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A group of Leavenworth residents have shown interest in preserving the building that housed Stephenson & Co. General Store, which closed last September. Many of the antiques in the store were sold at an auction, but the building hasn’t sold yet. Photo by Chris Adams

Hoping to hold onto yesterday for tomorrow

Leavenworth residents inquire about Stephenson's

March 25, 2009
When Stephenson & Co. General Store shut its doors for the final time last September, it was a sad day for Leavenworth, but residents, recognizing its link to the town's rich heritage, is hoping to give the building — and the town — new life.

The closing of Stephenson's — a town staple for 91 years, including "on top of the hill" after the great flood of 1937 wiped out "old" Leavenworth — not only left the town without a general store but took with it some of Leavenworth's sense of community.

More than a place to grab a gallon of milk or a fresh-made sandwich, Stephenson's, featuring antiques, as well as hardwood flooring and shelving from the original, pre-flood building, served as a bridge to the river town's rich past.

Many of the antiques that had been collected by Elaine Stephenson and her late husband, Jack, were sold at an auction last fall, but the building remains available, leaving Meredith Sarles and other residents hope of preserving it.

"One day, I picked up my camera and went into town," Sarles said. "I took pictures from the roadside park to Tower Orchard to the old dam house No. 44 in old town."

Through her lens, she saw a town that was losing its connection to its past.

"In reading much about the history of Leavenworth, I learned that it is very rich in cultural inheritance," Sarles, who moved to Leavenworth from neighboring Harrison County two years ago, said.

The more she read, the more she realized that Stephenson's was the center of that cultural heritage.

"The original Stephen-son's was located in the old town, built in 1840 and purchased as the general store in 1916," Sarles said. "After the 1937 flood, the store was relocated on top of the bluff and was constructed with building materials from the original store and other historical buildings.

"It is the only business from the original town that was still in business until last fall."

Sarles began seeking guidance on how to save the building and was pointed to the Historic Landmarks Foundation office in Jeffersonville. Greg Sekula, director of the HLF Southern Regional Office, encouraged her to get others involved and set a date for HLF staff to visit the building.

After getting Elaine Stephenson's blessing, Sarles began talking with other residents, and Sekula and Laura Renwick, a community preservation specialist with HLF, met with Stephenson, Sarles and others at the store on March 13.

During the informal meeting, Sekula, who explained that HLF's role is one of advocacy, listed various ways Stephenson could sell the building while ensuring its preservation.

"Your interest in the building is certainly well founded because of the history of it and the connection of the family," he told Sarles and the others.

Sekula said the most direct way to preserve the building would be to purchase it, but the challenge, however, is raising the necessary capital, not only for the initial purchase costs but for ongoing maintenance.

Another option is for Stephenson to donate a preservation easement to HLF so that any buyer would be required to get HLF approval before doing work on the building, particularly its exterior, Sekula said.

HLF, he said, generally asks the donor to provide money — likely $5,000 in this case — to cover the agency's administrative costs, but that amount is tax-deductible. A larger challenge may be that properties with preservation easements must be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a process that can take a year or more, Sekula said.

John Stutzman, president of the Leavenworth Town Council, told Sekula the town has considered establishing a historical district that would include the building. Sekula said such a district would require the building's owner to receive permission from a town preservation commission before making exterior changes to the structure.

Sekula added that the town possibly could apply for federal grant dollars but would first need the State Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology to determine the cluster of buildings would be worthy to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Having the building listed on the National Register also would enable the group, if it registered as a nonprofit organization, to apply for grants to complete work on the structure, he said. However, establishing nonprofit status also can take up to a year, Sekula said, but the group, in the meantime, could work with an existing nonprofit organization to accept donations.

Sekula said another option is to market the building through specialized historic real estate vehicles, including Web sites, to find a private buyer who also wants to preserve the building.

Sarles, who worked at Annabelle's Art Center, located a couple of doors down from Stephenson's, said she would like to not only see the building preserved but turned into a town or county museum while also bringing some life back to the town by being a place where the community can gather.

"My main goal in this is — basically you could call me a curator — (to) produce some activity in this town," she said, noting Stephenson's is a good place to start. "Our town has literally turned into a ghost town."

Sarles and others will meet with a grant-writing consultant today (Wednesday) at 10 a.m. at the Overlook Restaurant in Leavenworth.

For more information on the efforts of Sarles and the other residents, contact Sarles via e-mail at msarles 1140@aol.com.

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    Leavenworth residents inquire about Stephenson's
    March 26, 2009 | 05:42 AM

    Free slogan for the group, "Leavenworth, a town with a rich history... A poor future, but a rich history"

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