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Whiting Community Center Endangered?

Any visitor to Europe will attest to the fact that there are countless buildings in almost every town and city much older than 100 years that are well maintained and still in everyday use. In fact, whole cities there have a marvelous historic character because of the large number of historic landmarks.

But here's the paradox: in the United States a building that is just 80 years old is considered "untenable" and "too expensive to maintain.".

The United States being the world's most prosperous nation, this is hard to understand. If any country can afford to preserve its historic heritage, it should be the USA.

But the wealth of the United States may be its undoing. Unfortunately in this country we have a mentality that "new" is better than "old." Even If it costs less to maintain a historic building than it does to build a new one, since we can afford to build new, we think "Why not?" I suspect this is often the reason historic structures are torn down to make way for new ones.

This appears to be the case with the Whiting Community Center. In 2006, the Maximus Corp., as part of a study of local government, recommended that the Whiting Community Center be sold. Was this just a case of noticing an older building and taking the easy way out in suggesting a way to cut expenses?

In any event, it would be interesting to see a study comparing the cost of maintaining a historic building verses the cost of building a new one. I'll bet many people would be surprised if it found that maintaining a historic building is more cost-effective than building new. For a new building, contractors and architects must be hired. Land must be bought up and surveyed. Construction materials must be purchased and the construction company must be paid. These expenses come all at once as opposed to the cost of maintenance which is spread over a longer period.

This is not to mention the intangible benefits that a historic building adds to the community, the sense of character and uniqueness it creates in this age of cookie cutter housing and fast-food restaurants that all look alike.

In the case of the Whiting community center, there is something that really deserves to be saved. In 2007 a nine-member group was commissioned by Whiting mayor Joe Stahura to study the center. Stahura said "The Whiting community center is a huge part of our history, and we are still brainstorming opportunities to keep the building viable."

Dedication of the building on Fishrupp and Clark streets, then called the Whiting Memorial Community House, took place on Veteran's Day, November 12th 1923. According to an article in the June 10, 2007 Post-Tribune, it was dedicated by the American Legion Post 80 in memory of Whiting residents who served during World War I. The mayor at the time, Walter E. Schrage, asked that all businesses close their doors on the day of the dedication. Those in attendance were asked in the dedication program to stand at 11:00 a.m. "facing the East for 30 seconds in silent prayer in memory of all World War I dead."

The building represents local history, and especially Whiting history, in many ways. The building was a gift from John D. Rockefeller Sr. and John D. Rockefeller Jr. The building cost $450,000 to construct (in 1923 dollars), funding for which came from the Rockefeller family and the Standard Oil Co..

The buildings still boasts rich amenities of the type there no longer found in today's budget conscious architecture--wood-paneled meeting rooms, a large swimming pool, a bowling alley and 800 seat auditorium are just a few of the amenities.

The center is just as busy today as it was over 80 years ago. Piano, swimming and crochet classes are given and individual rooms are available for meetings, special parties, and wedding receptions.

Thousands of people visit the building every month. Says former Whiting mayor Joseph Grenchik, "I pray this administration and future administrations will find the will and means to keep it going."

Click here to see out page devoted to the Whiting Community Center

Historic churches are not only beautiful: they embody a style of architecture that is unique and will never again be duplicated. Historic churches are monuments to our ancestor's faith. They add much to the character and personality of a community. Few, if any, modern churches boast the carved stone facades, vaulted ceilings and soaring stained-glass windows that many historic churches possess.

Unfortunately, several historic churches have fallen or been slated for demolition in Northwest Indiana in just the past few years. In Crown Point, First Presbyterian Church, a landmark for more than 150 years was demolished on June 7, 1999. The city's founder, Solon Robinson, had donated six lots for the original church, constructed of wood in 1845. The later church was solidly constructed of brick, but the shell of that church succumbed to the crane and the wrecking ball. There was nothing structurally wrong with the building.

"It's hard to see her go, a beloved building," said the pastor of the church, who, along with the congregation, made the decision to demolish the beautiful structure in favor of a larger one. "She served Crown Point well and she served her congregation well."

Though the area in which the church was located was recently named an historic district by the city of Crown Point, the congregation insisted on keeping the church from inclusion in the district.

Likewise, the congregation of the 70-year-old St. Michael's Church in Schererville also plans to demolish its landmark structure, despite many voices in the community urging its preservation.

