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Historic Home and Garden Tour cultivates city's “built heritage”

Connie and Karen agree that sense of place, how a city weaves one into its story, is a singular and wonderful feeling.
Julia Meek/WBOI
Connie and Karen agree that sense of place, how a city weaves one into its story, is a singular and wonderful feeling.

With summer on the horizon, ARCH, Inc. is inviting the public to celebrate the season, as well as the city’s richly unique “built heritage” with its annual home and garden tour in the historic South Wayne neighborhood.

The event takes place next Saturday, June 22 and will feature 10 historic homes plus an additional garden.

The heart of the neighborhood is a National Register of Historic Places District, which affords tour participants a mix of architectural styles to enjoy, along with the stories of the people who built the neighborhood.

As the organization, one of the oldest historic preservation groups in the country, looks toward its 50th anniversary next year, it also sees the torch being passed from retiring Executive Director, Connie Haas Zuber to interim Executive Director, Karen Richards.

Here WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses the impact of this popular annual event with both directors, and why the community must continue to build on its accomplishments.

Event Information:
2024 South Wayne Historic Home and Garden Tour
Saturday, June 22, Fort Wayne
10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Advance Admission:
$15 for adults and $10 for under 18
Tour Headquarters: 3000 S. Wayne Ave.
and South Wayne Elementary School

You may find more information and order tickets at the ARCH, Inc. website & Facebook pages.
 

Here's a transcript of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Connie Haas Zuber, Karen Richards welcome.

Karen Richards: Hello there.

Connie Haas Zuber: Thank you.

Julia Meek: Now, a lot is happening at ARCH, Inc these days and your mission to celebrate, protect and preserve our historic places is a big one. Why is that more critical now than ever?

Connie Haas Zuber: it's always critical. But as time goes on the history that we have embodied in our places only gets more and more precious because it gets less possible to replace. It's unique and irreplaceable. Therefore, the mission of ARCH is ever more important.

Julia Meek: You took the directorship over in 2018. You hit the ground running then, Connie, you have not slowed down. What's it been like?

Connie Haas Zuber: It's been not slowing down. It's been a new thing all the time. It's been six years of learning and doing and working with people who've been wonderful.

None of us planned on dealing with a pandemic, which was not easy for anybody or any organization, which changed everything and force us to learn new things. And everybody's still dealing with it and dealing with the changes.

But I think ARCH can be proud that the board and the staff and the members and the donors all pulled together, focused on the mission and figured out new and additional ways to meet it. And we're still ARCH and we're still doing what we're supposed to do.

Julia Meek: It's a great passionate group, indeed. Now you are a frequent flyer on Connie's Task Force Karen, to say the least. (chuckles) When and why did you get involved?

Karen Richards: I've been involved with ARCH actually, for a long time. I got involved in 2002, or 2003, because I was on the board. I was on the board several different times. I am past president of the board. So, I've been involved for over 20 years.

Julia Meek: So, I'll ask the both of you, how does the business of preservation work for a community like ours?

Karen Richards: It works in a lot of different ways. We are more focused on local, and we're more focused on education and preservation at the same time.

So, we try to get people to be passionate by showing them things that they could have great interest in, like the upcoming home tour, or our Fun and Free lecture series.

But we also do advocacy. And I think we should credit Connie with some of the amazing saves that we have had in the past few years that would not have happened without her. Between Connie and the city and the school system, we had a huge save in the elementary school. fantastic. What

Julia Meek: That's fantastic. What is your take on the direction it has been going in, Connie?

Connie Haas Zuber: Well, I thank Karen for mentioning advocacy because I think that is something that I was able to focus on at the beginning of my tenure here and to take to someplace different.

And one of the reasons I was able to do that was the Preservation Committee which Karen is a major part of, at my first meeting with them, they were saying we want to be more proactive, and I thought that's a word I can work with. (all chuckle)

And we started looking for opportunities to get out in front of buildings being in danger. And we started looking for ways to quietly get to people who owned historic buildings and talk to them about options that did not include tearing them down or tearing them up.

Both Ward Elementary School and the St. Joseph's Nurses Home are now still standing and have new lives ahead of them because of proactive advocacy done very quietly, not in the public limelight, by ARCH.

And I'm really proud of that! Those are two "mission achieved" examples that came from that word at a Preservation Committee meeting, us finding ways to do that.

Julia Meek: To do that very thing. Now it seems like everyone would know about our rich history and want to preserve it. But how hard of a sell is it?

Connie Haas Zuber: Preservation can be a hard sell. Enjoying the history is not a hard sell because it's stories and it's fascinating and Fort Wayne is old and rich and has a lot of stories.

So, when we have a chance to tell the stories, which we do all the time, every time we're with people, and Karen is one of the best storytellers we have. That part goes swimmingly. Then you've just got to get people to realize that it is worth it to apply that kind of passion and energy and love to the buildings that embody the story.

Luckily, along the way, we have found really good, really real research that gives the economic and the civic and the practical and the ecological, sustainable benefits of doing those real things with real buildings.

