Every day on his way to and from work, Creager Smith would drive by the 2000 block of Fairfield Avenue in Fort Wayne and see a cluster of old buildings, all looking a bit worse for wear.
But, as a longtime historic preservation planner for the city, Smith had a different reaction than most motorists, who might have passed by without a second glance. He decided to buy the buildings and give them a makeover.
“I thought they were on the edge of being demolished,” he said of the structures, which included the former Stellhorn Hardware building.
Now in the process of stabilizing the buildings, Smith found they contained some surprises, even for a person like him, with more than 30 years in historic preservation work.
The structures – 2018, 2020, 2022 and 2024 Fairfield – stood as a rare, intact example of a neighborhood commercial district, part of which dated to the end of the 19th century.
Smith said the buildings are examples of how merchants who lived above their businesses brought goods and services to their neighbors by being only a short walk or streetcar ride away.
With the buildings' location relatively close to the Electric Works revitalization project, Smith thought, they could have continuing useful life – as homes for today's small businesses and their owners, who might appreciate the same kind of work-life convenience.
But there was work to be done. “There was a history of a lot of deferred maintenance,” Smith said, adding that a roof in bad shape and false facades begged to be removed.
One boarded-up structure was a carriage house with space for a horse, loft and likely an outhouse. The structure apparently served a commercial establishment, a general store or possibly its owner who lived above it.
“That is an incredibly rare situation, that the two are still together,” Smith said, adding the pair might be the only one of its kind in Indiana.
A basement in one of the buildings had a brick floor. “I had never seen that before,” Smith said.
The upstairs apartments had bay windows that provide a view of downtown. Pocket doors were another feature. And there were second-story rear porches, likely used to beat the heat in the days before air conditioning.
Using his professional skills, Smith gathered ownership and architectural information and used it to apply for the Fairfield Hill local historic district – a request granted this year by the city's Historic Preservation Commission and City Council.
The designation protects the structures by requiring approval for noticeable alterations to the exteriors.
Smith also learned the block would qualify for the National Register of Historic Places, although he has not started that application process.
That distinction, he explained, could help attract a future buyer because the properties would qualify for historic tax credits, like those being used for the Electric Works project.
The designation also means any federally funded projects in the area must be reviewed to ensure they don't have negative impacts.
Euphoric Salon and Spa now occupies 2018 Fairfield, and a therapeutic massage business, The Haven of Healing, occupies 2020.
Carrie Gibson, owner of Euphoric, is pleased with the changes.
“I love it,” she said. “I'm happy here and see the revitalization efforts of downtown creeping this way.”
The area near her business now has decorative street lights and bike racks, said Gibson, 38, a Fort Wayne native who's been at the location for about two years. She moved her business there from a low-visibility spot on Parnell Avenue.
“It makes my area look a little more cared for,” she said of the renovations and city improvements.
Jerry Vandeveer, a former member of the Historic Preservation Commission and former owner of The Wood Shack architectural salvage business on Fairfield, is delighted.
“What an outstanding idea!” he said last week. “When you look at downtown, it's the heart of the city. But when you look at the gateways, which Fairfield is one of, it's been neglected.”
He said the renovation project wasn't one for just anybody.
“It's wonderful that Creager is somebody that knows the business. You won't get a hodgepodge,” Vandeveer said.
The project is like a seed that shows the potential for the Electric Works neighborhood – an area already drawing millennials to businesses including Shigs in Pit, which anchors the north end of the block.
Smith said he thinks the buildings survived as well as they did because the first owners, John Zuber and his wife, Marguerite, lived in the building as well as had their business there.
They built 2020 Fairfield in about 1899, added 2022 and remodeled 2024, which was built about 1887, about 11 years later.
“There was pride of ownership,” Smith said.
But he is planning to step away from the project.
Smith said he sees his role as getting the buildings to the point that someone else with historic preservation interest and skills could see the potential and do the remaining work, which is mostly on the inside.
The project has been “exciting,” Smith said, because it made him feel part of the energy being generated by Electric Works.
But “it's probably a one-off,” he said. “It's time for somebody else to take it to the next level.”