Things Old Photo Specialists lost — and found — in the fire

By Billy Ingram     Photographs by John Gessner


Just as the bottom was falling out of the commercial photography business, Bill Heroy of Old Photo Specialists was surprised to discover that his side business, meticulously producing hand-tinted restorations of antique photographs, had mushroomed into a burgeoning enterprise. Moving seamlessly into the digital age, he is today one of the most sought-after artists in his field, as the images covering the walls of his shop attest. “There’s an interesting story behind every picture,” says Bill’s wife and partner in the business, Anna. Equally remarkable is the Heroys’s own story.

During the 1980s when other businesses and residents had all but abandoned the city center, Bill and Anna raised their family downtown. Setting down roots in a decidedly inhospitable environment, their arduous journey is reminiscent of those pioneers of old, something akin to the trials and tribulations associated with Little House on the Prairie but with more bums and winos.

To hear Bill tell it, he was perfectly happy in 1977 operating a photography studio out of his Victorian home on Spring Garden but, “I wanted to hire an artist,” he says. The city council had other ideas and refused to change his zoning from residential to commercial. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll move then,’” Bill remembers, and he called a Realtor. “Back then everyone was emptying out of downtown,” he recalls. “This building [320 South Elm] was in horrible shape but it was only $30,000, so I said I’d buy it. I had no idea what I was getting into. I made ten grand selling my house, and I’d only had it two years. I lost that ten grand in a week.”

What Heroy bought into was the Fortune Building, constructed for
R.G. Fortune Dry Goods and Notions during the aggressive modernization taking place downtown at the turn of the last century. It’s a study in resolute austerity, bucking South Elm’s architectural trajectory that generally favored European-inspired flourishes accented with marble. No. 320 South Elm was a revolving door of disparate businesses from the very beginning. The Schiffman brothers opened a department store there in 1905. During the 1930s, it was Rustin-Johnson Furniture. Advance Automotive occupied the building in the ’40s, various shoe stores in the ’50s, and after that, it was almost always vacant.

Bill Heroy was faced with the ravages inflicted by decades of neglect. “Back then I put about $80,000 that I borrowed and begged and went through hell and back with the banks.” With his studio in the back, the bachelor photographer devoted the storefront (which has since been split into two units) to a 3,000-square-foot art gallery in 1978 while he crashed in a makeshift man cave on the second floor. “What I found out is — art is one of the most unprofitable businesses you can possibly get into. But when we closed Elm Street Gallery in 1981 we had one of the largest parties they ever had in downtown Greensboro. We had over a thousand people in here.” He managed to keep the photography business afloat for another seven or eight years, but commercial clients were few and far between. “We did some work for companies like Ciba-Geigy and Western Electric,” Bill recalls, explaining that the bulk of his work consisted of portraits, weddings and a lot of Bar Mitzvahs. “That’s what propelled me through the Jimmy Carter [years]. I was working all the time,” he says.

Bill’s wife, Anna, remembers their first night out together, spent right next door: “We had our first date at the Mantelworks when it was a dinner theater. We went to see Inherit the Wind.” The Mantelworks was a cavernous, three-story former factory where lacquered wooden fireplace frames were manufactured in decades past. Beginning in the mid-1970s, a soda shop and artists’ enclave coalesced there in an effort to re-energize downtown, but Anna wasn’t impressed with the place that night, “The play was so boring,” she says with a laugh. “Afterwards, we all went to The Pickwick on Walker and Elam and that was fun so I agreed to go out again. We got married in ’79.”

It was Bill’s dream that the couple leave their Fisher Park neighborhood and reside in the Fortune Building, but Anna remained unconvinced. “Bill kept talking about how great it was downtown,” she says. He chuckles, thinking back on those early days, when Old Photo Specialists was directly across the street from Sam & Mack’s Newsstand, the city’s purveyor of porn mags and peep shows. “We would get up on the roof and watch these people go in. First they would walk past it, they’d look around, they’d walk this way and that way, then they would finally go in the shop and we would yell out, ‘Repent!’ and it would echo up and down the empty streets.”

