The Power of Preservation
In 1886 businessmen George W. Carter and W.W. Worthington discovered a vast natural gas field in east-central Indiana. The Trenton Field, as it became known, was the largest of its kind in the world, and its discovery ignited Indiana’s “Gas Boom.” It wasn’t long before the formerly agricultural area transformed into a manufacturing mecca, and by 1890 more than 160 factories operated in the region, lured by the promise of a never-ending supply of natural gas.
In Indiana, cities like Muncie, Kokomo, Anderson, and Marion competed to attract new industries with offers of free natural gas, land, railway sidings, and tax credits. Thriving commercial districts sprang up to support the growing workforce moving to the area for factory jobs, and prosperous residents built large houses in upscale neighborhoods. But the heyday was short-lived. By the 1920s, the gas supply had dried up due to mismanagement, and many communities began a slow decline.
As the Grant County seat, Marion held its own for several more decades. But by the 1980s, employment opportunities eroded, and the local workforce began to migrate away. Downtown shops closed when a new suburban shopping mall opened on the edge of town, and community institutions like churches, schools, movie theaters, banks and fraternal organizations felt the pinch of a dwindling population. It looked Marion was in a free fall, with no clear solutions in sight.
A group of citizens saw the community’s historic buildings – remnants of the city’s former prosperity – as a valuable asset and a chance for a new beginning. They formed Save Our Stories (SOS), a nonprofit organization, and work with the city administration, Marion Main Street, and the local housing authority to promote historic preservation as a tool for economic development.
Within the past year, results are starting to show. A local architectural firm recently signed a purchase option on Marion National Bank, an entry on our recent 10 Most Endangered list. The former Hill’s Department Store and the vacant Montgomery Ward are both being transformed into a mix of retail, professional office and residential space.
A local preservation contractor recently purchased a c.1880 downtown store with plans to remove an unattractive sheet metal façade and uncover the original Italianate details hidden beneath. Several more projects are also in the early stages of development. All are located in the Marion Historic Commercial District, listed in the National Register since 1994.
To celebrate the progress and show the potential for further development, SOS is sponsoring a downtown loft tour on Saturday, June 16 from 10 to 12:30. Tickets cost $10 per person, available the day of the tour at the former H.S. Marks Block, 123 East Third Street.
After the tour, Matt Gaddus from Partners for Affordable Housing will talk about the recent renovation of the Rock City Lofts in downtown Wabash, an inspiration and model for many downtown commercial buildings. For more information about the tour and the talk, 12:30 p.m. at the Marks Block, contact Sue Bratton with SOS, 765-668-2900. To learn more about revitalization in Marion, contact Paul Hayden, Director of Indiana Landmarks’ Northeast Field Office, 574-289-8861 or email@example.com.
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