Tear it down, or fix it up?
Driving through Southern Indiana yesterday, I pulled over in the town of Hardinsburg to take a photo of a strikingly decrepit building. I know nothing about the structure but would hazard the guess that it once was the general store and was probably built in the 1890s. The upstairs could have served either as the owner’s living quarters or could have been rented out as a general meeting hall for civic groups. The building is half a block deep, so the entire back section of the store would have provided ample storage.
The colored glass insets that border the windows are original and quite beautiful. You can occasionally find houses of this era that still have colored glass squares, but many of these lovely Victorian flourishes have been removed over the years due either to breakage or to stylistic abandonment. (In Bloomington, you can see similar colored glass squares at the Hinkle-Garton Farmstead and the business on West Kirkwood known as Guitar & Amp.)
Also look closely at the shutters at the top (click on images to enlarge); it’s astonishing that they still cling to the building. And above them, almost at the top of the building, wooden letters still proudly spell out the name HARDINSBURG, to let travelers in buggies in the old days know exactly where they were. This building when new would have been painted in multiple colors and could well have been the smartest building in the town.
Whenever I see an old building like this, I entertain foolish dreams in which I am a millionaire with sufficient money to bring the building back to life. How much money would it take, realistically, to turn this back into a functional general store again, stocking local produce, meats and eggs; with a soda fountain that sells sandwiches, cold drinks, and ice cream, and offering locally-made quilts, baskets or other handicrafts. The building needs serious intervention: a new roof, new electrical and plumbing, new drywall throughout, new flooring, possibly remedial supports here and there, and all the windows need to be removed, tightened, and replaced, with storm windows added behind them. Probably the cost would rise to six digits when adding in the cost of the mechanical equipment needed to keep food cool.
But even if a genie could wave a magic wand and bring the store back to life, would it be economically viable? Would people shop there instead of driving 20 miles away to shop at the big-box stores where goods are cheaper? Southern Indiana has suffered enormously during the economic downturn, and small communities that were healthy thirty years ago now look like ghost towns. The fact is: it just might not be possible to bring the local economies back to life.
America’s small farmers have largely been replaced by corporate agriculture, and this sets up a domino effect in which the small businesses that were once supported by the farming communities likewise tumble into obsolescence. The entire base of our economic pyramid has rotted away. Is this the outcome our government wanted when it told farmers to “get big, or get out”?