Guest opinion: What’s lost when historic local buildings are razed? With change comes tradeoffs.

Gladstone’s department store in McHenry, pictured in 1965.

Last fall, the Herald ran an article and the city of McHenry’s interest in acquiring the Green Street Cafe at 1219 N. Green St. When the municipalities venture into the realm of commercial real estate purchases, it usually means the property is more valued than the structure on it. In 19th and early 20th century business districts, like McHenry’s Green Street, what often happens is the building disappears and is then replaced by a parking lot or perhaps a multistoried parking garage.

Often forgotten in public projects like this are the unintended consequences. Original business districts have a unique character both with their architectural styles and as identifiers of a town’s origins. The historic buildings that make them up are nonrenewable structural resources. There is no doubt that infrastructure improvements often need to be made in these historical centers to keep them economically viable. With change, however, comes tradeoffs. Just how far the tradeoffs go is always the issue.

Nancy Fike, McHenry

In this case, the Green Street Cafe’s origins go back to 1939 when it opened as Gladstone’s Department Store – at that time, the largest such store in McHenry County. Those, like myself, fondly referred to it as “Happy Rocks,” and my friends and our parents were regular shoppers. I learned that for a period of time the Switzer family built speedboats in the basement. Bob Switzer recalled Mrs. Liebshon, who worked years at Gladstone’s, would bang on the floor with a wooden broomstick when the chemical fumes got too strong. Boat building stopped until everything aired out.

The store carried a wide variety of clothing for the whole family as well as household and bedding items and shoes. It was the shoe department I remember mostly because of the “high tech” X-ray machine used to fit shoes, especially for kids whose sizes changed continually. Imagine inserting your feet into this wooden machine and seeing all the bones in your toes light up under radiation. Fortunately, laws noting radiation hazards finally put a stop to shoe-fitting fluoroscopes sometime in the 1950s.

There are buildings up and down Greet Street that hold those kinds of memories and, yes, history. Economic viability depends upon a market drawing. Destroy too much of that and what do we have left?

• Nancy J. Fike is a resident of McHenry and was the longtime administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society and Museum.