And in East Chicago, St. Mary's Catholic Church was demolished even though, according to the Post-Tribune, the congregation didn't have money to build a new one.

Church members often feel their buildings are above the expectations for preservation that apply to other landmarks. However, since they already get tax exemption from the government, one may well ask if they have more, not less, responsibility to be sensitive to the desires of the community in which they reside. When a building achieves historic status, in a sense the building not only belongs to the holder of the deed, but to the community as a whole.

It is understandable that congregations eventually outgrow their meeting places. But how much better it would be for the members of these churches to sell their buildings to other congregations and to use the money to buy a plot of land at another location.

As the Bible at Proverbs 22:28 puts it, "Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set."

Old Mill Pizzeria in Merrillville--a proud landmark?

It was nice to read in the March 18 Post-Tribune that the owners of Merrillville's Old Mill Pizzeria on 73rd and Madison are proud of their historic landmark, but either they or the previous owners have a funny way of showing it.

The pre-Civil War brick structure is one of Merrillville's oldest buildings. But today the top half of the building is painted a different color than the bottom half, the upper-floor windows are boarded up, and the awning that wraps around the building and its addition gives the appearance of cutting the building in half. In other words, every attempt seems to have been made to cover up or hide the building's historic character.

How much better it would have been if the owners had left off the awning (which clashes with the building's architectural style) and used the money they saved to hire a decorator with some preservation background. He or she could have advised them on how to remodel the building in an architecturally appropriate way.

The owners would not have needed to spend any more money than they already did, and they would have had a building of which they, and the community, could truly be proud.

Hobart Worries About its Downtown Signs

Improvements to the Lake George lakefront spurred a movement a few years ago by the city of Hobart to establish guidelines for store signs in the downtown business district. Plan Commission members watched a slide presentation developed by the National Main Street Center of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It covered everything from the maximum number of words a sign should have--seven--to color schemes, contrasts, lettering, lighting and the size of the signs.

All this is well and good, but it seems to us that, right now, there are more pressing concerns for downtown Hobart than the appearance of its downtown signs.

Hobart is fortunate to have a charming and unique downtown area. City centers like Hobart's are a rarity worth preserving in this age of cookie-cutter shopping malls.

Instead of worrying about signs, however, Hobart should follow Crown Point's lead and attempt to get historic status for the downtown area. This would provide valuable tax credits for downtown building owners who refurbish their buildings. It would also set standards for what is and is not an architecturally appropriate modification of a historic building.

Already, several buildings in downtown Hobart have been seriously damaged by misguided "rennovations," and others are endangered.

After all, signs can come and go, but when a building is stripped of its historic fixtures or even demolished, the damage is forever.

Gary "Crack House" Plan Just a Bit Confusing

According to a recent news item, local (loco?) Northwest Indiana officials want to use a million dollars again next year to tear down all the "crack houses" in the region, some of them in historic districts.

We must say we're just a bit confused. Were the buildings themselves dealing crack? Was the substance falling from the ceilings in the manner of old asbestos? Or were the people inhabiting the buildings doing the dealing?

If this is the case, how will tearing down these buildings solve the problem? Will the buildings be demolished while the dealers are still in them? If so, we can understand how this would make a significant dent in area crack dealing. However, if the buildings will be evacuated first, we must confess confusion.

Perhaps the dealer's legs will be cut off after the buildings are demolished? This might do the trick, too. If not, we surely don't see what will keep them from running like roaches to the building next door, hanging out their shingle, and continuing business as usual.

Perhaps we're missing something. Then again, maybe rather than using that $2 million to tear down old buildings, it should be spent putting up a new building instead. One with the big, block letters J-A-I-L painted on the front of it.

Here's what Christopher Meyers, former Preservation Specialist for the City of Gary has to say on this subject:

I am quite upset with the newspapers and all their praise for Gritt/Operation Crackdown. I attempted to speak with the editor of one newspaper about this issue and was simply told I do not understand the problem and hung up on. I called back and identified myself. The Editor said he knew of me. I stated that I do agree that some buildings need to be razed due to their condition (burned and literally a shell). The editor was still pushing his opinion like I was supposed to say "yes it is a good thing to tear down all housing that is vacant and classified as 'drug infested.'"

