Visual Arts

History of CentrePointe block lives thanks to man's obsession

Richie Wireman saw the green shiny stone on a Sunday when he was 17 feet below street level. Wireman had been photographing the demolition of the businesses on the downtown block bounded by Vine, Main, Limestone and Upper streets for weeks. It was a documentary of destruction, at turns beautiful and eerie, tragic and luminous.

"I wanted to see the beyond the surface of the chaos," the photographer said, referring to all of the chaos, material and otherwise, surrounding the CentrePointe project.

The green stone would not turn out to be the emerald he had hoped for, given that the rock was found under Joe Rosenberg's jewelry store and "just maybe" some woman had dropped her jewel down the privy (read that: toilet) and hadn't wanted to go looking for it.

Alas, it was just pretty colored glass, but Wireman's enthusiasm for the retrieval project wasn't the slightest bit dampened.

Ever since the demolition company found a large cache of seemingly ancient and perfectly intact dirt-filled bottles in another antique privy, the photographer had become something more than a documentarian. Asked to help dig out the bottles, in that moment, he became an urban archeologist, a man obsessed by the minutia lost or forgotten on this block.

Up almost every day of the demolition "when the light was good" and before the machinery even got humming, Wireman wanted to capture the dismantlement of years of downtown business history before the beginning of the new CentrePointe era.

Although the demolition was two-thirds of the way through before he began collecting, Wireman successfully gathered enough detritus to create at least 10 pieces of 3-by-4 foot pieces of art that he will debut to the public Friday at Bellini's ballroom.

Because everything would have otherwise gone to the dump, it was a reverential rescue operation than no one else seemed interested in.

Granted access by Diversified, the demolition company, Wireman would pick up what he saw in the open: brightly colored china pieces, a sheaf of intact invoices from Rosenberg's from 1918 to 1921, rusty nails from every era, a pristine program from the Aug. 29, 1893 Lexington Fair, a Coke bottle from the 1800s, a hand-blown ink well, a Polaroid catalog from 1954, ceramic doll pieces.

"I'm sure there are things in the ground of more historical significance than these. I just didn't have the idea to harvest until the end," Wireman said.

"I'm glad I wasn't doing this all along," he said, "I'd have needed a storage unit."

Actually, he's got a small apartment with a few full boxes. And he has thousands of photographs taken before his revelation. In them, he sees things he missed before. Like, he says, wallpaper and linoleum, baby doll bodies and things he glimpses hidden under mold and dust and rubble.

It is not all regret.

When the whole front of the building was ripped down, Wireman saw, on an open shelf, two bottles of bourbon. "Finest Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey," it reads on one line. Next line: "Custom Made." And the next: "Joe Rosenberg." Last line: "Charlie, Harry, Julius."

Never opened and completely sealed, both bottles are lacking half their contents. Probably evaporated, the contents look muddy but intriguing. Wireman is still looking for the date when these were gifted.

Wireman's photographs also hint at things left behind: a Polaroid camera; a chair from the third floor of the Dame, the entirety of which appeared left intact from the 1930s; a half a cymbal.

Wireman is surprised to find himself "the accidental historian" of the block.

"I came away with a greater sense of the community. I know now what the block has meant."

He is talking both past and present. Half of his new set of works will speak to the very recent past with images and artifacts, like booking calendars, from the block's musical venues like the Dame.

Wireman has even recorded the sounds of the demolition, hoping one day to set his thousands of images from the destruction of the block to the rhythms that emanated from it.

Wireman's works, which will be on sale for between $1,200 and $2,000 each, will be displayed Friday along with a continuous show of his many images that will be accompanied by the interpretative live music of Willie Eames and Dave Farris.

He is not convinced the work should be considered "memorial" to the block.

It can be a reminder, he said, or a relic.

And he would not mind at all if you were moved by it. But he would prefer you would think of it as art.

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