Sunday, January 27, 2002

One year after fire, block of Main Street still empty

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        GEORGETOWN, Ohio — Bob Waters will never forget the morning last Jan. 29 when he rushed to his store on Main Street, wondering if it and the entire historic downtown would erupt in the flames of a rapidly spreading fire.

        “We didn't know if the old fire walls would hold up,” recalled Mr. Waters, who owns Donohoo Pharmacy. “Thank goodness, they did.”

        Today, three of the four historic buildings that burned on South Main are gone. The fourth sits heavily damaged in Brown County's government seat.

        The fire has left a hole — literally and figuratively — in one of Southwest Ohio's most picturesque villages, 48 miles east of Cincinnati.

        Some people look at the mostly empty block now and wonder: Did the fire cost the town a little piece of its essence?

        “I've lived here all my life,” Mr. Waters said.

        “I hate to see this happen to the downtown. There's so much history here. All we can do is keep what we've got. What's gone is gone, and it won't be coming back.”

        The emptiness is jarring. All around are buildings erected in the 1870s to 1890s, not to mention the white Greek Revival courthouse, dating to 1851.

        Then you see it — “the hole,” people call it — an empty space between buildings littered with brick and debris.

        Downtown Georgetown is no stranger to fire. The South Main blaze was more devastating than the arson that damaged the courthouse in 1977 and the flames that ruined two historic buildings in June 1998.

        “A lot of people drive by using landmarks,” said Police Chief Terry Newberry. “When they come into town, they see the hole and say,

        "What happened?'”

        The fire was only a few blocks from the restored boyhood home of President Ulysses S. Grant, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, along with a number of other downtown buildings.

        Nobody knows exactly how the fire started, but arson is suspected. It originated in the office of the News Democrat, a weekly newspaper that has been publishing since 1888.

        “We had to start from scratch,” said editor Art Hunter from the paper's new office at 111 W. Cherry St.

        “We went to our sister paper in West Union (Adams County) for a few months. West Union is a 30-minute drive from here, which is hard to do when you're trying to run a local newspaper. It was a challenge, but we overcame it.”

        He said the fire's anniversary is significant because “everybody in town has been asking for a year: What'll they do with that building?”

        Last week, the question was answered when its owners started renovating the slim structure. Architecturally it is the most distinctive of the four, with bay windows on one side and the bottom of a tower remaining in the front.

        “The building had unique characteristics,” said Ray Becraft, director of the Brown County Chamber of Commerce and a member of the village council. “It is almost a direct duplicate of a building one block away.”

        They're like bookends, directly across from the courthouse.

        The area where the fire occurred is called Commercial Row. Its Victorian Italianate buildings were renovated in 1976 with help from wildlife artist John Ruthven and his wife, Judy.

        They worked with business leaders to coordinate the repainting and renovation of old buildings using pleasing colors and period-style signs.

        When the work was finished, Mrs. Ruthven said it took the downtown back “as close as we can get to probably its most charming time.”

        Unfortunately, the character of the block has changed; three buildings destroyed in the fire won't be rebuilt, said Mayor John Jandes.

        “It doesn't make economic sense for the owners to rebuild them,” he said.

        “We're trying to work with them as a village to see if we can help. We'd like to build a privacy fence or something across there. That way, you won't have to look at an empty hole anymore. It still looks weird. It doesn't leave your mind.”

        Ultimately, Mr. Becraft said, he'd prefer a facade erected and the land behind it used for businesses that the village doesn't have, such as a men's clothing shop.

        Whatever happens to the property, people will ask why, how and when.

        “These buildings were on the National Register of Historic Places,” said Angelo Bianchi of CBS of Georgetown, a business supply store across from the courthouse.

        “The fire has affected the whole town and made a significant impact on the square.”

        Because the town is small (about 3,700 people), “all the businesses affect one another somehow,” he added.

        “Each one complements the other. This town could be another Metamora, Ind., if people had the right vision. But nobody seems interested. If you took the cars out of town, you could step back in time — 50 years ago. It's a whole different atmosphere here.”

        Resident Connie Hone said the village still takes its past — and square — seriously.

        “You'd think, with this property being in the heart of the community, that something would have been done by now,” she said.

        “The hole is an eyesore. But then, we move at a snail's pace here. Even so, we'll get the job done eventually.”


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