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Keiara Carr | The Journal Gazette
Jill Van Gessel, historic preservation specialist for ARCH, presented the lecture “Vanished Fort Wayne” at the Allen County Public Library on Saturday.

Lecture looks at lost landmarks

ARCH hoping future projects preserve history

– The 1940s Greyhound Bus terminal disappeared from Jefferson Boulevard more than 20 years ago, but it still made quite an impression Saturday.

There was a soft rumbling of nostalgia during ARCH’s Vanished Fort Wayne lecture as observers took in a black-and-white photograph of the bus station in its original, sleek art deco design.

Jill Van Gessel, historic preservation specialist at ARCH, said the lecture’s connection to the city’s past helps build an idea of how to restructure the future.

“We’re trying to show how Fort Wayne has changed over the years,” she said. “There’s been a lot of things that have disappeared. I think that we’re using this as an example of how we need to reuse these buildings or even more of our history is going to disappear.”

“Vanished Fort Wayne” was apart of ARCH’s monthly lecture series at the Allen County Public Library downtown. The presentation gave participants a chance to glance at sites that were once the epicenter of businesses and leisure, as well as showing the homes of Fort Wayne’s most influential businessmen and community leaders.

“There’s a variety of reasons why we lost things but it’s still hard to see some of the stuff go,” Van Gessel said. “In the early 1960s and 1970s, urban renewal was a big thing. It was a big deal to tear down old buildings and try to build something new, something better, and so we lost a lot to that. Unfortunately, a lot of it has also been damaged by fires so heavily that they have been torn down, so it’s not always a new development.”

Van Gessel guided participants through a slideshow of pictures featuring the formal commercial areas of Columbia and Calhoun streets in the early 1900s. The tree-lined streets had horse-drawn carriages, hotels, small shops and saloons.

She pointed out Robison Park, the city’s only amusement park in the early 1900s, and the former cathedral-like post office in 1889. Other long-lost landmarks included the Wolf & Dessauer and G.C. Murphy department stores, businesses that were gone by the turn of the century.

“Studies across the country have shown that reusing historic buildings are more effective in a redevelopment plan than completely putting in new construction,” Van Gessel said. “It adds variety to your city and it adds a sense of place – Fort Wayne is the only one with the Swinney Homestead, the only one with the Masonic Temple. If you lose those, they’re gone, and it will never be the same.”

Van Gessel showed the former Fort Wayne Baseball Park, which burned down in the 1930s and never reopened. Baseball legend Babe Ruth had visited the ball park in its better days – it’s rumored he hit one of his longest home runs there.

“It was the longest home run because the ball flew into a railroad car, and went to Cleveland,” Tony McNair, a real estate agent and former president of the Allen County Historical Society, interjected during the presentation, adding some comic relief.

McNair, who had seen many of pictures before through his postcard collection, said some of the historic buildings in the downtown area have potential for more residential purposes, but some might not be as functional today.

“It’s always interesting to see what’s still here and what’s gone. In lots of places, you can see three or four generations of buildings have been built and torn down,” he said. “It’s always a trade-off because you have buildings that are beautiful to restore, but they are restructured into little tiny rooms and you can’t open them up and no one wants to use those kinds of spaces. It becomes a big problem for some buildings.”

For Van Gessel, it’s about finding a happy medium between the past and the present.

“There’s no reason to stop new development – ARCH is all for it. It helps the city grow, and it adds to the historic fabric. If it were all historic buildings, it would be a little weird too,” she said. “However, it’s been proven that restoring historic buildings and incorporating them into new developments is a winning combination.”