Winchester could learn lessons in historic preservation from Madison, Indiana

The St. George Hotel once stood at Main & Washington
The St. George Hotel once stood at Main & Washington, one of the lost build­ings that now form gaps in the down­town land­scape. (Click to enlarge)

A cou­ple of weeks ago, my wife Clare and I escaped for a two-night get­away for the first time in ages.  The des­ti­na­tion for our mini-vaca­tion was Madison, Indiana, an old riv­er town best known to some for its speed­boat regat­ta held each July, one of the largest hydroplane races in the U.S.

However, Madison is a year-round tourist des­ti­na­tion for anoth­er rea­son.  The city boasts one of the largest down­town his­toric dis­tricts in the nation.  Although small­er than Winchester, Madison counts 133 city blocks com­pris­ing an incred­i­ble 1,695 prop­er­ties list­ed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Many of its build­ings date from 1810, when the town was estab­lished, to the end of its hey­day in 1860.  Tourism put Madison back on the map in the 20th century.

One oth­er note­wor­thy fea­ture of the town is the near absence of chain stores and fran­chise busi­ness­es in the his­toric dis­trict.  (We found only two, a Citgo gas sta­tion and a Dollar General store.)  Madison has some­how man­aged to restrict these types of busi­ness­es to an area north of down­town called “The Hill.”  Entering Madison from the bridge over the Ohio River, one is imme­di­ate­ly struck by its strik­ing­ly non-com­mer­cial appear­ance.  In con­trast, cross­ing the bridge going south you enter Milton, Kentucky, where the first build­ings encoun­tered are gas sta­tions, tobac­co shops, a food mart, a car wash, and a place sell­ing lot­tery tick­ets.  Milton is not a tourist stop.

The old WWKY building on W. Broadway
The old WWKY build­ing on W. Broadway is anoth­er of the lost build­ings that now form gaps in the down­town land­scape. (Click to enlarge)

Winchester can­not rival Madison in the num­ber of his­toric prop­er­ties.  However, we do have a down­town his­toric dis­trict con­tain­ing a remark­ably intact col­lec­tion of late 19th-cen­tu­ry build­ings.  The down­town com­mer­cial dis­trict was list­ed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 with 114 con­tribut­ing struc­tures.  The dis­trict extends along Main Street from Washington Street to Ogden Court and includes the Courthouse Square plus a por­tion of Broadway and Lexington Avenue.  The dis­tinc­tive “high side” of Main Street con­tains the rich­est col­lec­tion of com­mer­cial archi­tec­ture in the district. 

Among the things that detract from a vibrant tourist-wor­thy down­town com­mer­cial area are emp­ty store­fronts, dete­ri­o­rat­ing build­ings, and gaps in the streetscape. 

Empty shop win­dows send the sig­nal that busi­ness­es are fail­ing and the local econ­o­my is in a down­turn.  Just a few years ago there were many of these along Main Street.  Winchester is expe­ri­enc­ing a kind of renais­sance down­town with a host of new prop­er­ty own­ers.  Many build­ings have already been restored and put back into pro­duc­tive use.  It’s a dou­ble win for Winchester that these old build­ings have not only been saved but also that they are now con­tribut­ing pos­i­tive­ly to the local econ­o­my.  More projects are in progress. 

I’ll risk men­tion­ing only two exam­ples out of the many that could be cit­ed.  Laura Freeman and Bill Kingsbury pur­chased the old A.M.E. Church build­ing at the cor­ner of Broadway and Church Alley from the city.  The struc­ture that was near col­lapse and slat­ed for demo­li­tion has been struc­tural­ly repaired and thought­ful­ly repur­posed as Wildcat Willy’s Distillery and Farm-to-Table Restaurant. 

Bush Bros Motors stood next to the current D&S Hardware building on Main St
Bush Bros Motors stood next to the cur­rent D&S Hardware build­ing on Main St., anoth­er of the lost build­ings that now form gaps in the down­town land­scape. (Click to enlarge) 

The Odd Fellows Building on South Main Street (the old Winchester Bank) suf­fered a major fire sev­er­al years ago and has been sit­ting emp­ty since.  Its loss would have been a seri­ous blow to the down­town land­scape.  Earlier this year Perry Williams pur­chased the build­ing and began mak­ing repairs to the roof and win­dows in order to sta­bi­lize the struc­ture.  Doctor Williams has pledged to put the build­ing back into com­mer­cial use.  Winchester is for­tu­nate to have many oth­ers who are com­mit­ted to restor­ing our his­toric down­town area.

Perhaps the most com­mon excuse for raz­ing a build­ing is that it’s just too expen­sive, that the cost of restora­tion could nev­er be recov­ered.  This is typ­i­cal­ly the case when own­ers allow build­ings to dete­ri­o­rate by fail­ing to per­form prop­er main­te­nance (or any main­te­nance at all).  The term for this is “demo­li­tion by neglect.”  I believe most of us can point to a num­ber of down­town build­ings falling into this cat­e­go­ry.  The only way to pre­vent it is by a local ordi­nance requir­ing own­ers to pro­vide upkeep on their build­ings.  Winchester bad­ly needs such an ordinance.

There are a num­ber of park­ing lots (read “gaps”) along Main Street and Broadway where build­ings once stood.  See the accom­pa­ny­ing pho­tos for exam­ples.  The loss of his­toric build­ings is rarely due to neces­si­ty.  Preservationists know that any build­ing still stand­ing has a chance to be saved.  Historic build­ings pro­vide an impor­tant part of Winchester’s iden­ti­ty.  They help illu­mi­nate our his­to­ry and cul­ture and togeth­er con­sti­tute the archi­tec­tur­al her­itage of our com­mu­ni­ty.  It’s one of the things that makes Winchester a nice place to live.

  • Harry is a Mt. Sterling native who has lived in Clark County since1999. He has a pas­sion for the past and has researched and writ­ten exten­sive­ly about the his­to­ry of this area.