NEWS SERIES: Improving Cities By Improving Historic Preservation
Indiana Communities are debating the future of their historic buildings as state and local leaders push for economic development and city expansion.
Some small towns are struggling to maintain these structures in the face of sometimes confusing and conflicting rules and regulations.
Monticello’s old City Hall and fire department used to be the center of the community.
“The mayor’s office was there, the water department, the clerk treasurer’s office,” says Fire Chief Galen Logan.
The station was built in 1904, and it’s one of just a handful of structures that survived a tornado in the 1970s.
But the fire department recently moved to new facilities. And now, city leaders are wondering what to do with the historic structure, which currently houses construction supplies for other projects.
The building isn't exactly ready for move-in; it needs a lot of repairs. The roof and the gutters each need attention, along with other interior issues.
Monticello officials have issued three requests for proposals. The first two received no responses. Fire Chief Galen Logan says they’ve at least given a few tours this time around. The city has also considered using the building for other government purposes.
Anyone buying the property would be taking on a pretty expensive project. But Logan says there aren’t a lot of these historic buildings left in Monticello, which might tip the scales in favor of preservation over demolition.
“I don’t think you can save every building; sometimes that’s not possible," Logan says. "But like I said, after the tornado, we lost so many historic buildings that we don’t have that option or that luxury of saying, ‘We can save these, and tear these down.’”
The struggle to preserve historic buildings isn’t unique to Monticello. In Indiana, state funding is primarily focused on the exterior and façade of a building, leaving towns and counties to finance expensive structural fixes – usually by soliciting private donations.
Tipton County is facing that challenge now, as leaders there try to determine the future of the soon-to-be-former county jail. The building is still housing inmates right now, but County Commissioner Jim Mullins says a new facility will open in January.
“As a result of that, everyone expecting that sooner or later the new jail’s going to be built," Mullins says, "they had quit putting money into the old jail and repairs. So it has continued to deteriorate.”
Unlike Monticello’s former City Hall, the Tipton County Jail is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s the only operating jail with an attached sheriff’s residence in the state, according to the local historical society.
But Indiana Landmarks community preservation specialist Sam Burgess says that doesn’t mean it’s safe from demolition.
“National register designation does not really impose any kind of protection on historic buildings, and that’s an issue that’s become abundantly clear with the situation surrounding the old jail and sheriff’s residence,” Burgess says.
Because the building is on the national register, any rehab has to maintain its historic character – which means all of the materials used have to be nearly identical. Mullins says the county would have to prove maintenance is economically unfeasible to have it removed from the national register.
But Burgess says being listed on the register does have some benefits, as state grants require a property be deemed historic by the state or a nation entity.
“The fact that the building in question is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places puts it in a very good position to compete for those funds and also other funds, depending on how it may be reused in the future," Burgess says.
But Burgess says federal income tax incentives only offset 20 percent of total rehabilitation costs for historic buildings owned for income-producing properties. If it were used to meet a need, like low-income or senior housing, it could earn more tax credits.
Even so, he says these projects often seek private investment, too.
A study in 2014 estimated it’d cost $1.2 million to repair the Tipton jail. And that cost has only increased as the building has continued to deteriorate.
But the choice to raze or refurbish is thorny. Demolishing the building may be cheaper in the long run, but at the cost of losing history. Renovation, though, can be an ongoing cost – and still requires someone to oversee the structure going forward.
Tipton County Commissioner Jim Mullins says the county has considered using the jail for document storage or as a home for the historical society.
“While there’s some people that would like us to commit that we’re going to do that, we’ve got to do those studies and we’ve got to make what makes the most economic sense to the taxpayers in the county.”
The county does have an income tax that can be put toward the repurposing of the old jail – or its demolition.
For towns that have an overabundance of older buildings and landmarks, history can be a source of extra income – but only if those are maintained over time.
If buildings have fallen into disrepair, returning them to a useable state can be a difficult task – even if history is a cornerstone of the community.
