Of Bygone Days
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
The vibrant Downtown Greeneville of the 1900s -- decades when the downtown area bustled with the traffic and intense activity that went with being Greene County's business, governmental and social center -- is in large part a memory now.
And a good one.
The downtown is no longer the retail business center of the county, of course, and most of the commercial activity that went with that role has spread out to shopping centers and other parts of the community.
But some local artists and a group of local citizens are working hard to bring a fresh touch of both remembrance and visual beauty to the town's historic center.
"Windows to the Past," large murals depicting important facets of Greeneville's history, are already taking shape at two downtown buildings, thanks to the vision and dedication of several local people, with the prospect of other, similar murals to come.
Coincidentally, the project has begun just in time to partner with the Town of Greeneville's new 20/20 Vision initiatives, some of which are designed to bring new life into the Historic District.
Widely-known local artists Joe Kilday and Mike Durham, who are among the first to join the "Windows to the Past" project, found themselves on Monday facing a "canvas" much larger than those they normally use -- the back side of Main Street Place, located on the corner of Main and Summer streets.
Standing at least 20 feet in the air on a scissor-lift aerial work platform, the two went after the brown building with enthusiasm and camaraderie -- and a lot of exterior paint.
Already taking shape on the building are blue-gray mountains and a tobacco field. When complete, the mural will portray a classic, and long-familiar, Greene County landscape: a tobacco field and tobacco barn, with the mountains in the background and several large, ripe tobacco leaves in the foreground (see artist's rendering).
Although this developing mural is the first publicly visible progress on the "Windows" project, artist Sam Lane said Monday that he has nearly completed the actual first painting of the project -- a large billboard-style poster featuring Buffalo Bill Cody that will attach to the side of the old opera house in the downtown area.
OLD OPERA HOUSE?
Yes, there once was an "opera house" in Greeneville, "Windows" project leader Andy Daniels said with enthusiasm in an interview on Monday.
The large brown-brick building is located at the corner of Irish and Depot Streets and is now one of the Morgan Square downtown properties owned by Greeneville businessman and philanthropist Scott Niswonger.
More than a century ago, what was then the opera house was a hub of local entertainment, and cultural and social life.
Now, it is unoccupied but stands as a reminder of some of the many entertainment venues and businesses downtown Greeneville once boasted.
"People need to know this!" emphasized Daniels, a Greeneville native who is also president of Main Street: Greeneville and the facilitator of the part of the 20/20 Vision effort related to Downtown Revitalization.
The former opera house figures in Niswonger's "Rediscover Greeneville" downtown revitalization concept for his Morgan Square properties, which was introduced in 2008 but mostly delayed as a result of the severe national recession that began that year.
Daniels enthusiastically recalled how a faded, now-barely-legible sign on the tall brick structure's west side facing Irish Street declared it a place once visited by the touring Wild West Show of William Frederick Cody (1846-1917): the famous plainsman, U.S. Army scout and showman known in American lore as "Buffalo Bill."
This touch of local history from a century ago, and seeing downtown murals in other area communities, sparked Daniels' vision for the "Windows to the Past," the first of which will replace the fading Buffalo Bill sign with Lane's poster.
"I have worked on this for at least two years, trying to get something like this together," she said in the interview Monday.
Her first step, she said, was to seek out an organization to oversee the project.
The third try proved to be the charm after she went first to the Greeneville Arts Council and then to Main Street: Greeneville, without success, before deciding that "the perfect place is Heritage Trust."
Among those approving the project was Greene County Heritage Trust President George Blanks.
"The Trust was very excited about doing it," he said. "The board was totally behind it.
"I think it's a terrific idea that brings history to downtown."
Blanks described it as a "win-win" situation for the town, for the local artistic community, for those interested in preserving local history, and for those interested in the beautification of the downtown area.
Following the enthusiastic reception given Daniels' idea by the Heritage Trust board, she was invited to form a committee to move the project forward.
That invitation resulted in the formation of a committee of all women, including Carla Bewley, Becky Yonz, Lennie Greene, Sherry Hensley and Christine Huff.
The committee will review any project proposals for the "Windows" and aid those interested in adding a mural to their building with raising donations to make it possible, Daniels said.
So far, donations have paid for the first two projects.
The tobacco-farm mural on Main Street Place, for example, was paid for largely by donations from the Austin family, who owned and directed The Austin Co. here from 1919 until about 1990, when the large, internationally known tobacco company was purchased by North Carolina-based A.C. Monk, a competitor.
Committee members may be contacted about the "Windows" project through the Heritage Trust.
"There's just no end of possibilities -- like, nobody knew about the opera house," Daniels said.
Other mural ideas so far have ranged from famous local historical figures such as Davy Crockett, to other major former local industries such as the Pet Milk Co. and The Magnavox Company.
Another suggestion was the old Southern Railway passenger station, which continues to stand at its original location off Loretta Street.
PROJECTS UNDER WAY
"I think it will be huge, with all the artists that are around here," Lane said. "I believe there's already some interest."
His own project should be finished within the next couple of weeks, he added.
"It's slower than what I would want it to be, but I'm happy with how it looks," he noted of the oil painting on wood.
Most of the wait, he explained, is in getting the paint to cure.
Daniels reported that the committee will host an unveiling as soon as Lane's project is complete.
As for the large mural that Durham and Kilday are painting, progress will be largely dependent on the weather, but they said they hope to complete it sometime in March.
Kilday explained that the two began by pressure-washing the building in order to achieve a clean surface. Next they applied a large block of primer to create their "canvas," or painting surface.
"Since that [brown] paint that's on there is very stable, we're using exterior latex enamel," he said. "It's not white; it's kind of a light-blue color. We tinted it a little bit to give it kind of a pop.
"We're going to try to give a 3-D effect."
For now, the two are focused on blocking-in colors. Only later will they go back to add shadow, light and depth to the mural. creating a fair amount of detail, Durham explained.
The artists were philosophical in their comments concerning their work, and frequently reminisced about their own history with downtown Greeneville over the years.
"We'll be able to remind people with these 'Windows to the Past' what made Greeneville what it was," Kilday noted. "Now it is never going to be that again ... but this shows that we're proud of what it was.
"Greeneville is not the Bypass. Greeneville is here [downtown]," he added.
"The heart and soul is here."