Contractors work to resurrect historic church: Buggs Temple being rebuilt from inside out into entertainment venue

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When a team of developers took on the renovation of downtown’s Buggs Temple in fall 2003, most windows in the historic church were missing, the roof was riddled with holes, and much of the sanctuary floor was in the basement.

Almost two years later, it’s difficult to gauge the progress of the project by sight. The floor is entirely gone, as are the balcony, the doors and the few windows that remained.

In that time, however, the building on West 11th Street at the head of the Central Canal has been entirely stripped of brick and reclad using the original and some replacements. The structure of the 1918 church has also been re-engineered and redesigned from the inside out to accommodate the restaurants, retail and public spaces planned for the building.

Originally expected to be completed by this summer at a cost of about $1.7 million-an amount developers concede was overly optimistic-Buggs Temple now is slated to open next spring at a cost closer to $3 million.

It’s planned as the northern anchor of the White River Park and Canal Cultural District. When it opens, Buggs Temple will house a Ritter’s Frozen Custard, a coffee shop, public restrooms and two dining rooms, each with its own kitchen.

Ritter’s, restaurateur Chuck Mack and Meridian Asset Development are teaming up on the redevelopment of Buggs. The locally based development team submitted the winning proposal for the property to the city in 2003, which agreed to transfer ownership of the church building to the developers for a nominal fee.

In exchange, the developers got a crumbling building that had been vacant for most of the last 20 years in a great location.

From its vantage point at the head of the Canal, Buggs overlooks much of the 1-1/2-mile waterway and the skyline of downtown Indianapolis.

“Our front yard includes the Admiral Spruance Basin, the amphitheater, a waterfall and a grassy slope on the east side,” said Mack, owner of north-side bar and restaurant Moe & Johnny’s. Mack said he immediately recognized the potential of the building and site when he first visited it nearly four years ago.

‘Horrible’ brick work

To help realize that potential, developers tapped locally based Halstead Architects.

Halstead has made urban projects its specialty. Several of them, such as the restoration of a west-side Carnegie library for the Hawthorne Community Center, have been adaptive reuse projects in historic buildings. So it was no surprise to principal Mike Halstead that Buggs needed extensive work.

“Basically, we had to remove the entire interior structure while leaving the building itself,” Halstead said.

The first step, now mostly complete, was to repair the crumbling masonry on the exterior of the building. Working with local firms John Oberlies Consulting Engineers and Campbell Engineering for structural work, Halstead determined it would be less expensive to remove all the brick and re-anchor it to the wood framing underneath rather than repair it in place.

“The masonry was horrible,” Halstead said. “There were not enough anchors [to the wood], and those that were there were put in place with tapered nails, which is not a secure method to anchor anything to wood.

“The brick in some places was laid so out of plumb, to keep the back of the brick from hitting the front of the sheathing, they actually chipped off the back of the brick.”

In contrast to the masonry, the wood IBJ File Photo/Jeff Newman framing of the church was “some of the best carpentry I’ve seen in years,” Halstead said.

That contradiction wasn’t the only one Halstead observed as Buggs Temple began revealing its history. The roof is shingled, which is unusual for a building completed in 1918, he said. Normally, a church or other large building built in that period would have been roofed with slate or another permanent material. Some of the lentils over doorways, which normally would have been made of steel or stone, were wooden.

And while the limestone over the main entrance is finished limestone, other limestone trim is rough-cut and unfinished.

Halstead surmises that, as the building of the church progressed, the congregation began running short of funds and started cutting corners on construction. The church, then occupied by an African Methodist Episcopal congregation, replaced an earlier limestone structure that was destroyed by a fire. The congregation may not have had insurance or may have had to begin relying on volunteer labor, Halstead theorized.

Whatever the circumstances, the quality framing job likely kept Buggs Temple, renamed by a Disciples of Christ congregation in the 1950s, from sinking into total deterioration after it was abandoned almost two decades ago, Halstead said.

Moving inside

Now that the masonry is largely taken care of, workers will begin work on the windows and roof so interior work can begin over the winter. That work will first include hauling out and replacing the basement floor-poured too thin to support the plumbing and public uses Buggs’ next life will require-and replacing beams for the first and second floors.

The challenge will be to secure the building from the weather while leaving large-enough entrance points for the structural steel and concrete, Halstead said.

When it’s finished, one of the focal points of Buggs will be the original arched steel beams in the church’s roof, uncovered during demolition work, Mack said. Coupled with high windows on the church’s north and south ends, “it will be a pretty dramatic environment,” he predicted.

To add to the ambiance, Mack said, he’s been picking up church items from sales around the Midwest for several months. Those features-such as pulpits, stained glass, a confessional booth and pews-will be integrated into the Buggs décor.

The building’s first floor will include a coffee shop, a Ritter’s Frozen Custard with interior seating and a walk-up window from the outside, and a casual-dining restaurant with an exhibition kitchen, Mack said. The second floor will be a more upscale, dinner-only restaurant. Between both floors, there will be seating for about 275 people, Mack said.

About 6,000 square feet of upper- and lower-level decks will provide views of the city and more than 100 additional seats during warmer weather. Public restrooms-an amenity required by the city in its project agreement with Buggs’ developers-and kitchen storage will be in the basement.

Changing area

Construction delays have put the renovation behind schedule, but fortunately the restaurants’ newest anticipated opening will roughly coincide with the influx of hundreds of new workers to the area. Both Clarian Health Partners’ consolidated laboratory building, which is just across 11th Street from Buggs, and Indiana University’s Medical Research Building to the west are slated to open in the first half of 2006.

In addition to catering to workers at those buildings, IU’s Emerging Technologies Center and the Stutz Building, Buggs will add retail amenities to the north end of the Central Canal. A lack of restrooms and a place to buy food and drink have been one of the chief complaints about the north end of the Central Canal, city officials have said.

Mack’s involvement with Buggs Temple has also spawned a new business, Buggs Events LLC, which early this year won a contract with the city to coordinate vending and entertainment along the Central Canal. Buggs Events schedules and coordinates outside vendors such as ice cream and hot dog carts to cater to Canal visitors.

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