By Kelsey Ryan
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Inside the ravaged shell of a house at 2502 S. Joplin Ave., a treasure awaits: Signatures and messages from thousands of volunteers adorn the walls, ceiling and just about every other place in the house that took a direct hit in the May 22 tornado.
But many signatures of those who came to Joplin’s aid are fading or disappearing because of exposure to the elements — including the 100-degree-plus heat over the summer.
“So many people had heartfelt messages that were there,” said Patrick Tuttle, director of the Joplin Convention and Visitors Bureau, who hopes to salvage the house for a museum. “It’s like a major thank-you note to the entire city, and we need to have that somehow so we don’t lose all those emotions. This just kind of puts it into perspective of where they’ve all come from — all over the country and all over the world.”
The house belongs to Tim and Stacey Bartow, who had spent the past five years remodeling the 100-year-old brick house. Tim Bartow said they had just finished the final project of putting brick in a patch of dirt by the back steps on May 22.
“About 4 o’clock Sunday afternoon, we come out here to sweep this the last time, and we’re finally done with every project,” he said. “We walk across the street by the Salvation Army, and we look at the house and say, ‘We’re finally done with this remodel.’”
The Bartows and their family took cover that afternoon in their basement, with Tim Bartow going down the steps as the kitchen was ripped away behind him. They were temporarily trapped in the basement and smelled gas, but Tim Bartow eventually was able to get upstairs and turn off the gas after the storm. They believe the house took a direct hit.
Tim Bartow found some of their furniture in the debris around the house after the storm. He put the couches and coffee table in what was the front room for the volunteers to have a place to sit in the days after the storm. He spray-painted messages of inspiration and thanks on the walls of the house. Within a week of the storm, volunteers began asking for permission to sign their names in the house.
“I think there’s probably every state in the union represented here,” said Tim Bartow, who said he and his wife haven’t signed the house themselves. “I don’t know where else you’d find any type of similar representation of their thoughts about our community. It’s not just ‘Hey, I came and picked up some of your junk.’ There’s some, if you look at them, they’ll make you cry.”
People left messages of encouragement and hope. Some wrote Scriptures. Some just signed their names with where they were from and the date.
“No one has said anything negative,” Stacey Bartow said. “It’s just uplifting comments and inspirational comments.”
The Bartows live in Carthage now. They’re not sure if they’ll rebuild in Joplin. But they think the signatures have helped many heal.
“This is the house that saved us,” Tim Bartow said. “We thought initially we’d like to come back here and rebuild, but the reality is Stacey and our two teenage daughters were bothered so much that this happened.”
“I don’t know if I could do it right here again,” Stacey Bartow said. “Emotionally, it would be too hard.”
SALVAGING THE HOUSE
There’s no proposed spot to move what’s left of the house, but Tuttle said he’s working with two contractors who are estimating the cost of moving the entire structure as is, and the cost of taking it apart piece by piece and reassembling it.
“Keeping the whole thing intact is probably the best for a quality museum piece,” he said. “It’s a community effort, something that needs a lot of input.”
Tuttle said he hopes people will step forward and help with the salvage effort. He said there should be a collective effort with different agencies and individuals to preserve the monuments of the tornado.
“This is living history,” he said. “As horrific as this storm was, it’s in the history books. We need to preserve this history in the best way possible. It’s an unknown how we do that. We don’t know whatever art we think we’ll use to tell the story, but we’ve got to preserve it until we’re ready to tell the story.”
Patrick Tuttle said people who are interested in helping or donating should contact Mark Rohr, Joplin city manager.