COOK: Restoring buildings revitalizes communities

William A. Cook
April 24, 2010
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viewpoint-william-cookAs I stood on the stage in the wonderful old Central Avenue Methodist Church (Old Centrum) in Indianapolis’ Old Northside historic district last week, announcing the support my family is giving to assist in restoring and converting it to the Indiana Landmarks Center, I was fully prepared for the inevitable question: Why?

My wife, Gayle, and son Carl and I have been asked this question more than a few times about our historic renovation projects. And while our objectives may vary from place to place, the big-picture reason is the same each time: Restoring historic structures helps communities.

I got involved in restoration projects more than 30 years ago when a serious cardiac illness sidelined me from my medical-device business. When it looked as though I might never be able to work in an office again, Gayle and I thought renovating historic buildings would be a good idea. It would allow us to contribute to society and make money.

Fortunately, in time my health improved and I was able to return to my executive role. But we stuck with preservation, even as we grew our medical-device business.

Why? Because we love historic buildings’ character, history and beauty, but also because we’ve seen the impact preservation projects can have on people’s lives. We’ve witnessed it in Bloomington, where revitalizing historic buildings around the courthouse square helped transform a faded downtown into a popular commercial and retail center. We’ve seen it in French Lick and West Baden, once-struggling communities now thriving as travel destinations.

In these and other places, there’s a snowball effect that follows a restoration project: One restored building leads to others, and, pretty soon, you have a thriving area where there was once lack of investment and neglect.

In other words, saving landmarks that reconnect us to heritage also spurs economic development and community revitalization. That’s why such luminaries of Indiana business as Eli Lilly, Herman Krannert and James Hoover founded Indiana Landmarks (formerly Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana) 50 years ago. Not simply because they liked vintage places, but because they saw the economic and community value in historic buildings.

Admittedly, when you’re looking at a tired old building, the opportunities it presents are not always obvious. For example, when the West Baden Springs Hotel was collapsing, experts suggested Indiana Landmarks “call it a ruin and let people crawl on it.” Fortunately for the people of Orange County and all Hoosiers, Indiana Landmarks didn’t listen to that advice.

Indianapolis has a long history of applying similar vision to the revitalization of residential and commercial historic districts, starting with Lockerbie Square back in the 1970s. Now, look around the city—at the Wholesale District, Massachusetts Avenue, Fountain Square and other areas where the restoration of historic structures led to revitalized commercial districts—and the value of historic preservation seems clear.

Look at Chatham Arch, Fletcher Place, Woodruff Place and the many other highly regarded Indianapolis neighborhoods that found new vitality after receiving a historic designation and, once again, the impact of preservation is undeniable.

Which leads me back to the question I hear so often: Why? Simply put, we believe in the community-wide impact of historic preservation. It’s not just about old buildings, and it’s not simply about preserving the past. It’s about building for the future and benefiting entire communities.•


Cook is founder and CEO of Cook Group Inc. in Bloomington.


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  1. to mention the rest of Molly's experience- she served as Communications Director for the Indianapolis Department of Public Works and also did communications for the state. She's incredibly qualified for this role and has a real love for Indianapolis and Indiana. Best of luck to her!

  2. Shall we not demand the same scrutiny for law schools, med schools, heaven forbid, business schools, etc.? How many law school grads are servers? How many business start ups fail and how many business grads get low paying jobs because there are so few high paying positions available? Why does our legislature continue to demean public schools and give taxpayer dollars to charters and private schools, ($171 million last year), rather than investing in our community schools? We are on a course of disaster regarding our public school attitudes unless we change our thinking in a short time.

  3. I agree with the other reader's comment about the chunky tomato soup. I found myself wanting a breadstick to dip into it. It tasted more like a marinara sauce; I couldn't eat it as a soup. In general, I liked the place... but doubt that I'll frequent it once the novelty wears off.

  4. The Indiana toll road used to have some of the cleanest bathrooms you could find on the road. After the lease they went downhill quickly. While not the grossest you'll see, they hover a bit below average. Am not sure if this is indicative of the entire deal or merely a portion of it. But the goals of anyone taking over the lease will always be at odds. The fewer repairs they make, the more money they earn since they have a virtual monopoly on travel from Cleveland to Chicago. So they only comply to satisfy the rules. It's hard to hand public works over to private enterprise. The incentives are misaligned. In true competition, you'd have multiple roads, each build by different companies motivated to make theirs more attractive. Working to attract customers is very different than working to maximize profit on people who have no choice but to choose your road. Of course, we all know two roads would be even more ridiculous.

  5. The State is in a perfect position. The consortium overpaid for leasing the toll road. Good for the State. The money they paid is being used across the State to upgrade roads and bridges and employ people at at time most of the country is scrambling to fund basic repairs. Good for the State. Indiana taxpayers are no longer subsidizing the toll roads to the tune of millions a year as we had for the last 20 years because the legislature did not have the guts to raise tolls. Good for the State. If the consortium fails, they either find another operator, acceptable to the State, to buy them out or the road gets turned back over to the State and we keep the Billions. Good for the State. Pat Bauer is no longer the Majority or Minority Leader of the House. Good for the State. Anyway you look at this, the State received billions of dollars for an assett the taxpayers were subsidizing, the State does not have to pay to maintain the road for 70 years. I am having trouble seeing the downside.