When West View Florist owner Julie Wheeler first got the call that a car had crashed into the floral shop’s building, she didn’t think it was anything serious.
“The building has been hit before,” she said. “(Cars are) rear ended and pushed into the corners and (we) have had plows hit (up gravel) and broken glass. … This was a whole new level.”
Just before 4 a.m. on February 21, 18-year-old Maki Chandler allegedly fled from Indiana State Police after they tried to pull him over in a 2011 red Hyundai on Cassopolis Street in Elkhart. He hit a raised divider, lost control of the car and crashed through the front of the flower shop, smashing the showroom that was mostly floor to ceiling glass windows.
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Police reported no injuries and Chandler was later arrested and faces several felony charges related to the crash.
At the time, Wheeler was in Indianapolis and was on the phone with her mother and West View co-owner Judy Richter, who arrived at the 1717 Cassopolis St. building soon after the crash.
“She set the phone down while she’s talking to (first responders) and I’m just listening and all you heard her say is, ‘Oh my God,’” Wheeler said. “It was just panic. She was in shock, and she was like, ‘We don’t have a store anymore, the store is gone.’”
West View Florist has been an Elkhart institution since 1913, providing flowers and gifts for the community’s life events ranging from birthdays and anniversaries to get well soon wishes and funerals. Wheeler’s family purchased the business in 1975 and for them, it became another home.
“I grew up in this store,” Wheeler said. “They would take an old box and make it into a playpen and the stuffed animals that were for sale, I would get out of school in first grade and turn them into a classroom and I would play in the showroom — that became my playground. For holidays, you didn’t just go home, you came here.”
So when Wheeler saw the damage herself, the thought of closing the business indefinitely never crossed her mind.
“It was always a rebuild in our head,” she said. “(It was a question of) do we rebuild it from the ground up or is it a remodel? But we were waiting on those decisions to be made from insurance. Now we know it’s a remodel.”
The extent of the damage was mainly confined to the front showroom where once-large windows are now covered with plywood and foundational bricks remain exposed. Old metal support beams are steadfast and prevented the building from fully collapsing in.
Wheeler estimates she lost about $5,000 just in flower merchandise in the crash with losses only increasing because other merchandise, such as gifts, stuffed animals and chocolates, and shelving units and a cooler also were destroyed.
Leftover flowers from the Valentine’s Day only a week earlier, including roses, lilies and carnations, were donated to nursing homes and firefighters who came back to make sure the building was structurally sound.
Once owners were told it was safe to enter the building again, staff got back to work. Store manager Lori Wenger said that by that Friday, power was restored and she started to get calls and orders in to fill.
By March 9, staff had constructed a temporary space at the front of the store that’s now open and filled with gifts such as soaps, jewelry, chocolates and stuffed animals. Flowers can be purchased in the back room. A piece of the red Hyundai is placed on the back wall of the makeshift area where workers who helped with clean up signed their names with notes of well wishes and encouragement.
With plans to reconstruct the front space, Wheeler also will reconfigure the showroom and plans to raise up windows to prevent further incidents of snowplows kicking up debris and chipping glass. Because of its historic age, the building was grandfathered in its location when Cassopolis Street was expanded and Wheeler says that prevents them from moving the business further off the road.
“One of the requirements is that we keep the footprint exactly where it is,” she said. “We’re not allowed to back up. We’re not allowed to change it. We have to stay.”
Services will likely stay the same with the reconstruction, though Wheeler doesn’t count out new ideas arising and special arrangements to be offered. She said it’s hard to anticipate a timeline of when construction would be complete but hopes it will be before Mother’s Day on May 8 for what is typically her busiest holiday.
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But since the crash, business has been slow. Wheeler says many people have thought they are closed because the front is all boarded up. A hand painted sign that reads, ‘We are Open,’ encourages those who do stop by to step into the new makeshift entrance.
“We’re not getting the phone calls we used to get, and it’s hard. But I’m smiling and I’m trying,” she said. “What else can you do but plug away, right? My doors aren’t closed yet.”
West View Florist is open Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Contact Mary Shown at 574-235-6244 and [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @maryshownSBT and @marketbasketSBT.
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Elkhart florist shop reopens after damage to building