November 15, 2018
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Withering Heights

Plagued by demolition, neglect, and accelerating decline, the Washington Avenue Historic District is in jeopardy of losing the landmarks of our past
Indiana Landmarks staff member Stewart Sebree is spearheading the effort to save this historic home at 620 Washington Ave.

Kerry Postlewaite measures progress in his neighborhood in small but significant changes. Last year the decision by his next-door neighbor to invest in a new roof made Postlewaite “a very happy man.” The new roof stands out, given that several homes surrounding his have roofs with gaping holes, tumbling chimneys, rotting porches, or broken windows.

But Postlewaite stands outside the door of his home on Washington Avenue and is optimistic. Two dilapidated homes south of his were torn down last year by the city, ridding his block of a notorious crack house as a result. “The neighborhood still has a long way to go,’’ says Postlewaite, a 30-year-old carpenter. “But I see progress. I used to be approached by hookers every other day. It’s been four or five months since that’s happened.”

The evidence of progress isn’t just the fact that the nearby vacant grocery store has been bought by Downtown entrepreneur Tim Mills with plans to transform it into a high-end catering center. Nor is it the fact that two homes on his block have been transformed from multi-unit apartment houses into duplexes for middle-income residents, a move mirrored throughout the neighborhood. And, it’s not even the news that the city has declared a portion of Postlewaite’s neighborhood a “redevelopment zone” as a first major step into turning it into an artists’ colony.

For Postlewaite, who bought his house a few years ago after the city’s building inspector condemned it, the best evidence of progress may be just a block away on Second Street, along the southern border of the Washington Avenue Historic District. It’s the home of Mike Martin, who bought the near-collapsing century-old structure in 1991 for $11,000. Martin spent years restoring the house in his off-work hours, investing money and sweat-equity gutting and then rebuilding the structure, which needed, among other things, 5,000 bricks and 57 floor joists replaced. In early April, when Martin invested in another neighborhood property, he had his home appraised before putting it on the market. The listing price? $324,900.

The figure bolsters Postlewaite’s optimism and pleases Martin, who remembers a discouraging moment early in the renovation, when he tumbled from second-story scaffolding after he was stung 22 times by hornets nesting in a rotting window frame. “It takes somebody with a lot of energy to take on one of these houses,” says Martin. “But it also takes somebody with some vision. Somebody who can walk into one of these houses and imagine the grandeur that was once there.”

It will take more than energy and  vision to save the Washington Avenue Historic District, city officials say. Earlier this year, the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana named the district to its annual “10 Most Endangered” list of significant Hoosier landmarks in jeopardy—marking it on the verge of extinction—and vows to keep it there until it’s saved or deteriorates beyond hope. Foundation officials say the neighborhood was chosen among hundreds of threatened landmarks in Indiana because it is plagued by demolition, neglect, and accelerating decline.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the list calls renewed attention to what was once one of the city’s most prosperous neighborhoods. Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel lobbied to put the neighborhood on the list, hoping it would serve as a call for community action to save a defining chapter in Evansville’s history.

The district, bounded roughly by Madison and Grand Avenues and East Gum and Parrett Streets, sprang up in the late 19th century, during an economic boom here when the population went from 29,200 in 1880 to more than 59,000 by 1900. The growth, according to an 1889 history book, marked the transformation of Evansville “from a humble hamlet of (founder) Hugh McGary into one of the leading manufacturing cities in the United States.”  (Continued on Page 2)

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