Step back in time at South Bend's birthday bash

Author: Margaret Fosmoe, South Bend Tribune

As Posted in the South Bend Tribune: Thursday, May 21, 2015 5:00 am | Updated: 7:54 am, Thu May 21, 2015.

SOUTH BEND — Area residents will get a virtual look at old-time South Bend during the city’s 150th birthday bash this weekend.

Those who attend the festival will get their first glimpse at a 3-D-printed tabletop model of South Bend’s downtown from the late 1920s. It’s a streetscape of Main Street, including such long-vanished landmarks as the Oliver Hotel, old City Hall and the original Odd Fellows Building. They’ll be able to try out an app that provides historical details and “then and now” photos of those properties.

Even better, visitors will be able to don virtual reality goggles and take a “walk” down that street — glancing to the left and right to examine the buildings that stood in that era.

It’s the closest thing yet to time travel.

“It’s the density of the downtown in those days we want to give people a sense of,” said Adam Heet, a digital projects specialist with Notre Dame’s School of Architecture library. In the early 20th century, downtown buildings were right next to each other, with only an occasional alley breaking up the streetscape.

The idea isn’t to promote nostalgia for a bygone era, but rather to provide a useful tool to help residents see what the city was like in the past and to better plan for the future, Heet said. Models for proposed future projects can be dropped into the tabletop display to see how they would blend in the current streetscape, he said.

The “Building South Bend” project is a partnership between the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture Library, Historic Preservation Commission of South Bend & St. Joseph County, and The History Museum.

Students and employees at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture have been researching the properties and creating the models on the architecture library’s 3-D printer. The project draws extensively on photos and historical documents in the museum and HPC archives.

So far, 31 current and former buildings that stood along Main Street have been printed as 3-D miniatures, and placed along a city street grid. The project will continue, with additional 3-D models to be added along Michigan Street and side streets.

Those 31 buildings also are included in a new free iOS and iPad app. With a click on a smartphone or an iPad, a user can see a map of 1920s downtown South Bend, and click on individual buildings to see their names, photos and histories.

One click calls up a photo of the Dental Palace, a turreted structure built in 1889 that stood at the northeast corner of Main Street and Colfax Avenue and long housed a dentist’s practice. The building was demolished, and another photo shows the current site, which contains the South Bend Water Works office.

Another click will call up 125-127 N. Main St., which in 1925 was home to Fredric C. Reimold & Co. Hardware store. In those days, it was a three-story building, but at some point the upper two floors were demolished. Today it’s one story and houses Fiddler’s Hearth pub.

The app provides photos and history on such buildings as the Oliver Hotel, the Oliver Opera House, the JMS Building, the Hoffman Hotel (now being renovated into apartments), an early South Bend Tribune building and the Nickel Hotel.

Many of these buildings were demolished long ago, replaced with parking lots and garages.

The virtual reality goggles are expected to be a popular feature at this weekend's celebration. After donning the goggles and while standing still, a user can take a virtual “walk” down Main Street, glancing to the right at Colfax Avenue to see the former South Bend News-Times newspaper building, for example. Then crossing over Main Street to walk by the St. Joseph County Savings Bank, then on to the neighboring Oliver Opera House.

The planners chose to focus South Bend’s downtown in the late 1920s because many of the city’s landmark buildings had been built by then, but the widespread demolitions that peaked during the urban renewal era of the 1960s and 1970s hadn’t yet started.

Within a few weeks after the South Bend 150 weekend celebration, the 3-D printed downtown is expected to be placed on view at The History Museum, 808 W. Washington St. Artifacts from some of the demolished buildings are included in an exhibit, “Pieces of South Bend,” currently on display at the museum.