It’s no picnic being the world’s biggest basket.
Standing seven stories tall and measuring 208 feet at its widest, for years the Newark, Ohio, building housed the headquarters of the Longaberger Company, its exterior painstakingly modeled on the famous handwoven hampers created and distributed by the basket manufacturer. But as of last week, employees will no longer pack in like sandwiches or march in like ants as they go to work, as Longaberger has consolidated its offices elsewhere, leaving the fate of this rare architectural landmark up in the air.
The announcement first arrived in February, when company CEO John Rochon Jr. told staff members at the large basket that they would move operations to Longaberger’s non-basket-shaped manufacturing plant in Frazeysburg, about 20 miles away. According to an email obtained by the Columbus Dispatch, employees often had to move back and forth between the buildings, reducing efficiency and stamina.
“I now know why everyone has desired to move,” Rochon wrote. “The energy and (company founder Dave Longaberger’s) spirit is on the floor with the basketmakers. Honestly, mine is too.”
Completed in 1997, the 182,000-square-foot building was headquarters for 500 workers when it opened; about a dozen remained when it shut its doors last week after months of gradual migrations, according to the Dispatch — the last people able to claim that day after day, they went to work inside a larger-than-life basket. The design was Dave Longaberger’s own: the businessman, who founded the company in 1973, had demanded that architects model a building specifically on his company’s trademarked Medium Market Basket, and that’s exactly what he received. The finished result, 160 times the size of the hardwood maple bestseller, came courtesy of Korda Nemeth Engineering and architecture firm NBBJ, whose senior manager at the time described it as “a piece of pop art.”
But building the clay-and stucco structure was no easy feat. Architects as well as bankers apparently warned Longaberger to forgo its construction, but he remained adamantly committed to his vision, famously stating: “If they can put a man on the moon, they can certainly build a building that’s shaped like a basket.” The finished work, rising by Ohio State Route 16 after 18 months of designing and building, came complete with giant handles that span 150 feet and rise about 180 feet. Each, as the AP reported in 1998, consists of 13 pieces welded together at the construction site to weigh 75 tons, and each houses a particular heating unit to prevent ice from forming and falling onto a 4,500-square-foot glass ceiling. If you peer through the glass, you would find yourself gazing straight down into the ground-floor lobby, as the architects had to incorporate a central atrium rising the basket’s full height to accommodate the sloping walls and other distinct specifications. Despite its rustic exterior, its interior is quite elegant, with its natural light-flooded lobby resembling that of a hotel’s, complete with warm cherry wood touches, a grand staircase, a marble floor, and a player piano.
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The job, unsurprisingly, cost much more than 160 times the price of an average medium market basket, totaling $30 million dollars. Part of this expense covered the two 750-pound tags on the building’s sides plated with the Longaberger name — just like any of its normal-sized baskets — in 23-karat gold, no less. It was a fittingly ostentatious building for a business tasting huge success, with the baskets in high demand by everyone from the casual picnicker to hardcore collectors — some of whom amassed dozens upon dozens. Sales, however, peaked at $1 billion in 2000, according to the Dispatch, after which numerous layoffs took place, leaving just around 70 employees in the large basket as of last year.
As Rochon’s email from February hinted, the basket grew into the company’s own basket case: its construction led to still-unpaid debt. As the Newark Advocate reported, Licking County says the company, since 2013 owned by JRJR Networks, currently owes $577,660 in property taxes that stem from roadwork, lighting, and other jobs associated with the construction. If these aren’t paid, the county may foreclose on the property; Newark officials, however, don’t want it, as Mayor Jeff Hall told the Dispatch, although in May, he noted it was “one of a kind, and you don’t just board it up and it goes away.
“We see lots of potential for the building,” he said. “The handles need a little bit of paint, but that’s not something you can do on a weekend. The outside itself is a wow factor. We’d like it lit up at night again.” When the building finally emptied last week, he told the Dispatch that anyone who bought it for $5 million would be getting it at “a heck of a deal.”
For now, as real estate agents continue to market the building, the big basket stands tall and empty as a symbol of handmade Americana, still inviting selfies.
N.B.: Dave Longaberger, who died in 1999, loved his super-sized baskets, and while the Newark one is the only one you may enter, he’s also built two other big Longaberger baskets — a 23-foot-tall one in Dresden made of 10 hardwood maple trees, and one just for fake apples at the Frazeysburg Homestead.
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