The first time he brought me down I said, ‘Eeehh, I don’t know about this place,’” Anna says, describing the shop as “old,” its second floor a former warehouse “just one huge space.” Then there was Bill’s “horrible bachelor apartment up there,” she recalls. “He had to take a bath in his darkroom. The first time I came to check it out there was a wharf rat up there; he had promised me there were no animals! Anyway, that was the end of that idea for a while.”

They refurbished the entire second floor before moving in with their young son (with another on the way) in 1982. Anna recalls their Green-Acres-in-reverse lifestyle: “There was nothing going on downtown. It was us and the winos. My parents lived in Fisher Park so I picked the kids up every day and we’d go play at Mother and Daddy’s house and then come back. We did make a yard on the roof, put Astroturf up there and made a wall around it with a picnic table and we had a little swimming pool for them, that was fun.”

The lack of excitement in the Heroys’ environs changed around 11 p.m. on April 13, 1985, when a General Alarm was sounded summoning firefighters from every corner of the city to battle a blaze that would, in a matter of hours, lay waste to a significant portion of downtown Greensboro. Fire Chief Bobby Nugent has four decades’ experience taming flames in our city. A six-year veteran in 1985, he described venturing into a maelstrom that quickly devastated historic Davie Street business district: “We had a backdraft, kind of like a smoke explosion. The truck I was driving, Engine 8 on Chapman Street, we were actually on another fire and cleared that when the backdraft happened. That’s when they called for Second Alarm.” The backdraft, he remembers, was a source of confusion among the crew. “It blew a couple of people across the street, messed up the hose lines so they had to regroup after that and start getting back into firefighting mode.”

In less than an hour, seven multistory buildings were fully engulfed in a towering inferno fueled by century-old hardwood interiors, a battlefield growing more fierce by the minute as fireballs and thousand-pound chunks of brick and mortar rained down around emergency workers. Fire Chief on the scene R. L. Powell sent out word to his shock troops that, if the blaze were to spread into any of the antiquated buildings along the 300 block of South Elm, firefighters would fall back to Greene Street, at the Carolina Theatre, leaving Hamburger Square to burn unabated.

The Heroy family was driving home after an evening out when they encountered their neighborhood exploding in frightening light. “It looked like the whole city was ablaze so we just were freaking out.” Anna still recoils from the horror. “Our babysitter cancelled at the last minute so we had to take our children with us. I’m thinking, ‘My God, what if our kids had been in there?’ We weren’t allowed to go in our building.” Fire Chief Nugent recalled the smoldering wreckage revealed as the first rays of Sunday sunlight filtered through a thick cloud of soot: “It was by the grace of God that it got stopped in the alleyway behind where Greensborough Court backs up to the building that faces South Elm Street,” he says.

That was, unfortunately, a mere harbinger.

The Heroys moved to the country in 1988. By that time they’d constructed five rental units on the upper two floors, enjoying a 100 percent occupancy rate through the 1990s and beyond when adventurous folks started giving downtown another look. Meanwhile, that hulking tinderbox known as The Mantelworks had been left fallow, strung with frayed electrical wiring dating back to before the first radio broadcast. In the early morning hours of October 23, 2003, tenants in the Fortune Building were abruptly roused from their slumber by police officers banging on their doors. They found themselves fleeing into the freezing night air with only the clothes on their backs. It took more than a hundred firefighters to contain that blaze.

It wasn’t just the Mantelworks left in ruins: Bill and Anna Heroy were faced with near total devastation of the Fortune Building, with smoke and water damage from floor to ceiling. Bill still finds it difficult to talk about. “It destroyed our building, it destroyed our business. We were forced out of here.” A two-year court battle ensued before reconstruction could begin in earnest — to the tune of about $1.8 million. At the same time, the rapidly changing landscape of digital technology was resulting in dozens of local photographers being forced out of business. “There was a lot of work for everybody really, and then it just . . . dried up,” Bill says. That was when he noticed a trend. “Some days the orders for old photographs were bigger than the commercial jobs. We had customers keep coming in with old photos and we were able to build up the business.”