I explained to him the waiting lists for affordable, low-income housing, the environmental factors, mothballing, and the ease of rehab. He said he did not care and again pushed his story, describing the "hell" the family on Greene has been undergoing with gang members parking their cars all over the place and hanging out in a vacant building next door. I replied with the question "What will happen with the house on Greene Street after its elderly inhabitants leave Gary or pass on?"

I stated that this is the underlying problem for Gary; its population continues to decrease and that no one is taking up residency in the vacant architectural stock. I again stated if a building was mothballed correctly no one would be able to enter the building. I stated that the city has a community development program, gives tons of funding to the CDC's, and that the primary interest in the city and its advancement has to begin at home with the municipal government.

The city still has no preservation code, no concise development plans, and no modern zoning ordinance which would help "stressed" neighborhoods. Additionally I brought to his attention other cities where one industry was the major economic powerhouse. I asked if he was familiar with Detroit and the large number of homes/neighborhoods that were razed. In specific sections of Detroit, it feels as if one is in a urban prairie...grass growing, weeds, nature returning with hints of man's past here..... wasted infrastructure such as streets and lighting.

As I ended my conversation with the editor, I said that I was not calling to argue; rather to point out some facts that I hoped he would see the next time he entered a vacant building.

My points are logical avenues for a solution to this problem.....not ones based upon political rhetoric, gut emotionalism, or simple, candy coated fast fixes. The architecture of Gary belongs to everyone and by superseding federal historic preservation programs (such as Section 106), Pete Visclosky, Scott King, and the FBI are indeed setting back the safety umbrellas that were created for review. No review of the demolition has been made; therefore no adverse affects will be logged as occurring.

I do question why I waste my time here in Indiana instead of going to other areas where preservation is not consider an "infringement" or where it is not so infantile, misunderstood, or twisted in principle. But there is a need to educate here.

From the Post-Tribune

Gary takes steps toward saving a Frank Lloyd Wright home--and an important part of its history

Not many cities can claim two Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes, but Gary can. And it looks like Gary will be able to retain this high honor, thanks to former Gary preservation consultant Christopher Meyers and the Indiana Historic Landmarks Foundation.

Wright, one of America's most famed architects, designed the home at 600 Fillmore St. around 1916 for Wilbur and Etta Wynant. Wilbur Wynant was president of Gary National Life Insurance Co. and the Gary National Association.

The home has been vacant for years. Neglect has taken its toll, and the only future left for the home for a time appeared to be demolition. It was sold at a tax auction to a Wisconsin man who hoped to restore the home. But he wasn't able to raise the more than $200,000 needed to restore it to pristine condition.

Now the Indiana Historic Landmarks Foundation has announced it will purchase the building. The foundation plans to stabilize the foundation, erect a temporary roof and dry out and clean the interior before finding a buyer committed to completely restoring it.

Were the home to fall, it would have been a loss for Gary and for the nation. Wright-designed homes are rare treasures. Like other historic buildings, they not only link us to the past, but show the younger generation that just because a building is old doesn't mean it can't be both useful and beautiful. Far too often homes and buildings of historic significance are torn down to make way for new projects, or simply because they've been ignored.

Todd Zeiger, northern regional coordinator for the Indiana Historic Landmarks Foundation, credited Christopher Meyers of Crown Point with helping to bring the home to the foundation's attention. "he found it and did the research on it," said Zeiger.

If the Fillmore Street home is fully restored, it can become a major attraction for Gary. Wright homes in other Midwestern cities have become tourist attractions and regular stops for architecture buffs.

Sara-Ann Briggs, executive Director of Chicago's Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservatory, said the next step is to have the neighborhood, which is devoted to other Prarie-style homes, declared a National Historic District so it can tap into federal and state funding.

"In Gary, there is a great need for revitalization," said Meyers. "Gary has a great potential. The Frank Lloyd Wright structure is just the tip of the iceberg."

Oct 1997:

Part of Historic downtown Gary burns

It probably shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone. The city of Gary has long been called "The fire capital of Northwest Indiana." However, the sheer scope of the loss is breathtaking. The historic Memorial Auditorium, which many people had hopes and dreams of someday restoring is three-quarters destroyed and several important storefront structures are a total loss.

If this fire is found to be an arson (and this looks probable), Gary is not alone; a fire several years ago that burned down a major historic department store in Valparaiso was found to be an arson, leaving a hole in the downtown area (and in Valparaiso's self-image).

