A small bell clanged as people came and went from Artistic Impressions where owner Kevin Greene looked out his huge storefront windows, watching rolling, alternating waves of black smoke and dirty gray steam rise above a row of downtown commercial buildings.
“Sadness,” Greene said Wednesday afternoon as Seymour firefighters poured thousands upon thousands of gallons of water onto burning buildings in the 100 block of West Second Street.
“That’s what I see. I’ve been down here 12 years, and a lot has been happening. Things were really improving downtown and probably are the best they’ve been since I started in business here. Last year was my best year.”
Those improvements, that momentum, he said, included a long stretch of occupied storefronts along Second and Chestnut streets. People living in upstairs apartments. New building façades, many a result of a Seymour Main Street initiative in partnership with the city. Rails on St. Louis Avenue and plans for another restaurant in the old Knights of Pythias building on North Chestnut.
“All of that’s been happening, and now this could bring a step backward,” Greene said.
Known to many in the area as a local historian of downtown Seymour and its buildings, Greene remained optimistic, however, that the fire that started in a two-story structure built in 1910 at 110 W. Second St. and spread into another two-story brick building at 108 W. Second St., would be only a step back, not a jarring stop to progress.
Tom Goecker, a local businessman, downtown property owner and president of the Seymour Main Street board of directors, shared those concerns and that optimism.
“A lot of what’s going to happen next is going to depend on what the property owners want to do, what they can do,” Goecker said. “I’d like to see those storefronts return, but you don’t know. We’ll have to sit down and figure it out, but it will take buy-in of the property owners, and it will take the buy-in of the community to keep this from being a big setback.”
Looking still further ahead, Goecker said it may be time for Seymour Main Street and the city of Seymour to consider expanding its storefront restoration program to offer assistance to property owners interested in retrofitting their old buildings with fire suppression systems.
“They’re costly to begin with, and even more costly when putting them into existing buildings,” Goecker said.
“This is a step back, but we have to find a way to keep moving forward,” he added.
Looking out his storefront window, Greene kept a close eye on the Kessler Building on the west wall of 110 W. Second St. Smoke could be seen coming from two third-floor windows of the Kessler Building, also constructed in 1910. For years it was Kessler Hardware. Today, more long-time Seymour residents would recall it as one of four buildings that made up the old G.C. Murphy dime store.
It drew the attention and concern of Mary Ann Pardieck, too.
“I remember going in there with my Dad on Saturdays to look at the parakeets and eat peanuts,” Pardieck recalled from inside Artistic Impressions. Pardieck, who also has been involved with Seymour Main Street, recalled stopping as a child at the former Baldwin’s Drug Store to enjoy a drink from its marble soda fountain.
Firefighters kept pouring water on that building, now the home of This Old Guitar at 106 W. Second St. to keep it from catching fire. Like Greene, she felt sadness at the billowing smoke, water running from the buildings and the tangle of fire hoses in the street.
“We’ll have to figure out how to move on,” Pardieck said. “Several years ago we had a big fire down on South Chestnut Street, and through donations and hard work of volunteers, we have a nice pocket park where we lost some buildings in that fire. We’ll just have to come together as a community and move forward.”
According to the Jackson County Historic Sites & Structures Inventory published in July 1988, the 1910 structures affected by the fire are not the oldest on the block. A building at the north east corner of Second and Chestnut streets, once known as the Bee Hive department store, was built in 1890. The adjacent building between the Bee Hive and the former Murphy store was built in 1885.