AURORA -- Sisters Georgia Hanes Reed and Hollis Caillot, the owners of the historic former James A. Converse Store, have poured their love and respect for Aurora's history and that of their own family into a new sign being installed April 28.
The building is on the southwest corner of Routes 82 and 306. It is known as the Country Development Building, and is now occupied by Sutton Insurance.
The sign shares the same silhouette that their grandfather, Andrew G. Hanes, a real estate agent and local barber, used for his "for sale" signs in years past. In the 1950s, when Hanes was selling houses, the signs were not the rectangular ones seen these days, but elaborately scrolled, according to Caillot.
"We're pretty sentimental, and we thought that was important," said Caillot.
The sign hangs from a wrought iron arm extending from a white post and measures 30 inches tall by 32 inches wide, according to one rendering.
It includes the name of Sutton Insurance on a white business card-shaped field. The background is black with gold and white trim. In a nod to the history of the building, Caillot and Reed have included in gold lettering "James Converse Store" at the top and "Built in 1825" at the bottom.
Caillot said sharp eyes will notice a discrepancy between 1825 and the year on the building -- 1815.
"The cupola on the roof is marked 1815, which is the date my grandfather thought the building was constructed," she said. "Based on the period of architecture, we now believe more accurately that it was built in 1825."
Ben Sutton Jr. of Sutton Insurance said his family's business has been located in the building at the corner of Routes 82 and 306 since 1982. "You can't beat the location on the corner of main streets in Aurora," he said.
Sutton also said he grew up in a historic home in Aurora, where his parents still live. "It was kind of a natural transition," he said. "It feels like home. We appreciate the uniqueness, construction details and history of the building."
As the name implies, the building first served as a store under the ownership of Converse. An employee bought the business and in 1845 sold it to Hopson Hurd, who turned it into a "popular gathering place, in part due to the barrel of whiskey in the basement with a waiting dipper for anyone who paid his bill," according to an excerpt from the Aurora history book "From the Founding to the Flood"by Dick Fetzer and Carol Bowman.
In the second half of the 1800s, the book also indicated that "cheese was sometimes used as legal tender."
Calico Corners was another business located in the building from 1950-55 under Hanes' ownership.
The store is located within the city's historic district where renovations are subject to approval by the landmark commission, according to Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin, who noted she appreciates Caillot's devotion to historical preservation.
"She and her sister are truly committed to the area; they're fanatics, and that's a good thing," the mayor said.
The sisters said their tastes in signs differ from their grandfather's. "Our grandfather was a big real estate mogul back in the day," said Caillot. "He had that building so gaudy with signage that he actually got a citation from the city to take stuff down."
The sisters said they are constantly considering ways to restore the historic building as close to its original condition as possible.
Sign design, particularly with the advent of digital signs, is always a matter of balancing the tension between the demands of tourism for a charming downtown with historic character and business, said Reed. "I'd like to think Aurora can marry the two well, but it's going to take understanding from both sides," she said.
Womer Benjamin said there's now a 250-foot-wide belt around the historic districts where digital signs are not permitted. "It's a buffer area," she explained. "We prohibit digital signs there, and we require that all sign variances in the historic district have to go to Council."
Womer Benjamin said the city is planning to create an overlay district for the historic area, which would provide greater flexibility in the use of properties.
"An overlay district would actually add some uses that would be permitted in the residential area of the historic district," she said. "The planning department is working with the landmark commission on that, and I think our hope is that it will go to the planning commission later this year. The whole concept is to increase the flexibility of options for use of these historic structures in hopes of preserving them."
The city also is planning to upgrade traffic signals and add sidewalks along Route 306 sometime in the next several years, she said. The engineering work should be taking place soon.
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