Two of the fire-ravaged structures may still have a chance of being saved: part of the Memorial Auditorium and the City Methodist Church, a combination church, auditorium and commercial building.

The city of Gary is to be commended for contracting an engineer to study the buildings and determine their stability. In addition, the city will fence off the buildings and hire a private security guard to protect them, giving time to preservationists and city oficials to explore options.

If there is any lesson to be learned from this disaster, it is that the kind of neglect that downtown Gary has endured can go on for only so long. Many important structures remain, but if steps are not taken to rehabilitate them quickly, they, too, will soon be gone forever.

Lost or damaged:

700 block of Broadway:

  • Two abandoned two-story brick commercial storefronts, each about 50 feet by 150 feet; completely gutted, roof collapsed.

600 block of Broadway:

  • Radigan Building, an abandoned four-story brick department store about 50 feet by 150 feet; completely gutted, roof collapsed.
  • Goldblatt's Department Store, an abandoned four-story brick building about 150 feet by 150 feet, with attached five-story 150-foot by 150-foot brick and concrete building in rear; completely gutted, roof collapsed.
  • Next building south of Goldblatt's, a two-story abandoned 50-foot by 150-foot storefront, heavily damaged, gutted.

700 block of Massachusetts:

  • Memorial Auditorium, a four-story brick auditorium-style building 500 feet by 150 feet; heavily gutted, partially collapsed.

578 Broadway

  • Gary Housing Authority Senior Citizens building known as Genesis Towers. Damage to materials on roof of 10-story building; 124 residents evacuated. Most returned by 5:30 a.m. Monday. Four taken to Methodist Hospital in Gary for treatment of minor smoke inhalation.

575 Washington St.

  • Methodist Church, an abandoned three-story brick auditorium-style building, 150 feet by 200 feet; heavily damaged, roof partially collapsed.

(This info is from the Northwest Indiana Times

Downtown Gary, Ind.

Local newspapers reported that Gary mayor Scott L. King was focusing his attention on revitalizing the downtown area of Gary, Indiana's third-largest city. This is good news to hear. And it is still not an impossible dream.

Already, the downtown area was showing some signs of hope. The "mini-mall" at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Broadway seems to be doing well, as does a similar enterprise nearby. In addition, a small shopping plaza has recently been built on Broadway near the downtown area.

Still, a few years ago, one would have laughed off talk of revitalizing downtown Gary. A victim of steel mill layoffs and severe segregation, the historic downtown area became a veritable ghost town in the late 1970's, with perhaps no more than 10% of its storefronts occupied.

Why then, is there reason for hope? One word: Casinos. The new gambling meccas that have opened in the Buffington Harbor area of Gary are expected to pump several million dollars a year into the city in tax revenues. If some of this money is put into providing tax breaks, renovation credits and other incentives to local businesses, it could breathe new life into the district. Perhaps the city could concentrate on revitalizing one block of the downtown area at a time, starting with the block bounded by Fifth Avenue and gradually working its way south.

Downtown Gary still has several things going for it; plenty of parking space, easy highway access and (still) lots of historic architecture. Additional benefit could be gained by naming the area a historic district. This would provide important tax credits for renovation. A Miller architect has already done all the necessary paperwork to gain historic status.

Even in today's mall-oriented society, downtowns have continuing relevance. Most importantly, the downtown area is usually the economic center of a community. When the downtown is not doing well, the economy, image and self-esteem of the whole community suffers.

For this reason, we hope downtown revitalization is put at the top of Gary's agenda.

One unfortunate note: There were plans negotiated by the previous Gary mayor,Thomas Barnes, to convert the historic Union Station on 3rd and Broadway into a shopping mall using casino revenues. This could be an excellent anchor for downtown revitalization. In addition, there could be a free hourly bus or South Shore service from the casino site to the renovated station to draw some of the people who will be coming into Gary into the retail area. Unfortunately, Mayor Scott King wants to rescind this agreement. We hope Mayor King rethinks his position.

View photos of two major buildings of downtown Gary, the City Methodist Church and the Genesis Tower retirement building, formerly Hotel Gary.

Enterprise Zones--What Happened?

Once again we heard Vice President Al Gore endorse "empowerment zones" in his speech at the Democratic National Convention. The empowerment zones concept is similar to the enterprise zones enacted in the past.

We remember that concept, but we rarely hear mention of it anymore, and, unfortunately, we didn't notice that it made that much of a difference, at least not in the Northwest Indiana region.

