Enoch: Historic preservation ‘goes off the rails’

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, April 1, 2023

By Harry Enoch

Contributing Writer

This story is not about a tragic loss but more of a heartbreaking disappointment. While residing in Clark County for nearly 24 years, I’ve become involved in research and writing about the people, places and events that shaped our local history. This naturally led to an interest in historic preservation. The county has many landmark buildings worth saving, and we can count several successes in rescuing endangered structures. In Winchester, we mark the largely intact downtown business area as a win-win for all. The number of buildings purchased and rehabilitated over the last few years has reached double digits and continues to go unabated. The scorecard, however, reflects several failures, one in particular that I was personally involved in – the project to restore the V. W. Bush Warehouse, better known locally as the “Sphar Building.”

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The building, erected in 1880 by Valentine White Bush, served as the first railway warehouse in Winchester. Near the passenger depot, his two-story brick facility stood on North Main Street beside the Elizabethtown, Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad (later the C&O). Due to its location, the warehouse did exceptionally well. Over the years, they purchased, processed and stored various agricultural products, which could be conveniently shipped to market via rail. Hemp and then bluegrass seed fueled profits for over a century. Then, in the mid-1900s, the Sphar family operated a lucrative business selling feed and seed. By the time the last business closed in 2005, the building was showing its age. Though solidly built of brick, stone and heavy oak timbers, a leaking roof had compromised several load-bearing walls.

Preservation efforts began to pay off a decade later. City and county governments recognized the importance of saving this landmark, the last original building still standing on the north end of Main Street. A plan emerged to use the restored structure to house two local agencies -Tourism and Industrial Development – as well as the Chamber of Commerce and another nonprofit group. It would function as the city’s Welcome Center and would have a small museum. The city purchased the old warehouse in 2016. To fund restoration work, $1.9 million was raised from grants and pledges. My involvement began with a September request to prepare a National Register nomination for the building. That designation would allow tax credits of up to 20 percent of the rehabilitation costs.

These nominations are usually prepared by specialty consultants who typically charge up to $10,000 and take six to 12 months. I had no previous experience. Making it more of a challenge, the nomination had to be completed in 30 days and there was no fee available to pay for the work. I buried myself in the task and finished within the deadline. Kentucky Heritage Council approved the nomination and submitted it to the National Park Service, which listed the property on the National Register of Historic Places in March 2017.

The restoration process began with a condition assessment by the architect-engineering firm. They identified several problem areas: a partly collapsed north wall due to failure of the roof system, part of the east wall in lousy shape and several floor joists rotted due to water damage. Exterior walls on the north and east facade had damaged bricks that needed repair, and much of the brickwork needed tuck pointing. They estimated that restoration would cost approximately $2 million. With the grants, pledges and tax credits, this seemed a promising beginning.

When the actual construction bids were opened, the low bid was $2.9 million. Rather than seeking additional funding or modifying their plans, the city commission voted to end their involvement in the project. I joined other preservation activists in efforts to save the building. It seemed quite feasible at that time to stabilize the building with the available funds and complete fitting out the interior spaces when more funds became available.

From that point on, the project suffered one disaster after another. After the county voted to return a community block grant of $500,000, one of the nonprofit organizations backed out, and cost estimates for even a scaled-back project exceeded available funds. The final insult came with a major roof collapse (there had been little effort to prevent water damage during the time the city owned the building). The Sphar Building was razed in January 2020. Only four large grain silos were preserved.

In the early 1900s, this was considered a railroad town. Winchester then counted over 20 passenger trains a day. Passenger service ended in 1971. In 1981 the railroad demolished Union Station, then pulled its tracks up in 1990. The landmark warehouse represented the last surviving tie with a thriving rail-related industry that helped make Winchester what it is today. I never drive by the site without feeling the pain associated with its loss.