Foreword to Silent Workplace (copyright 2007 Gayle and Bill Cook)
The “silent” workplaces that we’ve restored, reused, or torn down, have really been rather noisy places. In its own way, each has spoken loudly and clearly to us—just as the abandoned structures of John Bower’s photographs do to those who care to listen. Every forlorn building tells something about the people and activities once sheltered there. In the buildings we’ve been involved with, we’ve found written messages, machines, tools, products, pigeons, rats, and mice, but more surprisingly, a sentimental legacy that is often overwhelming.
We expected an emotional local celebration when we rehabbed and reopened a tiny general store. It had been the only gathering place in a thirty-mile area. Laconia—Indiana’s smallest town, according to the 2000 census—truly lost its soul when the business closed. Painfully missed—along with the convenient grocery staples—were the liars’ bench, hot coffee, euchre games, lodge meetings, and the clerking job opportunities. That store restoration was one of our most diminutive, but most rewarding, projects because of the reviving effect it had on everyday lives.
We hadn’t forecast the happy tears and smiles at the gala opening of our new facility in a long-empty Bloomington manufacturing plant. The former employees, of a factory that had been one of RCA’s largest, reminisced about what once was, and prowled their cavernous old haunts for hours. To most of us, it was just another mammoth building, but to them it continues to hold a very significant place in their hearts and memories.
Even though it had not functioned as a hotel for seventy-five years, our restoration of the West Baden Springs Hotel, a National Historic Landmark, elicited an outpouring of affectionate guest and employee recollections. Nearly every family in West Baden Springs, and nearby French Lick, is connected in some way to that venerable building. Until the renovation, locals had resigned themselves to having their memories and precious old photographs outlive the ruins.
Be assured, each of John Bower’s images shows just such a place, large or small, that has been an important part of the personal history of someone—boss, hourly worker, or customer.
Photographs—both vintage and contemporary—are most valuable to us during a renovation project because they capture every minuscule detail that will be important when the space is returned to its historic appearance. In this collection of photographs of silent workplaces, can be found—in the ambiance and details of windows, moldings, bricks and mortar, even nails—clues that communicate our valuable Indiana history. These buildings talk to us, without words, about our heritage, as well as the personalities of neighbors, parents, and grandparents who labored in them—for us.
Gayle and Bill Cook