The idea behind the zones--giving tax credits to those businesses who locate in economically distressed areas--is in theory a good one. A merchant takes a risk in locating in a poorer area because the local populace has less spending money and risks of crime are greater. In addition, it is hard for small merchants to compete pricewise with bigger stores.

This is why enterprise zones seem like a good idea--they give incentives to those who are willing to take the biggest risks by giving them tax breaks that will help them compete with those who are taking smaller risks (by locating in stronger retail areas).

If the enterprise zone idea has failed, maybe it's because the tax breaks given to the risk-takers were not great enough, or the qualifications for receiving credits were not strict enough. Most importantly, perhaps not enough commitment was made to the enterprise zone concept itself.

It is extremely depressing to see one retail area in a region booming (and with it, sprawl, smog and congestion), while other historic retail districts just a few miles distant are withering and dying. We understand this is happening in many parts of our great nation, and we believe it is contributing to the tragic fragmenting and segregating of our country.

Is there reason to believe that empowerment zones will be more successful than previous initiatives? We truly hope the answer is yes, but, unfortunately, the concept seems to be one that both Republicans and Democrats mainly talk about around election time.

Union Station at a Crossroads

A classic building that bolstered the dreams of a vibrant downtown is two-thirds vacant and ready to be closed down unless the city finds a buyer.

INDIANAPOLIS - It reopened 11 years ago as a festival marketplace, full of restaurants and shops that lured people back downtown from the suburbs. Crowds spilling out of the neighboring Hoosier Dome would pack nightspots that sprang up all around. These days, the crowds go in a different direction - a couple of blocks away, to the shiny new Circle Centre mall and its upscale stores, trendy cafes and cinema multiplex. The century-old, red-brick terminal is costing the city a $100,000 monthly operating deficit. It also needs $2.7 million in repairs to its roof and other exteriors.

Union Station was built in 1887-88. At its heyday at the turn of the century, more than 200 trains passed through each day, and Indianapolis came to be known as "the crossroads of America. "That building and site are so important to the history and background of the community. Architecturally, it's one of the finest examples of the Romanesque revival architectural style in the Midwest," said Reid Williamson, president of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana.

Most of the train traffic to Union Station had stopped by the early 1970s, when the city acquired the structure. But a redevelopment plan took shape: The city anted up $2.5 million, the federal government $14.8 million, and local banks put up $29.5 million in loans. Private developers invested $4 million of their own money.

At first, it worked. In the first year, 8 million people visited the renovated station to eat at restaurants like Rick's Cafe American, drink at Locomotions or shop at the Brass Pig or the Peanut King. But the success didn't last. The opening of Circle Centre in 1995 was the last nail in the coffin; in 1996, only 2.7 million people visited the station.

Are there lessons to be learned from this story? Perhaps. In this ultra-competitive, "survival of the newest" society in which we live, preservation may not stand a chance unless more generous preservation tax credits are enacted to save those urban assets that, like Union Station, help make our cities so unique.

Hammond's Downtown Area Must Go?

There is talk of leveling a part of downtown Hammond. This is supposed to "make the area more attractive" to developers of modern strip malls.

Not only is this assumption questionable, (and it ignores the fact that there are already businesses located in the areas in question), but there are some people in Northwest Indiana who feel that, for the most part, our historic downtown areas are worthy of preserving intact.

Many of the buildings of downtown Hammond (and Gary, for that matter) are architecturally interesting and, for the most part, structurally sound. There is no doubt that the downtowns of Northwest Indiana are important historic sites and should be preserved to the greatest extent possible.

This is not just a sentimental gesture. Think what Crown Point would lack today had it followed the advice of city planners in the early 70's and torn down its historic courthouse.

We all like to shop at nice stores, but few people will point with pride to the architecture of most modern shopping centers. Historic architecture is one city asset that the suburbs just can't lay claim to, and so should be played up, not torn down.

Saving such buildings is no mere pipe dream. Downtown areas in other parts of the country have been revived without wholesale demolition or other drastic action. New enterprise zone legislation and other initiatives are in the works that will greatly increase the feasibility of restoring health to our downtown areas.

Promoting commerce and wooing businesses is a good idea, but in our rush to do so, let us be careful not to risk destroying a part of Northwest Indiana that is forever irreplaceable.

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