A view of the past as seen through downtown windows

Published 9:51 pm Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Volunteers working with the Washington Harbor District Alliance have made several downtown windows more visually appealing with the addition of enlarged, historical photos. (WDN Photo/Sara Cowell)

Sometimes it takes a village to make a village all that it can be.

It is just such an effort that is enhancing some of the vacant buildings along Main Street in Washington. Through the help of a small group of volunteers working with the Washington Harbor District Alliance, several storefront windows are being enlivened with giant, historical photos.

The idea of covering the windows with enlarged, old photographs is the brainchild of Bianca Gentile, a development coordinator for Washington, and Rebecca Clark, a WHDA board member.

“Bianca and I were having a conversation one day about what various things we could do to help the downtown. This seemed like a good project for WHDA,” said Clark.

The women gained their inspiration from the North Carolina Main Street Program offered through the N.C. Department of Commerce. Washington has been a part of this “revitalizing-small-towns” group since 1980. Other small cities have used similar ideas to enliven their downtowns and enhance building sellability, Clark said,

“We’re always looking for ways to dress up downtown. Our big concern is the empty buildings, and we, of course, love our history. So, we thought sharing pictures of (old) Washington would be good,” said Beth Byrd, WHDA executive director.

The “village” of people and organizations that made this project happen are Clark, John Schermerhorn, Amy Ward of Gregg Ward Photography, Neil and Meredith Loughlin of Lone Leaf Gallery and the Washington Area Historical Foundation. Materials were obtained from several area residents and photo archives from the city of Washington and the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“It’s a grassroots effort a few individuals took on. Our initial goal was to do all of the empty storefronts on Main and then move to Market Street. We have a couple of (building) owners that don’t want to do it, but that’s OK,” said Clark.

Clark completed an inventory of downtown buildings, contacted owners for access and solicited donations to start the project. Schermerhorn began a search for historical photos and postcards for the project and wrangled with printers to cut production costs by about 75 percent.

Once photos were selected, Ward and the Loughlins provided their technical talent to enhance the imagery to make it printable on a large scale. When the window films, or “clings,” arrived, Schermerhorn washed the windows and statically hung the films.

“We are trying to make downtown look more appealing (to residents, visitors and potential investors). It costs very little for something that makes such a huge impact. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments. … The way John did the films, you can see them when you’re walking and from the car.”

Schermerhorn echoed Clark’s sentiments.

“I was looking for something to stimulate the growth and forward progress of the downtown area. There are a lot of underutilized storefronts downtown that could be more appealing and the clings add a little vibrancy. It’s fun to watch folks stop and look,” he said.

Currently, there are seven photographs gracing the windows of the old Hotel Louise and the Fowle buildings. The plan is to fill as many windows as owners will allow. There are photos waiting in the wings, but the initial funds for the project — supplied by WHDA, WAHF and a few individual foundation members — have dried up.

“Right now, we need more funds to continue. It’s so inexpensive and makes such a difference. I really encourage everyone to help make the downtown look nicer,” Clark said.