
"Everything went completely down to the ground and very little was left as far as downtown went," said Barger of those fires.
The second fire was less than five months after the first, and both were financially damaging to the town. Fortunately, the latest fire that occurred earlier this May was far less devastating. A handful of buildings were damaged, and the city had to verify that they were still structurally sound. For some, they had to change the project. Windows that were originally going to be restored are now to be replaced.
"For the most part, the façades are in pretty good shape after the fire," said Hardwick.
Though the focus is on the façades, the city is not ignoring structure. Hardwick said they are also improving the functionality of the buildings, so the visual enhancements will last even longer.
"In the end, we'll be improving those buildings for generations," she said.
Years ago the buildings were largely brick, including decorative façades at the front. Greencastle is restoring the buildings according to Department Interior and Historical standards. This can mean replicating that which was already built, but not necessarily. For example, one building had art deco black glass in the 1930s and brick before that, and the city can choose which to reinstate.
"The whole goal is to bring a focus to our downtown and the link with the campus," said Hardwick.
The "link to campus" is best represented by the work on the People Pathways, a trail that runs from the DePauw Nature Park down Veteran's Highway to Big Walnut Sports Park.
In addition to the façades and the trail, Stellar is helping to fund projects like increased parking, loft housing and streetscapes, such as Anderson Street, which was finished last year. Indiana Street will undergo a similar renewal in 2015.
Bill Sullivan, owner of Vintage on Franklin, has been impressed with the work and the workers as well.
"They've done an excellent job. I've been in renovation my whole life," he said. "It's easy to do a wack job, and they never did."
Although several buildings are finished, there are many more to go. The buildings in downtown Greencastle are transforming back to their former image, and the people, especially shopkeepers like Sullivan, are noticing an improvement.
Sullivan commented, "They're just smiling now, and they were pretty sick before." 

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