So, now we have both the stories and the dollars and cents, and the ecological, and the, it's easier to save a building and turn it into what you want it is to tear down an old building, move all that stuff away, bring in new stuff and build a new building" kind of reasoning to make the argument for historic preservation.

And that's kind of why I think one of the things that's good about right now is, even though we are still really worried about a lot of old historic buildings, the real estate development marketplace has changed.

And there are developers who do see the value of including historic buildings in their projects? You know, it's the Landing. It's Electric Works. Not all of them do. We've had some losses, and we mourn them. But it is possible. It can be done, and it has been done, and we can point to things.

Julia Meek: Okay, education by invitation is also big on your list, your annual historic home and garden tour is on the horizon and certainly on that list. How do you choose your neighborhood and what can folks expect this year?

Karen Richards: We try to choose neighborhoods by going one year, the southern part of the city. the next year, the northern part. And we try to do neighborhoods that we have not done before, we try to leave a several year gap.

And then we are just looking for good examples of history. Frankly, anything over 50 years old is historical, but we're looking for neighborhoods that are interested in their own preservation and are interested in showcasing their efforts.

 Julia Meek: Is that easy to find?

Karen Richards: Actually, it usually is. There are an awful lot of historic neighborhoods in this city. And they are extremely proud of the progress they have made and the things they have done. And people like to show off their accomplishments and the public loves to see them.

I don't think there's anything better that the public likes than being able to walk through somebody else's house to see how they did it.

Julia Meek: Good point. And Connie, what do these tours accomplish? How important is the neighborhood pride that Karen's talking about?

Connie Haas Zuber: It's all important. And the key thing about ARCH's historic home and garden tours is, we partner with the neighborhoods and we share the proceeds with the neighborhoods, so the neighborhood benefits and ARCH benefits.

That way when the neighborhood has a project, they need to fix their entry pillars or markers, or they want to set up Little Libraries or they need street trees or whatever it is, we are helping them be able to do that.

And I think one of the sweetest things I learned about ARCH's home tours is we usually get neighborhoods volunteering. And I was talking about the pandemic earlier, this year's neighborhood, historic South Wayne, which most people don't necessarily know where that is.

But it is the heart of what used to be the town of South Wayne, and which is just west and a little bit south of where old Lutheran Hospital used to be, actually was going to be our 2020 Home Tour. But the pandemic intervened.

This is where we have finally been able to get them back on the schedule. So I'm really glad to let this one come full circle and land and pull it off, with many of the same homeowners who were stepping forward and 2020 still willing and able to do it. Because it's a huge effort for a homeowner to have their house ready and all spiffed up and beautiful to have people come in.

I'm just so grateful to them and I'm so glad to be able to help the neighbors. I've talked to hundreds and hundreds, probably adds up to a few thousand Home Tour guests over the years. And they're all delighted to get in there and see it.

They asked me, are there any in progress, because they want to, you know, see the work being done. And this year, we do have a work in progress home so that people will get to have that. So all the pieces have fallen into place with this neighborhood.

Julia Meek: And how does your ARCHie award further this whole kind of cause? Is it easy to get participants for that?

Karen Richards: The ARCHies are normally a nomination process and anyone can nominate. And what we're looking for is work that has been completed, work that has been completed in the last few years and work that is, I would say, maybe historically significant or true to its historical roots.

We would not be giving something for putting aluminum siding on a home. It is for returning in some way a home to its original historic beauty. And it's the neighbors and the city and our effort to award them for the wonderful work that they've done.

And it can be a home. It can be a rental, it can be a commercial structure. It can be a church, all kinds of different buildings qualify for an ARCHie award.

Julia Meek: That's great. Now your free lectures are always standing room only, Karen, and they are all about awareness.

How do you maximize the interests and really turn folks on to the excitement? Because isn't that the bottom line? Do they have to be excited before they'll want to participate?

 Karen Richards: I think your topic needs to pique people's interest. In the past, Connie has always tried to get a variety. And I think as I move forward for the next lecture series, I'm going to try to find things that pique people's interest.

I don't want to do all Victorian houses or all this or all that. It needs to be a little bit of everything and I think the important thing about the lectures Is the storytelling component, you need to pull your audience in with the story about how wonderful and unique and how important history is.

It's not only celebrating the structure, but the history behind it. And almost all of the lectures are local, they have to do with local history and local significant historic structures

Julia Meek: Connie, is it safe to say you have not run out of topics or those to talk about those topics?

Connie Haas Zuber: No, no, there's so much, that one of my favorite sayings is, you just take a map and throw a dart and there's a story there. (all laugh) And all you have to do is find it and tell it.

Julia Meek: And that's where you two come in. And it doesn't sound like you're stopping anytime soon?

Karen Richards: No. And what constitutes history increases every year as well, because we consider things to be historic if they're over 50 years old. So things that were built in my childhood are now historic.