Ironically, when it comes to photo restoration, the more ancient the picture is, the more gray tones and contrast are hiding beneath the surface, waiting to burst through with astonishing clarity. That’s where Bill’s degree in chemical engineering at Duke came in handy. “Everything made through World War II had a fairly high concentration of silver,” he says. “And the older they are, the more silver they have. He points to some whitish pictures from World War I and explains how they became so faded. “We didn’t have air conditioning back in the ’30s and ’40s; it got hot in the summer, got humid.” He explains that the chemicals used on the photos got moist and absorbed dirt and water, causing them to look faded and colorless. “When we get them in here we can get the detail back like the day they were shot.” As for those washed-out snapshots from your youth? “Color, once it fades, back in those days it couldn’t be recovered,” Bill says. “Between our scanning system and the computer, we can get it back.”

This painstaking devotion to detail has led to the resurrection of some remarkable moments in time, captured on cameras with extremely long exposure times. Looking at a 1916 panoramic view of a contingent of soldiers positioned where the Carolina Theatre is today, one can’t help but be amazed at an image so crisp, so clear, you can read the lettering on buildings a quarter mile away, even make out the whites of the soldiers’ eyes. Bill retrieves another recovered image with local historical significance. “This is St. James Presbyterian. We didn’t even charge to do this. This original photograph of a groundbreaking for the church goes back to 1880s. It was white, you could hardly detect [any image] but I could see there was silver in it so I knew we were well on our way.” He picks up another image. “We had a guy come in that had an entire collection of pictures from the Holocaust. His father was there, he had pictures from the Battle of the Bulge all the way to Auschwitz,” Bill says. He says his most remote client was from South Africa, likely “a plantation owner with one of the native chiefs in the frame who had on a necklace made of teeth. It was in bad shape.”

At times Bill’s work reunites families with long lost ancestors. One of the more difficult aspects of this artcraft can be reconstructing faces. Bill is especially proud of one job: “This soldier had three children when he went off to Vietnam and was killed. This picture he had made with his wife before he left,” he recalls. When he got killed, the picture ended up out in a barn. “It was warped and nasty looking, [eaten away] with mold and watermarks. The kids were rummaging through the barn one day and they found this picture.” The wife had gotten remarried and then divorced, he says, “but she never forgot about her first husband, so we put this together the best we could. Now she can make copies for all the children.”

Anna leads me to the front of the studio where they have a minigallery, motioning towards a wide-angle 1916 photo of a line of soldiers from Canada’s Fort Gary Horse Regiment. In the background a soldier can be seen entertaining a small black bear, one of three that accompanied regiments from Winnipeg. “This was their mascot,” Anna explains, adding, “They were sent over to England to fight so they took their mascot with them. When they got to England they knew they’re going to get shipped over to France and they didn’t want to take the bear because they might be killed.” One of those three bears was left in the care of the London Zoo where he became their star attraction. That zoo was around the corner from the home of A.A. Milne, whose son, Christopher Robin, named his teddy bear after the furry mascot nicknamed “Winnie” after his port of origin. “This came from a lady from Canada whose great-grandfather is in this picture,” Anna tells me.

“You have to have a love for this kind of stuff, it’s a job that takes time.” Bill Heroy laments the art of rehabilitating ancient photographs is becoming a lost one: “I don’t know why there’s nobody in Charlotte doing it. Why is no one in Raleigh doing it? Or Wilmington?” he wonders but doesn’t complain since he gets work from all three cities.

Bill and Anna Heroy are not just in the business of restoring photos. What they truly enjoy is bringing stories back to life that have been lost to time: ““There’s tons of photos out there that have all kinds of stories to them,” Bill says. Which is why, forty years on, the customers keep coming.  OH

Billy Ingram moved to downtown Greensboro twenty years ago after a career in Los Angeles as one of the team the ad world has dubbed “The New York Yankees of Motion Picture Advertising.”

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