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'New urbanism' draws Ward to square

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Shelbyville artist Jerry Ward reviews plans for his new home and studio that will face the south side of the Bedford County Courthouse.
(T-G Photo by Clint Confehr)
Jerry Ward, Bedford County's very own White House-approved artist, is coming to Shelbyville's Public Square in a move city planners might call new urbanism and what Our Town sees as revitalization.

"We're trying to create a draw for people to live on the Square," explained Ward, perhaps best-known for having painted Millie, the English Springer Spaniel pet of George and Barbara Bush when he was president.

Ward's display gallery, painting studio, sitting rooms, office, and residence will be facing the center of the south side of the Bedford County Courthouse after the burned shell of Gresham's clothing store is rebuilt by Tommy Woodard, a general contractor based at 507 N. Hillcrest Dr., who's done similar work for Nancy June Brandon, also known as "Dancy" because of her dance studio on the east side of the square.

"We're saving an old, burned-out building," Ward said. "Often, it takes a person like me to salvage something like this. Artists are not in a box."

Ironically, the building was a long two-story box, so the artist and contractor are creating different spaces -- even planning back-lit window frames to give the illusion of outside light -- for rooms deep inside the box.

As Ward explains the illusion of a mechanical window, he speaks from the heart with a mechanical valve implanted during surgery on Dec. 17, 2004. It's his reason for moving from his home on East Franklin Street where he can no longer trim hedges he loved to form his way to follow a slope.

"If I can't do it my way, I don't want it," Ward said. "I'm very meticulous with my yard work."

It's true of his home-office plan and it's the latest example of urban planners' concept of mixed use for several reasons. One is economical use of space which, in this case, includes a sliding "pocket door" that avoids the swing of wood across a hall. Another reason for mixed use design is economic development of big, old spaces like public squares which have been the heart of commerce for small towns like Shelbyville.

As doors, a hall and staircase set aside a space for a sitting room for consultation with customers, those structural spaces conceal the home Ward will share with his 79-year-old mother, Mildred.

As new residents to downtown, they will be people in that community of commerce and social interaction. Ward's church, First United Methodist, is just across the square from the home he and his mother will move to next year.

Brandon and Cliff Hirst of Belmont Avenue were partners in three buildings on the south side of the square where four businesses were flourishing before a devastating fire on the square almost five years ago, said Hirst. Once insurance claims were settled, Brandon repaired what's now the Coffee Break, and Hirst sold what had been Gresham's to Ward.

"We both wanted to see retail on the square and partnered up and did it," Hirst said of the new roof and air conditioning system he and Brandon had installed.

The concept of retail store fronts at street level, offices on a second floor and living quarters above is being repeated across America from a Walt Disney-inspired city called Celebration near Orlando to the coffee-soaked streets of downtown Seattle. But neo-traditional design is as old as Shelbyville's Public Square which Hirst says has a layout that's been copied by other small towns.

And so the Ward Townhouse is trendy in a sort of retro way, and with Woodard, a home-based business may continue in a more urban setting.

The front will be redesigned so second story window sizes will be repeated on the sidewalk level, much in the same way the Coffee Break's front door is surrounded by windows, Ward said.

"I tried to draw it in keeping with other buildings on the square, but it's going to be the Ward Town House," said Ward whose design will retain the integrity of the historic image."

His studio will be a far cry from the factory the building once was. Ward said it had been where horse buggies were manufactured. The floor had a slope to allow the finished product to be rolled out the back door.

Completion is anticipated in January. Ward notes he's already spent some $55,000 on the building and realizes the entire project, from excavation of rubble to installation of favorite fixtures, could cost up to $300,000. That, however, is for a 3,000-square-foot living and working space facing what he calls a "million dollar view."

Ward's painting of the Bedford County Courthouse hangs in that building's lobby, in the arm of a main hall leading to the southern portico.

Ward, Brandon, Hirst and Betty Harrison, director of Our Town, the association of merchants on and around the square, endorse the concepts that Ward is displaying, including that creation of a residence on the square where it's clear he will be at places other than church and the coffee shop.

"It was a town center," Brandon said of the square where she grew up, and was inspired by a Shirley Temple movie in which the little star danced with Bill Robinson. The Nancy June who grew up to be "Dancy" practiced similar dance steps on the front steps of the post office.

"People got used to me early," Brandon said, adding she loved to run her mother's errands from one store to another on the square which she believes can be reborn.

In a way it is.

As new owners of Pope's Cafe attract new customers, old ones come again recalling the days when the breakfast crowd was so busy that "Mr. Pope" let some customers cook their own eggs the way they wanted them.

Now, Harrison points out shops opening recently include the Jay Jordan boutique, Necessities, the Silk Factory florist, Ernestina's wig and gift shop, and now Jerry Ward's studio and gallery.

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