Have you ever been jealous of a ham sandwich?
If you’ve always wanted to hang out in a picnic basket, here’s your chance. Sitting on 25 acres of land in Newark, Ohio, a seven-story building designed and painted to be an exact — albeit enlarged — replica of a Longaberger-produced wicker picnic basket will likely soon be up for sale.
Truth is, no one knows what to do with it.
Nineteen years ago, when the $32 million building was first erected, its 180,000 square feet housed 225 employees of the Longaberger Company. The Ohio-based company manufactures, naturally, baskets — specifically traditional picnic-style thatched baskets made from maple wood and topped with two wooden handles, the kind you would witness in children’s tales like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
For a while, business was good. The building’s facade, with windows placed in depressions of the basket’s weave and two 75-ton handles — heated to prevent the formation of ice — reaching skyward became the first thing employees saw at the start of each work day. Its interior contains a 30,000-square foot atrium that floods with natural light from the skylight overhead. Much as an actual Longaberger basket would have, the building includes two golden tags on the basket’s lip with the word “Longaberger” inscribed in great type. Only these 25-by-7-foot tags weigh 725 pounds each and are made from gold leaf, according to Time.
The building came about, so the story goes, thanks to the frustration of Dave Longaberger, the company’s founder.
He had discussed plans for the new building with architects for months, but they were getting nowhere. He had asked for something that looked like a basket, and they kept returning buildings with rounded edges. Sure, they somewhat resembled his request, but Dave knew exactly what he wanted.
One day, he stormed out of a boardroom and returned with one of the company’s medium-sized baskets, slammed it on the table and said, “Make it look exactly like that,” Longaberger director of communications Brenton Baker told the Columbus Dispatch.
So, they thought outside the box and built the basket.
Quickly, the building joined the ranks of Florida’s Mermaid Theater and Texas’s Cadillac Ranch as one of America’s prized roadside attractions. Longaberger began offering tours of the building, which was billed as the world’s largest basket. A quick search of Instagram and Twitter yields thousands of posts, many of them featuring families taking selfies a few feet from the wicker wonder.
Recently, though, the Longaberger Company has fallen on hard times. In 1999, Dave Longaberger died. That, coupled with a decreasing popularity in the baskets and other lifestyle products the company creates, led to a financial struggle. According to the Columbus Dispatch, the company’s sales reached a high of $1 billion in 2000, but by 2014 had dropped to $100 million, a 90 percent decrease.
At its peak, the building housed 500 employees, but last year only 68 marched through the basket’s front doors. Thursday, the final few office workers will officially move out of the space. They’ll work at the manufacturing plant in nearby Frazeysburg, according to the Dispatch.
The company currently owes $577,660 in property taxes, and hasn’t made any payments since November 2014 when it paid $10,000, the Newark Advocate reported.
Technically, that means the county could foreclose on the property, but the city’s officials have made it clear that they don’t want it. Newark Mayor Jeff Hall told the Columbus Dispatch that he “does not have a desire to own the building.”
He hopes the company can find a buyer.
“The challenge is, it’s large,” Hall said. “It’s in great shape. It was built wonderfully. If someone got it for maybe $5 million, that’s a heck of a deal. The taxes plus utilities are about $750,000 a year.”
But it’s unclear if anyone would be interested.
For one, it looks like a giant basket. And it apparently wouldn’t be cheap to change that. Some have proposed breaking off the handles and changing the facade, but it might not be worth the price tag.
“It’s pretty expensive to do that,” Jim Garrett, executive vice president and managing director of Colliers, a local real estate agency told the Columbus Dispatch. “Some of the numbers are just shy of seven figures. If you’re a real estate investor, it would be hard to justify that return on investment.”
Meanwhile, one former president of Longaberger hopes to get the building included on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The Big Basket is like the St. Louis Arch,” said Jim Klein. “It’s a really important part of southeastern Ohio history.”
At the close of business Thursday, though, the building will remain empty, its fate unknown.
Just an enormous piece of Americana, there for all passersby to take selfies with, sitting dark and silent on the inside.