Koutoulas: What will we do with Sphar building space?

Published 9:51 am Thursday, May 16, 2019

Early on a Saturday morning in 1981, the L&N Railroad suddenly and controversially demolished Winchester’s historic but vacant train depot.

The old depot had occupied a prominent space on Depot Street, near the present day farmers market and next door to the Sphar building.

The demolition occurred as local officials were in negotiations to buy the depot building and redevelop it into a restaurant or other public space.

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Without warning, officials and citizens were left wondering how they could have lost such a vital link to the town’s past.

Sound eerily familiar?

Winchester’s Sphar building, a brick warehouse nearly a century and a half old, was once part of a bustling railroad-centered industrial area.

Although it served many purposes over the years, it has now sat vacant for some time, a silent reminder of a very different era.

In recent years it has deteriorated. Like the old depot, it too will soon fall under the wrecking ball.

How did it come to this?

The city purchased the Sphar building in 2014 hoping to restore it and breathe new life into the neighborhood.

Over the next few years, officials put together a financing package and a plan to restore the landmark and put it to new use.

By 2018, bids were taken for the project and it seemed we were on the cusp of saving Sphar.

But all that unraveled because of a combination of much higher than expected bids and weather-related damage to the roof, which threatened to cave in.

Despite efforts to secure private investors, officials finally admitted defeat and the city commission voted to demolish the building in early March. Supporters and city officials now hope to develop something new on the site.

In making comparisons to the depot tragedy, I’m not suggesting the commission made a mistake or did anything nefarious.

Quite the contrary — by all accounts they have tried over and over to make this plan work; it just doesn’t seem to be in the cards for Winchester to avoid losing the last visible remnant of our railroad history remaining on Main Street.

It seems the grand old building is now beyond saving, given the resources at hand. Short of an angel investor or philanthropist emerging soon with millions of dollars to throw at the project, I see no way to unseal the fate of Sphar.

The question that now presents itself is: what do we do with the property?

There seems to be a consensus emerging from people I have spoken with that a brand-new building should be erected on the site. A building that honors both the original plan to develop a public space, and the spirit of the old building.

This is a natural and understandable desire, and at first blush it seems like a solid idea.

But a problem quickly presents itself. As I understand it, most of the funding that was committed to the original project was earmarked for historical preservation; this money has now been lost or cannot be used to fund a new building.

So the city would need to raise millions to see such a project through.

Recall it was lack of funding that doomed the preservation project in the first place. And much of that funding is now inaccessible.

Are there other options?

Here’s an idea I think is workable and addresses a need for downtown.

How about developing a park or plaza on the site? That might not sound too exciting, but hear me out.

Downtown Winchester continues to re-emerge as a popular place for hosting parades, festivals, concerts, fundraisers and other events drawing large crowds. It is clear Main Street needs a larger space than that offered by the courthouse lawn for crowds to gather.

We could raze the Sphar, saving some distinctive pieces, and incorporate some of those elements in creative ways to build a beautiful plaza.

I envision the new space to be an extension of Depot Street and the farmers market. But it could be much more than that.

Utilizing those elements discussed above, the plaza could be themed along the lines of Winchester’s history as an early center of railroad commerce.

Besides the usual park elements like seating, lighting and landscaping, there could be interpretive displays telling the story of life in the 19th Century in a railroad town.

I don’t know what that would look like. But then again, I would never have dreamed up the wonderfully-innovative things that are being incorporated into the new Legacy Grove park.

We have some creative minds in this community. I am confident we could do this right.

Final thought: This community is blessed with a terrific park system for a town our size. I think an urban plaza at a prominent site on Main Street would nicely compliment this system.

Pete Koutoulas is an IT professional working in Lexington. He and his wife have resided in Winchester since 2015. Pete can be reached at pete@koutoulas.me.