So Mid Century Modern is a huge draw for younger people. And that's a subject that we now deal with that 30-40 years ago, we would not have been celebrating Mid Century Modern because it wasn't yet historic, but it is now. So history is increasing, every single year we give a lecture. 

Julia Meek: Yes, trying to come full circle as well. Speaking of which, ARCH's 50th anniversary is coming up in 2025. That is a big deal. What kind of increased activity, continuing and or brand new, are we looking at?

Connie Haas Zuber: Well, I think this is one thing that me leaving is making a little bit more of a challenge. But I will say that some special fundraising projects that people will really love are being considered.

And ARCH's board is also talking about what would be appropriate to do to commemorate the event properly. So, more to come on that.

Julia Meek: No spoilers and stay tuned, is that what you're suggesting?

Connie Haas Zuber: Yes! Cool stuff is in is in the works.

Julia Meek: You promise? (chuckles)

Karen Richards: Absolutely!

Julia Meek: Perfect, then. Now, Fort Wayne continues to rack up the most livable, lovable, affordable, more superlative designations...where do we rank on historic preservation?

Connie Haas Zuber: Work needs to be done, but work is being done, I put the needs to be done first, because we've got challenges. On the one hand, one of the reasons we are most livable, and so loved and all that kind of stuff is because we still have a lot of our own unique face on, and that includes our history.

We wouldn't have the personality we have if you couldn't see who we have been during our whole history. And a lot of places can see that. For example, that's one of the charms of the South Wayne neighborhood, the historic district area of it, where we built, has lost zero homes since they were built in the 19-teens and -20s.

The neighborhood you will walk through on June 22 is the neighborhood that was built, the trees are bigger, but it's the neighborhood that was built. So, the rush of development that brought families there so fast in the teens, and 20s is still attracting families there today and pleasing them.

So, it's the experience, that's historic experience, it's still there. We still have that intact in many places. And some of our blocks downtown, they still have that historic feel. We've lost it other places. And we need to keep the pressure on ourselves about that.

But we also have this information about the workings of the real estate development marketplace. And the fact that we can now put numbers on how it's a good idea to do this. And we have new tools to be persuasive about it and things like that. But we can never let up.

The fact that Fort Wayne has one of the oldest and best established local historic preservation organizations in the state and in the nation in it is a plus, but we can't let up the pressure. That's why we need to tell stories all the time. We need to be asking for memberships all the time.

We need to be having events all the time. We need to be getting donations and saying thank you for them all the time and seeking grant support all the time and doing everything we can to earn and deserve the support. We can't let up because losing our heritage, our built heritage is just too costly. We wouldn't be Fort Wayne anymore if we let ourselves lose it.

Julia Meek: And Karen, with time and development not on our side, you're sitting in that seat now. Do we have a chance to get ahead of these pitfalls?

Karen Richards: I think we can. I think Fort Wayne, in answer to your livability question, we've been really good in our neighborhoods, we have not been as good in our commercial structures.

And I think that for us is the challenge, is helping people to understand what saving retail commercial structures, what that does for a city, why that makes it unique. What it is about that that draws people to it.

The Landing is a perfect example. The landing is so unique, and the fact that we have preserved it has drawn a lot of people downtown and really helped to reinvigorate downtown. And I think continuing to preserve the beauty that we have downtown is really important and I think that's why supporting ARCH is important.

Because we want to continue to get the message out as to why it is so critical to preserve our history because it enhances our future.

Julia Meek: And sooner rather than later.

Karen Richards: Sooner rather than later, because if it's gone, it's gone. We are unable to rebuild in the same way that we originally built the city. The materials just are not available. And the cost of reinventing those structures would be huge, whereas the cost of preserving them is not.

 Julia Meek: And it's in our hearts and best interests, of course. Now, last question, going forward, what would you both like to say to the community about this sense of place, specifically, that you are so passionate about preserving?

Karen Richards: What I would say is, anytime you go to a city and visit it, what are the things that stand out to you? And to me, it's what is it about any place that makes it unique, and it usually is not, unless they're designed and are just really fabulous, it usually is not the brand-new buildings.

It is usually the historic individualistic character of a place that draws people to it and pulls them into their story. And to me, that's what we need to continue to do, is to build on the beauty that we have in our history.

Julia Meek: Connie?

Connie Haas Zuber: Our sense of place is what either connects us or disconnects us from where we are. When we have a healthy sense of place, we're going down a street, and we're looking at a building or a park or something, and we're realizing I know a story about that place.

And it makes you a part of the story of that place. And it gives you a role in that story. Because you know things about this place and you're suddenly woven into the story of the place. And that is just a wonderful feeling.

That's how a place includes you in it, by weaving you into its story. And that's good for individual people. It's good for places, it's good on every single level and I wish everybody to have that kind of a feeling about the place where they live.

Julia Meek: Connie Haas Zuber is the retiring Executive Director of ARCH, Inc. and Karen Richards, its new interim Executive Director. Thank you for the work that you do and the story you tell. Here's to another 50 years carry the gift.

Connie Haas Zuber: Thank you.

Karen Richards: Thank you

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.