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‘Labor of love’ breathes new life into old building
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Steve Rucker stands inside an antique store area inside the former social services building along East Church Street in uptown Martinsville. Rucker bought the building and is renovating it into an antique store, museum and office space. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
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Friday, August 9, 2013

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin staff writer

Steve Rucker is using old items to breathe new life into the former social services building in uptown Martinsville.

Rucker is remodeling the three-story, roughly 20,000-square-foot building into an antique store set to open Aug. 15; two small museums; and office space.

The work is about 80 percent complete on the building, which now bears little resemblance to its previous life as the Henry-Martinsville Social Services building.

The social services offices were extremely cramped, with file cabinets lining hallways and offices and cubicles designed for one person accommodating as many as three or four employees. At the time, agency officials said that due to the tightness they had trouble holding private conversations between staff members and clients.

Social services has since moved into the larger former MZM/Athena building off Clearview Drive. Rucker bought the Church Street building, which also had been a Montgomery Ward department store many years ago, for $100,000. He said he so far has spent “about twice that much” to renovate it.

The third story, which fronts East Church Street, contains the antique store. In remodeling that floor, Rucker said he removed office walls, pulled up carpet, refinished the hardwood floor under the carpet, installed exterior windows and removed drop ceilings to expose the tin panels.

There now is much more open space on the floor and overhead.

Different parts of the store display different items. In designing the store, Rucker said he wanted to create a “feeling that you are not just walking into an antique store,” but entering a bedroom, kitchen, den or another room — even though there are no walls marking off the rooms.

Among the many antiques on the sales floor are beds, china closets, tables, chairs and other types of furniture, plus display cases full of glassware, cups and saucers. Some of the items are more than 100 years old, Rucker said.

Above the merchandise are old-time light fixtures hanging from a tin panel ceiling.

Two small museums will be in the building. One will feature old casino-style gambling equipment, including a roulette wheel, from the collection of another uptown property owner, Dr. Mervyn King.

Gambling devices should be “something interesting ... that you don’t see in this area” often, Rucker said.

The other museum will feature antique telephones and communications equipment acquired by Rucker, a retired engineer for CenturyLink.

Two switchboards are among the largest items showcased. One was used by a telephone exchange in the Wytheville area until the early 1970s. The other was used by Dr. Drewry Mason, a physician in the Ridgeway area in the early part of the 20th century, to communicate with his patients, a sign shows.

Among other items on display at the museum will be numerous phones used throughout the past century, including a replica of the one Alexander Graham Bell used in obtaining his patent; glass and ceramic telephone line insulators; and a framed map of the uptown underground conduit system used by Lee Telephone, one of CenturyLink’s predecessors.

At first, Rucker will open the museums by appointment, such as for school groups. Later, he plans to open them to the public perhaps one day a week, probably on Saturdays. He said he will not charge admission, although donations toward the museums’ upkeep would be appreciated.

Work yet to be done on the building includes remodeling for an auction/event hall in the basement where social services had its main entrance and lobby.

As an aside, this message is for “Jimmy,” who drew a smiley face on part of the tin roof in the hall on July 10, 1997: The renovations have revealed your graffiti, but it will be removed in the near future.

Along with the antique store and museum, the building now is occupied by RJE Telecom LLC, an engineering firm that Rucker now operates, and Mollie’s Originals, an embroidery business. Little vacant space will be in the building when the renovations are finished, Rucker said.

Asked when that might be, he joked that it could be a lifetime.

A sign atop the building states it to be known now as “Rucker Plaza.”

Renovations have been “a labor of love,” Rucker said, for both the building and uptown, Martinsville’s central business district.

After working uptown for about 14 years, “I really like it up here,” he said. “There’s so much we have to offer” businesses and people if the district is marketed well.

He ultimately would like to see uptown become a destination shopping and antiques center, he added.


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