News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 17, 2012

FLASHPOINT: Notes on saving structural history

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — There are several reasons why the historic buildings adjacent and west of Roger’s Jewelers should be saved, and why our downtown needs to protect and embrace our remaining historic fabric. First and foremost, rehab and reuse saves our historic buildings for future generations to experience, and the more architectural authenticity our downtown preserves, the more admired and “walkable” it will become.

Many leaders, it seems, still do not believe that we can be in the same league with other downtowns that consistently manage to save all tiers of their historic architecture. Authentic historical fabric is the most important visual element that distinguishes a downtown. Existing buildings that are notable need to be saved, and modern buildings of similar scale and character should infill next to them. Saving only isolated historic “stand-alone icons,” such as our courthouse, churches and federal building, will not prove to be adequate historic fabric to hold our downtown historic districts together.

The historic block now endangered, “the 500 Block” of Wabash Avenue, is the centermost block of our West Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of the finest architectural details in our downtown are found on these facades, including 19th Century Indiana Limestone Craftsmanship as well as ornate terra cotta work imported to Terre Haute from France in the early 1890s. Existing storefronts need a makeover, which would be no more complex than my facade designs for either the Coffee Grounds storefront or The Ohio Building facade and roof garden.

Thank goodness for selfless, nonprofit organizations like Terre Haute Landmarks, Inc. When The Ohio Building was on its last leg, First Financial Bank, rather than calling for demolition, reached out to our community — and it was Terre Haute Landmarks, Inc. that accepted a difficult deadline for creating drawings and finding a new owner, and then followed through with Indiana Landmarks and new owners Casa Urbana, LLC. The Ohio Building is now a treasure that City Hall and every community organization is proud of, as we are of Candlewood Suites and the work on ISU’s Scott Business College (federal building).

I feel that everyone should visit the Facebook page of Terre Haute Landmarks and place your name on the online petition to save the historic facades on this block of Wabash.

The age of the 500 Block of Wabash is 125 years young (similar building construction in Europe is now over 300 years old). These buildings are highly adaptable to new use, and saving their embodied energy also helps our community achieve new goals for a sustainable downtown. Having toured every building in this endangered block, I can say the overall condition of these structures is acceptable for rehab purposes, and renovation will not cost more than new buildings of this size and stature. 

I agree that saving old buildings is not an easy road. Knowledge and skills are as important as money. Downtown has success stories proving that mixed use in the downtown is both viable and established, such as the Kaufman Block and Lou Corey’s building. The White Building, on the 400 Block of Wabash, is another example: when renovation began in 1997, it was in similar condition to the  buildings on the 500 Block, similar size, age, and lack of parking. Today, The White Building is on its way to another century of life, with three franchises (Roly Poly, J.Gumbo’s, AAV Travel), the HNTB office space, and upper floor apartments.

I am tired of witnessing the down-sizing of our historic downtown. Density, small footprint diversity and authentic historic structures are the attributes that distinguish exceptional downtown revitalizations from  ordinary ones. It is doubtful that new dorm housing for students, which often lends itself to a repetitive and homogeneous facade design, will even come close to the caliber and visual diversity of this particular row of buildings, nor will it provide the unique retail spaces and lofts that so many are seeking. Everyone needs to weigh in on this issue.

— Ben Orman, AIA

Terre Haute