Illinois Building in danger?: Preservationists fear for landmark’s future; owner mum on its fate

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After sitting vacant for at least three years, the Illinois Building at the southeast corner of Market and Illinois streets is gaining attention as one historic preservation group tries to forestall any plans that might include tearing it down.

The Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana added the building to its “10 Most Endangered” landmarks list earlier this year. The group said it’s ringing the alarm bells due in part to what Landmarks employees are hearing.

“We have heard from a very good source … that there was a likelihood that the building could come down for a redevelopment project on the site,” said Central Region Office Director Mark Dollase. “Add to that the fact that it’s currently vacant and it’s cause for concern.”

Tiffany Gerber, a spokeswoman for HDG Mansur, confirmed that the company owns the building, but she declined to comment on plans for it.

Built in 1925, the building is one of several on and near Monument Circle designed by Rubush and Hunter, one of the city’s top architectural firms in the early 20th century. Other prominent Rubush and Hunter buildings include the Columbia Club and the Circle Tower.

The Illinois Building most recently housed a food court on the ground floor. The upper floors contain almost 100,000 square feet of Class B office space. The food court closed and the last of the office tenants were asked to leave by the end of 2002. Since then, nothing’s happened with the prime downtown location.

The building is not part of any city-designated historic district, nor is it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dollase said he’s spoken with an attorney for HGD Mansur who wouldn’t say whether tearing the building down is in their plans.

Instead of demolition, Dollase said, he hopes the owners look across Illinois Street to the redevelopment of the historic Block’s Building. That structure has apartments with retail on the ground floor, instead of trying to compete in downtown’s crowded, new-construction residential market.

“So much of downtown Indianapolis is newer construction; each and every one of our historic buildings becomes valuable,” he said.

Jeff Henry, managing partner of the local office of St. Louis-based real estate firm Colliers Turley Martin Tucker, said the building could do well by getting back into the office space market.

“If you got a big enough tenant, you could go the office route,” Henry said. “They would need someone who would take 50 [percent] to 75 percent of the space in order for the owners to go back and retrofit the building.”

Nick Arterburn, first vice president of the local office of Los Angeles-based CB Richard Ellis, agreed and said its location could position it well to woo a state agency to occupy it. Arterburn said the building may have sat idle for a while mostly because, once the owners decide which direction to go, they’re likely facing tenant commitments of five to 10 years.

Arterburn said he could envision a combination of uses for the space-retail on the first floor, offices and then residential at the top-but that path might mean expensive changes to the interior. He said he didn’t think any plan would include demolition.

“Tearing it down and starting from scratch would be very costly,” he said.

The strength of the downtown-living trend has fueled speculation that the existing structure could be converted into condos or torn down for new residential construction.

Mary Jo Showley, a real estate agent with Carpenter, said the buyer profile for downtown residential has changed dramatically in the past three years.

“Previously, it was someone who strayed away from the cookie cutter, and that’s not true anymore,” she said. “Now, it’s people coming from the subdivisions who are used to uniform floor plans, but there is still the element that likes a one-of-a-kind property.”

She said the market for the newer buyer interested in uniform offerings is getting a bit saturated, but the demand for historic and unique residences remains strong. She said the exterior of the Illinois Building is “handsome,” but that parking might be an issue if it’s converted to residential.

Dollase said his organization hopes to convince the owner that the existing structure should stay. He’s not ready to disclose the group’s full plan of action to protect the building, but he said one avenue they’re pursuing is asking the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission to include it in a discussed Washington Street historic district.

But the local commission hasn’t yet tackled establishing that district. Administrator David Baker said creating the Washington Street district is one of several things members could consider “after we get through commitments we’re in right now.”

Baker said the boundaries for a potential district haven’t been set, but the area could encompass Washington Street from roughly the City-County building west to the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

“Then it might pop north and south off of Washington Street,” Baker said.

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