How businesses, residents are paying homage to Springfield’s roots while looking ahead to the future

When Frank Lloyd Wright created one of his Prairie-style homes in Springfield, he likely had no idea how it would impact the community more than a century later.

 

The house — designed in 1906 and built in 1908 for Burton J. Westcott and his wife, Orpha — became nearly unrecognizable in the 1940s when the open, airy interior was converted into a multi-unit apartment building.

 

By the time the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and the Westcott House Foundation stepped in, the structure was uninhabitable. It took a restoration architectural team comprised of Chambers, Murphy and Burge of Akron and Schooley Caldwell Associates of Columbus four years to stabilize and revert the house back to Wright’s original vision.

 

The Westcott House has been open to the public since 2005 with regular tours and events, an architecture and design program for K-12 students, and a commitment to both preservation and creative placemaking strategies. The community will celebrate its 15th anniversary this year.

 

John Landess, a Springfield native and executive director of The Turner Foundation, played a huge part in the revitalization of The Westcott House.

 

“That was one of our first big initiatives, too because as we looked around the community, it had fallen into total disrepair,” says Landess. “If something didn’t happen quickly, it probably wouldn’t be around. As we looked at opportunities to bring money in from outside our community, that was one of the few assets we saw that would draw people off the interstate.”

 

Landess, grandson of Harry M. Turner, had been living in Nashville for 15 years when his grandfather died, but he returned to Springfield in order to carry out part of Turner’s estate plan, which was to create a charitable foundation that would serve as both a platform and a catalyst for the improvement of life in Springfield and Clark County through direct investments in community.

 

Immediately, people asked him why he came back.

 

“Certainly, it was the fact that I grew up here and it was a great opportunity,” says Landess. “You can say opportunity or nepotism,” he says, “but to me, I looked at it as a ministry, as an opportunity to try to engage Springfield and help be a part of bringing Springfield back to life.”

Between 2000 and 2010, Springfield was hit hard by the loss of about 40% of its manufacturing jobs, which drove people away from the city. But in recent years, organizations like the Turner Foundation as well as a community of citizens have committed to revitalizing the city, from projects that honor Springfield's past to looking ahead to the future.

 

Activating residents

 

First, says Landess, they put together a diverse group that got involved in many different parts of the community, which led to valuable feedback on how people felt about a multitude of issues.

 

“This is a marathon and not a sprint,” he says, “so nothing was formalized in ‘talking’ with the community. It was more of our involvement in many different organizations and interactions with people wherever we went as well as discussions with community leaders at the time that would lead us to begin to focus on areas that we thought we could help the community think differently about and that would ultimately get people to think differently about their/our community.”

“People were desperate and the government was overwhelmed with the issues and the chamber had gone through multiple leaders early in that,” he continues. “It was almost like, who’s in charge and how do you stop the bleeding.”

At the time, there was no foreseeable future for the manufacturing business, so the community needed to find ways to bring families back to the city.

 

In many cases, the remaining residents hadn’t gone to college, which inspired Landess and his team at The Turner Foundation to get involved with Clark State Community College.

 

“We worked with them, we started upgrading properties, we built a new building, and tried to make it look like something this generation would be really excited about coming to,” he says.

 

As part of the plan, the college worked with employers in the community to create training and certification programs.

 

The next steps involved diversifying the economy.

“We didn’t have much white-collar stuff going on here, not much tech stuff certainly,” says Landess.

They purchased some land and worked with Ohio Rep. David Hobson to secure funding for Nextedge Applied Research and Technology Park, a unified, sustainable, high-quality business park that contributes to the success of the economy.

“We came along with financial resources and different ways of thinking at a time when I believe the community was ‘stuck’ and at a crossroads,” he says. “I hope people think that we were partners in helping to think outside our traditional patterns toward new possibilities and that we were able to nourish those that had vision for a fresh future.”

 

There's also a creative and entrepreneurial community, including many ex-pats who returned to their hometown like local artist and entrepreneur, Rod Hatfield, who also serves as The Turner Foundation’s creative director.

 

“We all seemed to organically sync and formed collaborative cultural and entrepreneurial teams, set out to work for the betterment of our beloved hometown,” Hatfield says. “Right now we're enjoying the abundant fruit from a decade or so of faithful community ‘farming.’”
 

Preserving history, looking toward the future

A few years ago, one of the leaders of the South Fountain Historic District reached out to Jeffrey Raser, AIA, owner of Cincinnati Urban Design and Architecture Studio. Raser and his team — which includes John Yung, AICP, senior project executive at Urban Fast Forward — put together a presentation for the district and the city, which led to the town inviting them to produce The Springfield Engaged Neighborhood Plan.

 

The process, explains Yung, started in January 2019, and took months of community meetings, workshops, and presentations. A final draft of the revitalization and placemaking strategy was sent to Springfield last week and is pending approval.

 

Planning kicked off in March during a two-day workshop designed to bring in business and property owners, regional leadership, and residents who were asked what they think about the community, what changes they want to see, and what are some of the area’s challenges. On the second day of the workshop, they had five neighborhood engagements at Family Needs Inc.

 

The main concerns that emerged involved pedestrian safety and the need for more crosswalks, development of new housing on vacant land, and the preservation and rehab of historic homes that were either empty or neglected.

 

In this particular location — which encompasses an area roughly bounded by West Pleasant Street down to West Perrin Avenue and North Limestone Street to Central Avenue — people were buying historic houses and spending a lot of money on rehabbing them, however, when they went to get a bridge loan to finance the renovations, property values were much less than what owners spent on fixing them up.

 

This, according to Yung, is called a financing gap, and it’s part of what the plan addresses.

 

“What we found is that a lot of people, especially in this area, are just house poor,” he says. “They have a house, they have a big problem — maybe the roof is leaking, maybe the windows aren’t energy efficient — so they spend all this money to try to stay afloat, they don’t have any money to repair the house. What good is it to cite this person for chipping paint or a broken gutter if they can’t fix it?”

 

Part of the recommendation, Yung continues, involves balancing code enforcement with new programs that can help people who are financially struggling while trying to balance those approaches and be more effective in getting results for the neighborhood.

 

Activating the district goes beyond housing and pedestrian safety: People need reasons to shop, play, and stay, like coffee houses, bakeries, recreational opportunities, and historic attractions.

 

“One of biggest recommendations is actually to focus on the Gammon House,” Yung says. He explains that it was a stop on the Underground Railroad and, over time, it became the center of the African-American business district.

 

“Part of our plan is to really emphasize that and say that this could be an amazing cultural, historical icon for Springfield, really kind of celebrating Springfield’s history and past and embracing that, and also using that as a way to move forward,” he continues.

 

He explains that there is land in front of the Gammon House that could become a visitors center or a park reflecting the area’s history, which includes the Robert C. Henry funeral home up the street, named after the first African-American mayor of Springfield.

 

“This kind of historic significance in your backyard, this could be something that really puts Springfield on the map,” Yung says. “And so we do a bit of a deep dive into looking at ‘How can we do something today?’ How can we do something with paint, or on streets, or on the land that can really celebrate and begin building that momentum to create a bigger impact?”

 

Landess agrees that it’s time to focus on the city’s roots. According to him, much of the historic downtown area hadn’t been reinvested in for probably 40 or 50 years, which is why The Turner Foundation began walking and biking tours, getting properties on the National Register of Historic Places, and writing books about the area.

 

“We have incredible roots,” Landess says. “Let’s hold on to what we can. Even though it looks bleak, we have a bright future. Let’s hold on to what we have and take pride in what we have, no matter what it looks like. We can bring it back to life.”

 
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