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How The Landmark Association Brings History to Life



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Story by Telia Butler

It’s almost too easy to become enraptured by stories of local history when you’re listening to them in the Robert Penn Warren Library in the Kentucky Library at WKU. The native Kentuckian’s early 20th century desk and office memorabilia guard more than two thousand volumes of work preserved here.

Jonathan Jeffrey, the Department Head of Library Special Collections and the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives Coordinator, speaks so fluidly of the area’s history. With more than 30 years of dedicated service to the Landmark Association of Bowling Green and Warren County, he has become its institutional memory.

“We exist to preserve the archaeological, architectural, and cultural history of Bowling Green and Warren County,” Jeffrey said. “There’s no Bowling Green or Warren County Historical Society, so we’re here to serve that purpose.”

Born in 1976 by a group of concerned citizens with residences and business in the Fountain Square and Main Street areas, the Landmark Association called for preserving what remained of the nearly two-centuries old downtown space. Many of the historic buildings were prone to disrepair and emptiness, as just the shell of the once lively downtown remained.

Keep in the mind what was happening during Bowling Green’s growth timeline during the late 1960’s and 1970’s. A couple miles outside the city, on the corner of Campbell Lane and the Bypass, the brand new Bowling Green Mall opened in 1967. The era of self-service shopping at large chain stores was all the rage. It was the third shopping mall in Kentucky, featuring 32 stores and a movie theatre.

This new shopping fad caused somewhat of an exodus from downtown Bowling Green, as businesses moved to the Bowling Green Mall, then again to Scottsville Road when Greenwood Mall opened in 1979. The original historic building facades downtown were covered with aluminum and vinyl. Storefronts were left empty. The few businesses that remained grew concerned about the heart of the city’s future.

This group of citizens persuaded the Kentucky Heritage Council to conduct an historic survey of Warren County. As a result, more than 50 properties in downtown Bowling Green were restored and preserved during the 1980’s as part of the Main Street Project. Six national historic districts were established, and annual events celebrating the preservation of the city’s history, like the Christmas Tour of Homes and Landmark Annual Picnic, were launched.

Federal grant monies through the National Trust for Historic Preservation allowed the Landmark Association to hire Executive Director Dick Pfefferkorn, who served throughout the 1980’s, heading up these projects. His son is Matt Pfefferkorn, the modern Bowling Green entrepreneur who values musical history and owns Mellow Matt’s Music & More record store. Mellow Matt remembers moving to Bowling Green specifically for the Landmark Association and heading to work with his father.

“As a kid, I would go through a lot of those buildings downtown with him when they were looking at fixing up the storefronts and second floors,” Mellow Matt said. “I would tag along when they would go to older homes and salvage materials like doors, trim, and bullseyes.

This stuff was used for people that were renovating older homes and needed to keep them in original form.” But when federal grant monies ran out in the 1990’s and it seemed that much of downtown had been saved, the Landmark Association became a volunteer organization. It’s been more of an advocacy group over the past couple of decades, with programs directed toward retention of historic buildings, education, recognizing preservation efforts, publishing books on local history, and hosting community programs.

Jeffrey joined the Landmark board in 1990 and has been an active member ever since, currently serving as Treasurer. “I’ve been on the board for 30 years, which is too long,” Jeffrey joked.

“But what’s happened is I’m the person that can provide that continuity like ‘oh, we did that seven years ago and it was a flop’ or ‘we’ve never tried that before, let’s do it’.”

Calling it institutional memory, Jeffrey’s cataloging of Landmark’s ventures over the past three decades helps advise the current board. One of the newest ideas brought to the association was from board member Emily Brown, whose family proudly restored a downtown historic home and runs the organization’s social media platforms. Brown brought the 2019 Christmas Tour of Homes to a new audience of people with the creation of the @bglandmark Instagram.

After more than 20 seasons of holiday tours, the event’s existing audience was a specific niche. With promotions starting a couple months in advance highlighting individual historic homes with beautiful photography and stories, the 2019 tour saw nearly double the attendance compared to recent years.

“We wanted to try something new, bringing more life and passion into what some people may think to be somewhat of a stale topic,” Brown said. “We’re holding more events in 2020 and sharing the news on social media to reach a new generation of people and hopefully get them as excited as we are.”

Landmark plans to host quarterly socials with happy hours at downtown hotspots, as these simple meet and greets bring likeminded people together to share their love of preserving of Bowling Green’s past. Later this Fall, Brown is scheduled to speak to the Professional Marketing Association of Bowling Green about Landmark’s grassroots marketing successes.

The association relies heavily on membership dues to fund its annual awards and grant programs. Awards for historic preservation and craftsmanship are given each year, and winners can be found on online at bglandmark.org. The association’s network of specialized craftspeople and vendors is a valuable resource for preservationists, given that building materials and methods for 50+ year-old buildings can be much different than modern construction.

The association also offers a unique matching funds program each year, where individuals working on specific restoration projects can apply for up to $1,000 in matching funds to complete it. Many of the year’s grant winning projects are featured in the annual holiday Tour of Homes.

Back in the Robert Penn Warren Library, the scent of aging books is synonymous with the feeling of being surrounded by history itself. The stories of Bowling Green and Warren
County live in the Special Collections Library. All the people and places forever embedded here, lived and breathed just like the rest of us right now. Let’s keep these stories alive.

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