Historically Speaking

Franklin Heritage Inc. salvages more than houses

By Greg Seiter

To the residents of Franklin in 1983, what really mattered was the condition of the city’s rapidly deteriorating historic buildings and tree-lined streets. Taking a cue from preservation movements of the 1970s, concerned members of the community formed what is now Franklin Heritage Inc.

“The preservation movement really started in 1976 at a time when it wasn’t necessarily popular here in town, especially with people in leadership positions,” FHI Executive Director Rob Shilts says. “Nevertheless, those people became very active in politics, joined boards and got a lot of press. They also put together a tree-planting program and started working on the repair of Franklin’s brick streets.”

In the early days, organization members began hosting home restoration classes for area residents, and the group members first considered buying and restoring homes.

Leading into preservation

Shilts had developed a passion for historic preservation while attending the University of Minnesota. Specifically, he was inspired by a history-loving professor there as he pursued a bachelor’s degree in architecture. With a desire to focus more on history-related opportunities, however, Shilts moved to Indiana. Initially, he could only find employment in project architecture.

“I gave myself five years and decided if I still wasn’t happy by the end of that time, I would start my own company to help preserve historic properties and downtown areas,” Shilts says.

Through work he was doing with Indiana Landmarks (formerly Heritage Landmarks Foundation of Indiana), an organization that focuses on preservation and restoration statewide, Shilts learned about HFI; he was also contemplating a residential move from the Greenwood area around that time. So after deciding to walk away from his full-time architectural position, he drove into Franklin one day, where he fell in love with an old home, bought it and joined with FHI.

“I guess the stars were aligned,” he says.

In 1997, Shilts held his first meeting as the FHI board president. By 2007, he became the organization’s executive director.


Architectural kismet

Serving first as board president before assuming the role of executive director for FHI, Shilts was surprised to learn his new employer wasn’t proactively buying and restoring properties. In 1998 with a mere $4,000 in the organization’s bank account, Franklin Heritage Inc. purchased the house at 549 Hurricane St.

“It was one of the worst-conditioned houses in a bad area. It was a dumping ground, and I think we bought it for $14,000,” Shilts says. “We restored the exterior, invited neighbors to come by, provided doughnuts and coffee, and got rid of the dumped debris. That was a starting point. Our hope was that if you fix one bad building on one bad street, you may get someone else to paint their fence and another person to pick up their trash, so ultimately everyone benefits.”

Eventually, this once-neglected home became the property of former Franklin Mayor Joe McGuinness and his wife.

FHI bought its second property — also on Hurricane Street — in 2000; the organization received a third property from a donation in 2001.

Silver screen dreams

In 2004, FHI took an even bigger step forward, this time purchasing The Historic Artcraft Theatre in 2004.

“To say nobody else was in line to buy it would be an understatement,” Shilts says. “But we knew somebody had to do something to save it.”

Working with a goal of stabilizing the theater, Shilts saw Artcraft as an anchor venue for a downtown shopping area. That dream quickly became a reality.

“I remember when we brought 10,000 people though the door for the first time at the Artcraft,” Shilts recalls. “It wasn’t long after that when more nearby businesses started to pop up, and restaurants were staying open later.”

Shilts and others realized that to maintain and potentially increase newfound interest in the theater, the facility would need full-time focus on promotion. Luckily, Dave Windisch, a Bargersville native with a longtime connection to the theater, had recently moved back to the area. Windisch, who serves as FHI’s advertising and public relations director, had been coming to the Artcraft since the early ’80s.

“Nostalgia is what really drew me back,” he says. “This is a place where my dad, grandfather and even great-grandfather sat in. I guess for me, the dream part of all this is in being able to work with booking agents to put movies on the screen here. With the neon lights and popcorn smell and the building’s historical relevance, this is definitely an anchor that draws people in from the outside.”

In addition to promoting events at the facility, Windisch serves as media contact for Franklin Heritage while handling social media channels, the organization’s website and the production of printed materials.

Shop keeping

As an organization, ongoing restoration and developmental projects have oftentimes left Franklin Heritage personnel with a surplus of leftover but usable building materials. That became even more true when significant flooding hit the Johnson County area in 2008, and large clusters of homes were condemned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. So with a desire to make used housing materials available to the public, FHI personnel set up a secondhand shop for walk-in traffic to examine and purchase the items collected by the organization.

FHI groups went to flood-ravaged homes, salvaging everything they could, from mantels to interior doors and even windows, says Danny Causey, who now serves as director of architectural salvage with Franklin Heritage Inc. He was hired in 2013 to organize piles of salvaged materials. At the time, the salvage shop was only open a few hours each week. However, Causey quickly realized public interest was strong.

“We had hoped to make a few hundred dollars each month, but we were making thousands,” he says.

Realizing the city of Franklin would soon need to regain control of the facility that temporarily housed the salvage shop, operation organizers eventually settled on a new location and, thanks to a façade grant from Franklin Development Corp., were able to restore the 1919 structure that sat there.

Today, Madison Street Salvage is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. All net profit is funneled back into Franklin Heritage restoration projects.

“We have so many folks who are building new houses but want some older things inside, so through salvage, we’re able to help provide them with what they’re looking for,” Shilts says. “Ultimately, our salvage shop helps keep things out of landfills, helps us continue to restore and helps attract people to the downtown area where local businesses benefit. With everything we do, there are certainly challenges at times, but in the end I think all of us here are most concerned about doing what’s best for this community.”

Causey agrees. “Franklin is a great place to live. We’re just trying to make it even better,” he says.

Photo: Madison Street Salvage