Walking through downtown Attica, a small town west of Lafayette, it’s clear the area has a lot of history. There’s an old-timey theater, storefronts with bright, colorful paint jobs, and a hotel that’s more than 150 years old.
But go behind the buildings and it’s a different story. Hotel Attica is a point of concern; one of the wings has fallen off, leaving hallways and rooms completely exposed.
“Well they have owners, they bought it again at a tax sale," says Bob Shepherd, Attica’s former mayor. "It’s more than they can financially handle, so they decided to just abandon it.”
Hotel Attica was named to Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list this year – along with whole blocks of the downtown area.
The community pushed to include Hotel Attica on the list of endangered landmarks to encourage restoration efforts. But Shepherd says listing the entire downtown caused concern.
“I was a little hesitant when Indiana Landmarks pushed to put the whole downtown on it because there’s mixed feelings. Are you saying we’re that bad? No. Certain buildings are, but as far as the whole downtown there’s a lot of good things,” Shepherd says.
Tommy Kleckner, director of Indiana Landmarks’ Western Regional Office, says the list isn’t calling out the area for disrepair; it’s encouraging others to get involved in restoring it.
“Bringing focus to the entire downtown, we felt, was going to have a broader beneficial impact,” Kleckner says.
The organization does feasibility studies to determine the likelihood of successful rehabilitation, as well as the projected cost.
A few buildings have been successfully restored or maintained, including the Devon Theater, whose owners worked with Fountain County Landmarks on a fundraiser to help cover restoration costs.
Shepherd says the city needs private investment and resources like the Attica Community Foundation to restore their buildings.
“You can get grants, you can do all kinds of things, but unless you have private investment in your community, it’s just not going to work,” Shepherd says. “You’ve got to have that partnership.”
Attica has received grants from Indiana’s Office of Community and Rural Affairs for façade restoration and landscaping, but not for rebuilding the hotel. An OCRA spokeswoman says cities can trade on their historic character, but they’re still subject to the laws of economics.
“One of our biggest problems is selling ourselves,” Shepherd says.
For a developer to buy a building, there has to be some sense they’ll make their investment back. For many developers, a small town like Attica is a bigger risk than a more metropolitan area. Since Attica’s market is smaller, there’s likely to be less financial return, so a smaller initial investment is all the more appealing.
Indiana Landmarks officials say Attica would benefit from local rules encouraging maintenance.
Kleckner says that maintenance is often what makes rehabilitation more affordable.
“An ounce of maintenance is worth a pound of cure. To be able to maintain a building, to even minimally maintain a building, to keep that roof in solid shape, keep water out of that structure," Kleckner says. "Thousands and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars saved.”
But those can be restrictive. Property owners have to submit proposals to make changes to their buildings, which the commission can then approve or deny – and that sometimes stops renovation from happening.
Lafayette has such a historic preservation ordinance. Assistant Director of Economic Development John Collier says most property owners understand that there are rules before they move in.
“Folks in the downtown who own businesses or properties there are generally aware of the fact that they are in a local district, and they are aware that they have to go through this review process," Collier says,
And the commission doesn't have to hear a request for every single change. If something has already been changed or removed, the property owner can continue to make similar changes. The commission only hears about new projects.
“If it’s basically replacing something that’s already there and you’re replacing it with in-kind materials, then that doesn’t require a review because that’s considered maintenance,” Collier says.
Some rules are harder to bend than others, and Collier says the commission is willing to work with property owners to draft a plan for renovations or changes that will be approved.
But removing a property from a historic district can be challenging. In Lafayette, 60 percent of other property owners have to approve the request to leave, as well as the commission.
“Those individual property owners decided on their own that they wanted to be included in a historic district," Collier says. "That’s something that they opted in to do, not something that they were required to do.”
There are also 10 national historic districts in Lafayette, which often overlap with the local ones. Collier says all the attention to history has brought economic revitalization.
