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As soon as the fire ignited at 616 Main Street early Wednesday morning, Main Street was changed forever.
The intricately woven landscape of downtown Shelbyville, with buildings tied together at street level, upstairs or even through basements, was the perfect place for fire to ravage through several buildings. The quick response from Shelbyville firefighters likely being the only reason the fire didn’t consume the whole block.
“This is a worst-case scenario, just short of a downtown being wiped out by a tornado like happened last year,” said Fred Rogers, the Shelbyville Historic District commissioner. “It’s not unusual for something like this to wipe out a whole block or more, like Chicago, San Francisco or Astoria [Oregon]. It happened in Nicholasville not long ago.”
Rogers said he believes the buildings date back to the early 1900s.
“The best I can tell, they’re from right around the turn of the century,” he said. “And that speaks to the endurance of these old buildings.”
Bob Andriot, who sits on the city council and is a longtime Shelbyville resident, said his father, William, had his first clothing store at 618 Main, which was partially destroyed during the fire.
“It was in the old Sam’s Place building,” he said. “That was in the 1940s, and he did well there. I think there was a fire that at one time that took the top floor of that building. It had been two stories like the rest of them.”
As Rogers noted, it’s difficult anytime you lose a significant piece of history, but Shelbyville is very lucky in that regard.
“Fortunately Shelbyville has a lot of historic buildings,” he said. “The community has done a wonderful job maintaining its past.”
However, as with any tragedy it helps to look for a silver lining.
“My first impression, while it's tragic to lose historic buildings like this, a loss also presents a new opportunity,” he said. “We now have an opportunity to do something different. We have a say about the infill and how it affects our downtown. It's definitely a loss, but you to look at it as an opportunity now.”
Andriot, who owns the vacant lots on 6th Street that was cleared by a fire in 1985, said it’s too soon to see what will happen on Main.
“At this point, I think we all just to wait and see what happens with the owners, the insurance companies and how it gets cleared, he said.
6th Street fire
Several of Shelbyville and Shelby County’s leaders were involved nearly 30 years ago with that fire took out a row of buildings on 6th Street in late January of 1985.
Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty, who was a council member then, said that fire destroyed a very similar block of space. “I think if you look at the street frontage, it’s probably about the same.”
Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger, a former fire chief, and Deputy Judge-Executive Rusty Newton both worked the fire.
“It was so cold out that our hoses were freezing in the water on the ground,” Newton said. “We had the metal buckles on the outside of our jackets, and if you wanted to take your jacket off you had bust the ice off the buckles first.”
Reports in The Sentinel-Newslisted the outside temperatures between 5 and 16 degrees below zero and wind chills all the way down to negative 50 degrees.
“We could only work out there for about an hour, and then they’d have to take us down to the fire department by ambulance to warm up,” Rothenburger said. “It was one of only two fires I can remember that every fire department in the county showed up.”
They were also joined by firefighters from Middletown, Eastwood, Spencer County and Eminence.
“We didn’t have a lot of the equipment they have now,” Newton said. “We were just fighting the fire from the ground.”
Hardesty noted how close firefighters were to battling some similar conditions Wednesday.
“A few degrees colder, and we’d have some of those problems,” he said. “I remember there was about six inches of ice on everything that day.”
Photos from 1985 show water freezing as soon as it hit the buildings, despite the blaze.
Andriot said he remembers watching the fire go from building to building.
“When those old buildings catch…it’s a miracle it didn’t take out more then and now,” he said. “Those firefighters did an amazing job.”
What happens on Main?
Andriot said he purchased the now empty lots about four years ago from Judge John David Myles.
“We had planned to build on them but just haven’t had the means yet,” he said. “I think John David had plans, too. There is a still potential and great possibility for it. Hopefully we can get to it.”
Andriot said he doesn’t foresee the same vacant issue befalling the now lost buildings on Main.
“We have an opportunity here to create a good thing,” he said. “You hate to have that hole on Main Street, but we have a chance to make an asset to the community. It might take a season to clean it up. We’ll have to be patient.”
Rogers said that because the buildings fall within the historic district, they would have to meet certain standards, but he’s willing to work with developers.
“From our standpoint, in the historic district, it’s about appropriate infill,” he said. “So what’s appropriate? We’ll want something that will fit the surrounding community, no eight-story buildings. And we want something that’s going to capitalize on the spirit of downtown.”
Rogers, who has worked with historic downtowns across the commonwealth and in other states, said people would be interested in the space.
“It could be tough to find investors in the economy, but you need someone that’s willing to partner with the city in the design and something the community can get behind.”