Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Wal-Mart and the Terry Block Building

Further proof that Wal-Mart doesn't get it....

This is the Terry Block Building in downtown Bentonville. By FAR, probably the best looking building in downtown Bentonville. It was completed in 1888 by Colonel William Terry, who owned a dry goods store in the building. Several other dry goods stores moved in and out through the years, and a competitor to the Benton County National Bank was housed here for several years around the turn of the century. It's the only three-story commercial building on the square, and one of the oldest surviving unchanged buildings in Bentonville. Unlike many other downtown buildings, the exterior of this building has never really changed.

This picture here is from a postcard from the 20's that Jennifer found for sale on Ebay. The Terry Block building is at the far right, the only three story building showing.

At some point through the years, the Wal-Mart Home Office acquired this building and has since completely wasted the most beautiful building in downtown Bentonville. As you can see from the top photo, the old Walton 5&10 is right next door, which today, is the wonderful Wal-Mart visitor's center and museum. The museum extends into the first floor of the Terry Block Building, which is where Mr. Sam's old red pickup truck is kept. Other than that, the Terry Block Building is completely intact and used by Wal-Mart.

Some of you may remember my comments about the status of downtown Bentonville. While downtown Bentonville and the square are on the up and up, one of the problems we have here, and will continue to have, is building owners renting out prime ground-floor spots to Wal-Mart vendors (or other similar uses). Most of these offices have tinted windows, or blinds in the windows, cutting them off from the life on the street. And all of the vendors close down at 5 p.m., removing what little presence they might have from the life of downtown. Next door to the coffee shop I'm sitting in, some building owner has leased out an office to ONE GUY. He's not even there everyday. We walk by and look in the window, and there's a row of Wal-Mart lookalike shelves along one wall and a dude at a computer in the back. That's it. One guy.

Now the whole vendor deal isn't really the issue with this post. I know a lot of the buildng owners would rather lease their buildings to restaurants or retail, but they can't always find takers (which becomes a bit of a catch-22 because the more vendors take up space, the less attractive downtown becomes for people who would start a restaurant or retail business.)

Anyway, the point here is the Terry Block building.

So you have Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. who builds ugly buildings the world over, and takes great pride in building frugal, inexpensive, architecturally neutered buildings for their home office. The latest expansion to the Sam's Warehouse office was made entirely of sheet metal. So what the crap does Wal-Mart need with one of the best downtown buildings. a testament to the booming economy of the 1880's, and a triumph of 19th century architecture. (FYI, the City passed design guidelines in the downtown district that ban the use of sheet metal buildings, and guess who builds more sheet metal buildings than anyone else? Unfortunately for all of us who live here, the existing utterly forgettable WM buildings are grandfathered in, but hopefully their future pieces of shite will have live up to some design standards.)

The Terry Block building has a rarely-used conference room in the ground floor, they've sealed up the front door, and tinted all the windows, making for a wonderful experience when you walk by the place. It's like walking by a mirror. No window shopping here, thank you very much. The building has become like a black hole. I'm convinced people don't even notice it when they walk downtown because the facade of the place that you see while you're walking by doesn't offer any reason for a second look. The whole building says "Go Away." And the wonderful corner-facing front door has been sealed up and replaced by double doors in the back with a Wal-Mart sign and security lock.

So there you have it. Probably one of the oldest surviving unchanged downtown buildings, the only three-story building downtown, completely wasted by the dumbasses at Wal-Mart Stores.

Now I'm not completely against Wal-Mart like a lot of other crazy folks around here or elsewhere. My two complaints are with the way that Wal-Mart develops land, spreading across the open countryside like a plague, and the fact that the Wal-Mart business model isn't one that fosters diverse growth in a downtown-like economy. I keep hearing that Wal-Marts should move into downtown, but I'm not convinced that would work out because they survive not by encouraging you to leave their doors and walk to and patronize the nearby stores, but to come to their store and buy EVERYTHING you need at everyday low prices and then go directly home. And I don't think that model could work downtown. But here's what I think could work:

In lieu of just straight up selling the buiding to someone who gives a damn about downtown and understands how to make one work, I think they should either open up a Wal-Mart express or a Wal-Mart soda fountain.

The Wal-Mart express would be like a Walgreen's, offering photofinishing, a pharmacy, and basic drugstore or small grocery store like goods. Then you'd have a place that was still Wal-Mart but offered something to tourists and people who live downtown alike. And the buidling wouldn't be a black hole. And it would be a business model that would be dependent on encouraging downtown growth and development to get the people on the street and living downtown to support their business.

The second idea is an old-timey soda shop. There actually used to be one in the building directly across the corner in a building owned by downtown property lord Johnny Haney. You could tie the soda shop into the 5&10 museum and give tourists a spot to go after they visit the museum, sit on old cushioned chrome barstools and have an old-timey soda or shake while they chat up the old Soda Pop amidst old pictures of historical Bentonville and Sam Walton.

I know I'm biased, but doesn't this sound like a freaking homerun? How could it fail? The tourists would have somewhere to go after seeing the museum (other than just getting right back on their tour bus and going to McDonalds) and people like me who live downtown would have somehwere to hang out in the afternoon or the weekends. (or even at night, which would be incredibly brilliant)

And they could have another destination downtown that makes good use of a beautiful building and promotes their company and takes people back to a time when Sam Walton was around, Wal-Mart bought American, and the rich spoiled executives didn't steal from the mothership. I don't think there's anyway either of these ideas could go wrong, but I'd prefer to have the Wal-Mart express downtown, hopefully staying open til 10. Maybe there's a way to combine the two, I don't know.

Either way, something has to be done, because this is a frigging waste of a beautiful historic building, and a massive obstacle to the redevelopment of downtown. It's a predominant anchor building, of which there are only a few on the square. When one of them is a black hole (like Roy's copy shop), it makes a huge difference in the vitality of downtown. And I think the ceiling is limited for downtown as long as the Wal-Mart dumbasses sit on their hands and keep this building as a non-factor.

I mean, it's Wal-Mart for pete's sake! What do they need a beautiful historic building on the square for? Doesn't that send the wrong message to people when they meet there? That Wal-Mart cares about appearance and beautiful architecture? Is that the statement they want to make to vendors when they have meetings there? "We care about downtowns and love to possess beautiful buildings to meet in." ????

2 plus 2 is 5 and down is up in that world.

I hate to sound like I'm crazy, but it makes me physically angry everytime I walk by this place. I'm making it my personal mission to see something useful come of it. (Give me your feedback, Bentonville folks..)

Alice Walton anted up and donated a shitload of her own money to build a huge world-class museum connected to downtown. Hey Lee Scott and Wal-Mart, why don't you follow suit and show that you actually do "get it" and care about the quality and vitality of your own hometown. Prove to the world that you're not a bunch of dumbasses who completely don't understand what it takes to make a great place to live. Contribute something to the built environment of Bentonville that won't be a throwaway piece of architecture in 20 years. This building is almost 120 years old, and looks every bit as wonderful as when it opened. Could you imagine saying the same thing about the Home Office down the street? Or anything else built by Wal-Mart, for that matter? Keep your rarely-used offices and conference rooms, just MOVE THEM UPSTAIRS. Contribute something to the life on the street other than a boarded-up front door and tinted windows.

Here's your chance, Wal-Mart. Pony up and make something happen. Prove us all wrong.

Other posts about Terry Block:
Terry Block Part Two
Beat that Dead Horse