“And honestly, I think if you look at the downtown and compare it to how it looked before 1993 compared to what it looks like today, I think it’s obvious the positive impact that the local historic district status has had," Collier says.
That’s something Attica would like to emulate. But even if a benefactor wants to invest, it’s still a small town with an aging population. And the real estate market is driven more by location than by history.
Many of the communities debating the merits of preservation are struggling with the same question: What is the best way to use an older building once it’s stopped serving its initial purpose?
Indiana University architecture professor Marleen Newman says changing the interior and the purpose of a historic building – a process known as adaptive re-use – can provide a way to save it, and to even make a profit in the future.
“And the best adaptive re-use projects allow structures to retain their historic integrity, while meeting modern needs for new occupants, and perhaps a different function,” Newman says.
So rather than just turning the soon-to-be-disused Tipton County Jail into a museum, for example, it could become apartments, or a restaurant.
Monticello Fire Chief Galen Logan says he'd like to see the former City Hall turned into a craft brewery or a restaurant.
Re-use can be a difficult task, particularly because there are so many restrictions. But there are ways to make the process easier for anyone who hopes to invest in historic properties.
To start off, communities can be proactive in preserving the structures they already have through the creation of local regulations. Those guidelines will enforce maintenance of historic structures, preventing expensive repairs later on.
Members of the Tipton County Historical Society, including executive director Jill Curnutt-Howerton and Vice President Gae Matchette, have been pushing for a local historic district for years.
Driving around town, they point out many landmarks have already undergone changes. Tipton’s original brick roads are covered by pavement, portions of the jail’s original limestone have been chiseled away, and an old historic church has been torn down, leaving just a spire on a street corner.
Curnutt-Howerton says those changes can’t be undone.
“Would you be able to ever put that back and look just like that? It would take a miracle," Curnutt-Howerton says. "Somebody would have to be a really good artist, from what I’ve seen.”
Whether preservation is more fiscally responsible than demolition is often decided on a case-by-case basis and impacted by regulations on the building, such as the national register’s requirement for using period-correct materials when restoring a building.
Loosening those restrictions – for instance, allowing Tipton County to replace the jail’s leaking roof with something other than traditional slate tiles -- might make preservation more appealing, and lower its cost.
IU’s Marleen Newman argues saving an older building is usually the better option.
“You have an existing façade, you have existing building walls, the structure is existing, the utility hookups are existing, you have no demolition costs," Newman says.
But while renovating an older building might cost less than constructing a new one, there is often more maintenance involved, and those costs can add up.
Lafayette Historic Preservation Commission member Dann Keiser says historic properties in his city are more expensive now.
“The opportunity where you could go out and maybe buy a house for $10,000 and put some sweat equity into it and fix it up and have a nice little old house, those opportunities aren’t as available as they used to be,” Keiser says.
And grant funding for preservation projects is tightly regulated in the state, available only to income-producing properties and non-profits. It also isn’t allowed to pay for interior structural repairs. Applicants also have to prove the property will remain with its current owners for at least five years.
Mary Shaw, project manager for Indiana’s Office of Community and Rural Affairs, says there is some leeway.
“If there’s some structural issues that’s connected with the façade, this grant would cover that. But mostly it’s for if there’s brick tuckpointing that needs to be done, or repair and replacement of doors, windows, storefronts, roofs,” Shaw says.
Shaw says the office is trying to simplify the process so more historic landmarks can be preserved.
“Each community has their own unique identification. They’re known for something. In Indiana, a lot of our smaller communities are known for their historic charm, their historic character. So if these buildings are lost, the whole character of the community suffers.”
So in the end, communities have a fair amount of control in their historic preservation destiny – as long as they have a flexible legal backbone and enough people and money to be sustainable.
But history alone can’t save a town, and it’s possible that in the future places like Attica could face a choice similar to what’s currently on the table for some historic structures: improve or be demolished.