On Saturday, more than 200 visitors explored the newly renovated Berea Welcome Center and office of Berea Tourism, located in the former railroad depot in Old Town Berea.
The $500,000, nine-month project completed by Gilpin Construction of London, transformed the 94-year-old building into a modern “people space” while keeping much of its original construction, said Belle Jackson, director of Berea tourism.
“This building is an amazing piece of art history. Why wouldn’t we save it? It’s a piece of American history, not just Berea history. The railroad built this nation,” said Jackson, who is a fifth generation Berean. She recently discovered her grandfather and great-grandfather had been on the crew that built the depot in 1917.
When an original door frame had been removed to comply with wheelchair accessibility, she was able to see evidence of her family’s handiwork, she said.
When visitors walk in the front door, they are welcomed by a staff member behind a new marble desk. The carpet has been stripped away to expose hardwood floors.
Though initially the roof leaked in several places, Jackson insisted on keeping the original roofing tile, fashioned in architecturally distinctive lines. It took a specialty team to fix the tiles, she said, which ultimately decided to put new tile in the back of the building facing the train tracks and move all the old tile to the front of the building where it can still be appreciated.
The bathrooms feature black and white subway tile, old-fashioned light fixtures and original windows and frames with modern amenities such as automatic hand dryers, soap dispensers and baby-changing tables.
“When you’re a traveler, there’s nothing that says, ‘We’re glad you’re here,’ more than a warm smile and a nice, clean restroom,” Jackson joked.
Before the upgrades, the old depot had a leaky roof, carpet that was impossible to keep clean, rooms that were only accessible by outside doors, tiny restrooms, minimal office space and faulty wiring, Jackson said.
“Used to be, if we had the Christmas tree up, you couldn’t microwave a cup of coffee because we would blow all the fuses,” she said.
All the wiring, plumbing and networking systems have been updated, she said, enabling contemporary wi-fi accessibility.
To the left of the front door is Jackson’s office, which was one of the few operative areas in the building before the remodel.
If visitors venture to the right, they enter a room that will feature exhibitions of railroad artifacts and memorabilia, mostly donated by railroad enthusiasts from across the state.
“There are hundreds of people that come to this building because it was a train station — it has that kind of mystique,” Jackson said.
On the day of its opening, a couple traveled from Grayson to donate a box of Louisville and Nashville Railway (L&N) memorabilia to be displayed in the depot, she said. The city of Berea purchased the depot from L&N Railway in 1975 for $17,000 through the urging of former city council member, Frances Moore.
“She was a tiny little woman who fought all the boys on the city council. She was just adamant about saving this building,” Jackson said.
In the exhibition room, visitors also can see the original cage in which the station manager sold train tickets until the last passenger train stopped in 1968.
The room also is used as a workspace for the Welcome Center Carvers who have met there every Wednesday for the past 10 years.
In 1975, when it was still the L&N Depot, Moore was instrumental in getting the building placed on the National Register of Historical Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior, a distinction that is indicated by a plaque hanging on the left side of the exterior.
However, being on the national registry doesn’t protect the building as much as one might think, Jackson said.
That is why preservation of this artifact of Berea history is important, she said. It is the last brick station on the railroad line from Cincinnati to Knoxville.
“The story goes, when the railroad was surveying where the line would go, they came to this area, they looked up to the east and saw the Berea College Fairchild building (built in the 1890s),” explained Jackson. “They saw Fairchild and thought, ‘If this community has a building that size, they surely deserve a railroad.’”
Crystal Wylie can be reached at email@example.com.