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How a School Project Saved Muncie's Historic Neighborhoods

How a School Project Saved Muncie's Historic Neighborhoods
Courtesy of Ball State University

In many ways, the picture of Muncie, Indiana, is the picture of communities throughout the Rust Belt Midwest: a former boomtown chock full of turn-of-the-century architecture largely neglected after suburban flight and the loss off manufacturing. But the sheer number of architecturally significant buildings, and the local university project to raise awareness for them, is what sets this city of roughly 70,000 apart.

The rapid influx of wealth that stemmed from a natural gas discovery in the 1880s and turned this farming backwater into an industrial hub is still evident in the city’s architecture -- literally hundreds of significant structures from the 1880s to the 1920s set in 12 National Register-recognized historic districts -- some of which are currently selling for as little as $10,000.

"Some of them are falling apart, some of them are being renovated," explains Chris Flook, a professor of telecommunications at Ball State University in Muncie. "Some are just unknown to the population at large because a lot of people have moved to the suburbs and whatnot."

When Flook, a lifelong Munciean, began teaching at Ball State in 2008, he decided to move into one of the town’s old neighborhoods. To his embarrassment, he had no idea that some of Muncie’s most beautiful homes and buildings even existed and figured many other people didn’t either. That’s when he came up with the project, Historic Muncie: Preserving Middletown’s Neighborhoods.


Patterson Building in the Walnut Street District. Courtesy of Ball State University

"The idea was to popularize not only the concept of historic preservation or why it’s important, but to take the 12 districts and provide a detailed online resource for all of that info … and connect it to the people in Muncie who didn’t even know what was four blocks away from them," Flook says.

The project was designed for Flook’s students in digital production and storytelling -- as well as students majoring in English, history, marketing, and historic preservation -- to take their skills and apply them to community development in the field (part of what the university refers to as "immersive learning"). In all, four professors and nearly 70 students participated in the university-funded project that started in the fall of 2011.

Since then, students have produced a website that includes hundreds of professional-quality photos, digital maps, and written histories of each of the 12 neighborhoods. They’ve even produced a documentary on the city’s history and architecture, and have four more neighborhood-specific documentaries in the works that are set to premiere during Historic Preservation Month this May.

Flook originally saw the project as being much more technical, with explanations of the different architectural styles and periods represented in Muncie. But "the students looked at it and they said, 'No. That’s boring; It needs to be much more accessible content.' So they focused on anecdotes, and history, and story, which ended up making it ten times better," he admits. The students also placed an emphasis on the cinematography and photography.


Whitney Hospital in the Old West End District. Courtesy of Ball State University

For their efforts, the students and faculty received a number of awards, including the Indiana Governor’s Award for the preservation of historic places. But they’ve chosen to measure their success in other ways.

“To see that the students were able to connect with these individual neighborhoods, means that we’ve fulfilled one of the major objectives of the project, but also that means that residents are going to do the same thing,” says Flook. "To see that preservation isn’t just this esoteric thing that a handful of people do -- it really does have economic benefits, it has cultural benefits, and it’s an excellent way to look at history, which is part of a community’s identity -- [these are] much, much larger implications than just tinkering on the drywall, or the front door, or the paint of a house."

This post originally appeared on the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an Atlantic partner site.

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to D.C. from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines. All posts »

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