Howard C. Peterson, an enterprising bricklayer who went on to build a prolific development company that transformed Indianapolis' north side with massive office complexes, died Friday after a long illness. He was 84.
Peterson’s entrepreneurial life began with selling asparagus and apples from his family’s farm in Janesville, Wisconsin. After high school, he rode his Harley-Davidson to Indianapolis to check out the Indianapolis 500.
Racing may have attracted him, but steady work building basements in a new subdivision persuaded Peterson to stick around. He had learned to build basements and farm buildings while working with a firm that made concrete blocks during high school.
Peterson parlayed the first few projects into his own residential construction company, which morphed into a commercial land developer and builder.
Peterson was a pioneer in Castleton from the late 1960s through the 1970s—helping turn the undeveloped area into a commercial powerhouse.
He was always learning, working long hours, and reinvesting proceeds back into the business, friends and former associates say. Peterson remained humble even as his efforts made him a millionaire many times over.
“What a great guy and I will always remember that same old jacket and yellow pick up truck he would drive,” friend Mike Baker wrote in an online guest book with Peterson’s obituary. “Always friendly, always ready to assist in anything we needed.”
In an interview with IBJ in 1980, Peterson said the key to his success at his Castleton Commercial Park was a “tight-knit organization of do-it-yourselfers.”
“During the winter you can come in here at 7:30 a.m. and see the blacktop after a snowstorm,” he said. “And that’s because me and my boy and a couple of others are up all night plowing it. People notice that kind of stuff.”
In 1984, Peterson sold the park—which by then featured 45 buildings spread over 128 acres—to a real estate investment trust for $73 million.
He plowed the proceeds into an even larger project—the 187-acre Precedent office park east of Keystone Avenue between 96th Street and Interstate 465. The 19-building complex is the Indianapolis market’s second largest by square footage. The family sold the development in 1998 for an estimated $95 million.
After Peterson retired from the business in 1985 to pursue hobbies including breeding and training racehorses and deep-sea fishing, the family company known as The Precedent Cos. expanded to develop land for residential subdivisions and industrial parks. The company wound down its residential operations and some ancillary businesses in 2011 amid the housing downturn to refocus on construction and property management.
The family business—now known as The Peterson Co.—is led by Peterson’s son Tim. Another son, Bart, is a former two-term mayor of Indianapolis.
“Here’s this guy who had this larger-than-life reputation but was this very human person,” said Mike O’Connor, who kept an office at the Precedent just around the corner from Peterson while he ran his son’s campaign for mayor in 1999. “He wanted to know all about me. He asked more questions about me than he told me about himself. He was this incredible storyteller.”
Family meant everything to Peterson, and he wanted to be sure the campaign was well-run, but he left political strategy to the experts, said O’Connor, who noted a favorite quote of Peterson’s was to “never steal more chain than you can swim away with.”
“He knew what he didn’t know,” O’Connor said. “Howard lived a wonderful life.”
Peterson also is survived by his wife, Dolores Mable Peterson, children Cheryl Stitt, Celeste Stiller and Sandra Faust-Mesropian, 16 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Peterson and his wife gave individually and through a family foundation to several organizations that support disadvantaged youth, seminary students and health care facilities, according to a family-produced obituary. Among recurring gifts is a college scholarship to a graduate of Janesville and Craig high schools in Wisconsin who is pursing a career in construction management.
A calling is scheduled for 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 4, at Flanner and Buchanan in Carmel, with funeral services at 11 a.m. Friday at Advent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zionsville.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Gennesaret Free Clinics, 615 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis; or Foundation for Lutheran Child and Family Services, 1525 N. Ritter Ave., Indianapolis.