News From Terre Haute, Indiana

News

March 20, 2011

Downtown progress leading to razing of historic WTHI-TV and radio building

TERRE HAUTE — From garment factory to broadcast building, the WTHI-TV and radio building in Terre Haute is closing in on the final days of its rich history.

The building, a three-story fixture on Ohio Street for more than a century, is expected to be torn down sometime in the next 12 to 15 months. The building is being razed to make way for a parking lot for a new three-story office building planned for nearby 925 Wabash Ave.

“There’s some wonderful history associated with the building,” said Rod Garvin, director of operations at WTHI-TV and an employee at the 918 Ohio St. location since 1974. “There’s some rich history there.”

According to Vigo County Historian Mike McCormick, the building was constructed in 1906 in the footprint of an earlier structure that burned the year before. It was first used as a garment factory for Stahl-Urban Co., one of the most innovative and successful clothing makers anywhere at the time.

After a strike in 1936 and amid widespread labor difficulties, Stahl-Urban Co. left the building and moved most of its operations to Mississippi. Other garment makers used the factory for the next several years before WTHI-TV and radio moved into the building in July 1954.

“It kind of makes me sad to think about [the building being razed] because I used to do broadcasting there,” said McCormick, who wrote about the history of the Stahl-Urban Co. in his book, “Terre Haute: Queen City of the Wabash.” McCormick, who was a color announcer for WTHI radio when the station carried Terre Haute Phillies baseball games, was working for WTHI when the business moved from a former location on South Seventh Street to the “new” building on Ohio Street.

Renovating that structure and bringing it up to code, including meeting the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, would cost more than the new $5.7-million building being planned for 925 Wabash, said Paul Thrift, whose development company, Thompson Thrift, is constructing the new facility.

“We did look at renovation of the [WTHI] building,” Thrift said. “We just determined very quickly into it that it was not economically feasible. It would actually cost more than the new construction, and you would still be bound by current safety and ADA” requirements, he said.

Still, for those who have worked in the old structure, the WTHI building holds a lot of memories.

“It’s a really historic building,” said Martin Plascak, a well-known radio news broadcaster for WTHI from 1975 to 1995. “At the time, I thought the studios were very good there.”

Current employees of WTHI radio and TV also have many fond memories of the old edifice, but also said they look forward to having a new home.

“I think I’ll be shocked” by having new equipment and a new facility, said Susie Dinkel, news director/midday anchor for WTHI-TV. “I don’t think a lot of people are going to know how to act. We’ve used duct tape for so long.”

Among the more interesting recollections associated with WTHI-TV’s operations is probably Dinkel’s first experience as a live news anchor in the building. At the same time she was reading her teleprompter for the first time, a fire was reported in the building’s basement, she recalled. Although most of the building’s employees were evacuated, the news crew continued to broadcast live.

It was a real “deer-in-the-headlights” moment, Dinkel recalled.

On the radio side, Barry Kent, a recent inductee into the Country Radio Hall of Fame in Nashville, also has enduring memories from 918 Ohio, a place he has worked for the past 28 years.

“It’s going to be really strange not pulling in here at 4 a.m. every morning,” Kent said. Both of his children were born during the time he has worked for WTHI radio, and he has seen many changes in the technology of radio broadcasting over the years. When asked what he’ll remember most about the old building, which he believes was never well-suited for a broadcast facility, Kent said he will recall the people with whom he’s worked and the top-rated radio product they have been able to produce.

“There have just been a lot of good people that have come through here,” Kent said. “A lot of good broadcasters.”

Several well-known and successful broadcasters got their start working at WTHI. They include Phil Jones, who retired from CBS News in 2002 and who is a member of the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame. Well-known Indianapolis news anchor Howard Caldwell, another member of the Journalism Hall of Fame, worked for WTHI as news manager in the early 1950s. And Betty Chadwick, a nationally recognized journalist, was the only female chief TV photographer in the country while she was working at WTHI.

“There were a lot of notable people that went through there,” McCormick said. Others included Joseph Benti, a well-known CBS news reporter, and Jerry Van Dyke, comedian, actor and younger brother of Dick Van Dyke.

One aspect of working for WTHI that apparently also will disappear with the old building is the close collaboration between WTHI radio and television, once owned jointly by the Hulman family. The two organizations, while still sharing a building, have had different owners for the past several years. With the closing and expected demolition of the WTHI building, the two entities will be going separate ways.

“It was an ideal situation,” Plascak said of the close TV-radio collaboration. “I liked that relationship.”

Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

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