So you may be familiar with the name of the Artcraft, but did you know that Franklin Heritage Inc. (FHI) is the parent group behind the 100-year-old theatre? This year, Franklin Heritage Inc. is turning 40 years old, and in light of the celebration, let's talk about the history of FHI and the impact the group has left on the city over the last four decades.
Established in 1983, Franklin Heritage Inc. began with a small group of Franklin citizens who felt it was important to preserve the historic character and integrity of the City of Franklin, Indiana – from the city’s tree-lined boulevards, brick streets, and historic architecture.
The group wasn’t fussing over the paint colors of houses, they wanted to save the rich stories and history that downtown Franklin possessed and kept it from becoming a shopping mall or parking lots. But before we start with the legacy this group has made, let's back up a bit to the 1940s, when downtown was the pinnacle for shopping and entertainment.
The downtown Franklin of the ‘40s was full of hustle and bustle. Located around the courthouse square were NAPA Auto Parts, Chrysler, Kroger, and many other amenities. In 1940, Life Magazine published an article titled "A Small Town's Saturday Night," using Franklin as a stand-in for small-town America. The photographers followed the Dunn family around on a typical Saturday night.
The Dunn Boys in the front row at the Artcraft. Photo credit: Life Magazine
The Life article shares, “Women buy bargains at chain-store groceries and pack the 5-and-10. Kids clutch ice-cream cones and rush to the Wild West movies. Men retire to barbershops that hum with political discussion. At 9, the outdoor concert over, there is a final spurt of shopping. Youngers crown the juke-box joints for a last coke and dance. A tingling electric excitement fills the gasoline-scented streets. The whole town quivers with life and light and sound.”
But the light and sound only lasted so long. As town went into the 50s and 60s, shopping and strip malls were the up-and-coming trend. A group of businessmen proposed to the city council to knock down a majority of the buildings in the downtown district to build a strip mall. Franklin residents stood up against this proposal, and the mall was later built in Greenwood and is known today as the Greenwood Park Mall. Strip malls were also beginning to pop up along US 31. By 1971, Northwood Plaza was built to accommodate 115,000 square feet of retail space. It also had a ‘fully lighted’ parking lot with room for 600 parked cars. The anchor store in Northwood Plaza was Murphy’s Mart, and many of the businesses moved from outside of downtown Franklin and into this strip mall and others.
By the mid ‘70s to 80s, the downtown area of Franklin was becoming more deserted. As business left for bigger parking lots and glossy new storefronts the strip malls offered, the historic downtown became quiet and empty. To get customers to come to the area, local shops would put on bargain days and themed campaigns, like Western Days, to attract buyers. The city also thought that to encourage patrons to visit downtown, more parking lots were needed.
Several key buildings were knocked down in the area. 10 historic brick buildings were knocked down to pave the parking lot that sits directly across from the Artcraft. As this was happening, residents in the downtown and surrounding area had concerns surrounding the demolition of historic structures that were paved over for parking or new construction.
For a handful of Franklin residents, the last straw was the demolition of a block of buildings that was home to Nick's Candy Kitchen, a popular candy store and soda shop in the downtown area. In its later years, Nick’s was the place where kids would hang out after school, but over time the crowd got rough, resulting in the group of buildings getting demolished altogether.
Daily Journal article from 1986
In October 1983, Franklin Heritage Inc. was born out of a group of passionate, concerned individuals who met to discuss ways they could improve the historic integration of their town. Chris Hext was the first President.
“The original group that started FHI was about advocacy and education,” said Rob Shilts, Executive Director of Franklin Heritage Inc. “They didn’t want to tell you what color to paint your house. They were advocates for preserving the history and stories of downtown, while also educating individuals on how to restore their homes correctly.”
The group held classes dedicated to repainting and restoring homes such as "How to Restore Wood Windows" and "How to Paint Your House." During this time, the board worked to get on different committees throughout the city, such as the planning and zoning committees.
Throughout the ‘90s, Franklin Heritage was about advocacy, education, and saving the historic buildings in the downtown square. One of their first projects was the preservation of the brick streets in the downtown area. In 1986, they also advocated and opposed the widening of North Main Street.
In an article by Christiana Guerrero from the Daily Journal, she writes “The president of Franklin Heritage proposed a feasibility study on a plan to widen North Main Street during the Franklin City Council meeting on Monday night. Christ Hext, Franklin Heritage president, said, Widening it (the street) would detract from its historic value. The damage done when you widen the street may not be reversible.’ Hext requested that the council keep the older neighborhoods the way they are and change them only to 20th-century needs. Members of the council suggested Hext bring his proposal to the Board of Public Works and Safety. ‘I welcome the opportunity to come before the board of works,’ Hext said. ‘I think it is certainly worth pursuing preserving the architectural integrity of the street. Maybe I have the chance to speak before the bids are made.’”
By 1987, FHI hosted its first Bi-Annual Home Tour, which was originally orchestrated by the Johnson County Historical Society in 1983. The tour included horse-drawn buggy rides starting and a lemonade stand on Martin Place. These tours continued bi-annually featuring homes like 1066 E. King Street, 318 S. Main Street, and 150 E. Madison Street.
In 1997, Rob Shilts held his first Board Meeting as Board President.
“When I joined the group, I asked the board members what houses they had bought and restored up until that point. She shared that they had not restored a house yet,” said Rob. “I told them we couldn’t be a preservation group without preserving homes. So with $3,000 in the bank, we went out and bought our first home and restored it.”
That first home FHI made an offer on was 549 Hurricane Street. They closed on the property on October 15, 1998, with $3,000 in their checking account. After purchasing the 1870s Italianate home for $14,000, they set out to give the home the tender love and care it needed to be brought back to life. The home had been abandoned for approximately two years and quickly became the neighborhood dumping ground. The house had suffered from neglect and had broken windows, holes in the roof, and trash piling up in the backyard. The home sold on June 4, 2001, and sparked several neighbors to begin working on their properties.
“You have to look at your work in a positive light when you are working in a preservation group. If you focus on the negativity, you will not get anything done,” shares Rob. “With some houses, you gain some money, some you lose some money, some you break even. But at the end of the day, the goal was being reached – we were restoring houses.”
In following years, the group purchased and restored 1,500- and 2,500-square-foot homes, such as 600 North Hurricane and the Rosalia Ott Farmhouse. You can find their portfolio of homes here.
If it weren’t for what happened next with the Historic Artcraft Theatre, the nonprofit group would probably still be restoring homes only. From its humble beginnings, an even bigger project was calling the names of the organization – the Historic Artcraft Theatre. On January 21, 2004, the Board of Directors voted 15-3 to purchase the Artcraft Theatre and its contents. Franklin Heritage finalized the purchase of the Artcraft from Bob Schofield in April 2004.
“Over the last two decades, it has been all hands on deck to save and preserve the Artcraft,” said Rob. “Our next area of focus is to get FHI just as big as the Artcraft. We want to start offering classes and workshops again.”
The board of directors and staff of Franklin Heritage Inc. has many hopes and dreams for the incorporation for the years ahead, such as continuing the Secret Garden Walk, Historic Home Tours, and starting more classes. They also want to advocate and give identities to other neighborhoods in the area.
The small, dedicated group of individuals who met in living rooms to advocate for their city spawned a legacy to preserve the historic character of our city.
Rob shares, “They set the tone and mission that FHI still operates with today, as we work to preserve Franklin in every way possible.”
Megan Elaine is a writer and storyteller who lives in Franklin, IN.