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Evansville
Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Goodbye, old friend

 On a drizzling November morning, Evansville bid adieu to its tallest skyscraper and 50 years of memories. Rendered obsolete by changing corporate needs, no one came along to save it, and the 18-story former bank building at 420 Main St. was imploded to make room for new Downtown development. For many, the tower symbolized business deals, glamor, and Evansville’s place among the corporate elite. As we say goodbye, we reflect on what was, and prepare for what’s to come.

Path of Progress
Should you find yourself in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, walk to the intersection of Sixth and Main streets, point yourself west, and glance up. Chances are you’ll draw a quick breath when your eyes meet the 32-story Bank of America Center — “It looks just like 420 Main!”

That’s because it was fashioned from similar blueprints by the same Tulsa-based architects, Jack W. Kelley and Thomas F. Marshall. Completed in 1967, the international-style tower was Kelley and Marshall’s fourth skyscraper and heavily influenced the style and tone of Evansville’s new Old National Bank headquarters.

“420 Main was modernist, which grew out of international style,” says Carl Conner II, an Evansville native who with his father ran the architecture firm Conner & Associates. “In the 1960s, corporate America latched onto international style pretty quick. They traded in buildings representing heritage and tradition for international style, which was more forward looking.”

A key feature in Kelley’s signature design style was private penthouse dining clubs; he was an instrumental player in the establishment of Tulsa’s own Petroleum Club. The tower in Downtown Evansville became the architectural partners’ seventh skyscraper and third-tallest building when it was completed in 1970. In the path of progress — as, coincidentally, 420 Main would someday find itself — was the Hotel Lincoln, next door to the original Old National Bank building, and it was the first to go. After Old National Bank switched buildings in late 1969, its original headquarters was torn down as 420 Main was finished out the following year and more tenants lined up.

“It was one of first good examples of above-ground parking in Evansville,” Conner says. “In a lot of ways, it was a successful building. I think the building in its time was really good for Downtown. It did take us a step forward in architectural style, as a corporate center.”

As for 420 Main’s sibling tower in downtown Tulsa, the Bank of America Center still is thriving. The building houses Oklahoma’s attorney general as well as the executive offices for Bank of America, and the exclusive Summit Club takes up the top three floors. The tower doesn’t show signs of its nearly 55 years in the Tulsa skyline, and it clearly has been maintained over time to retain such prestige in the community. Which begs the uncomfortable thought: Could 420 Main have survived if Old National Bank had stayed put? The answer now, of course, is moot.

More than an Office
Completed in 1970, the Old National Bank building was headquarters for its namesake that occupied about 75 percent from construction until 2004, when the bank moved into its newly built headquarters at 1 Main St. With its record-setting 18 floors, the ONB Tower was cemented into the memories of those who lived and worked around the building — memories of which surfaced with its implosion on Nov. 21, 2021.

“I have tons of memories and associations with the building, so (the implosion) was sad,” says Mike Hinton, former president and chief operating officer of ONB’s holding company Old National Bancorp. “I don’t think I’m overstating it to say (the tower) was the seat of commerce in Evansville.”

Hinton, an Evansville native, first set foot in the tower on Jan. 2, 1980, as a business development officer on the 15th floor. He rose in the ranks, eventually becoming the bank’s president and CEO in 1993, and in 2000 was named chairman and executive vice president of Old National Bancorp on the 11th floor.

He was promoted to marketing director in 1981, relocating with marketing to the seventh floor. In the early 1990s he moved to the sixth floor, reserved for ONB Evansville’s leadership and its famous boardroom, as executive vice president of retail banking.

“The sixth floor was where it all happened,” he says. “The minute you walked through the big double doors (of the boardroom), immediately to the right was a small kitchen well known for having a stash of favorite liquors. Directly ahead of you was this massive table with big leather chairs that sat 24 to 26 people. The entire room was wood paneled.”

Another Evansville native to have his fair share of offices across the ONB tower, John “Stuff” Staser worked in the building from 1971 to 1974 on the 14th floor with the law firm Stone, Keck, and O’Connor (later becoming Jack Stone Law Office and eventually Chapman Injury Lawyers). Returning to ONB Tower with the trust department from 2001 to 2010, he eventually retired from law in 2013 and moved to Seattle, Washington, a few years later.

Staser’s trust department was bounced to the eighth and ninth floors before eventually settling on the 14th floor.

“We had nice offices on the 14th floor,” he says. “People enjoyed coming up there to meet with us.”

Also on the 14th floor for a time was Dr. Wayne Alley’s dental practice. Kathy Schroeder Talley worked there as a dental assistant from 1971 to 1974, later retiring to raise her two daughters, Lisa Schroeder Teague (born in 1980) and Amy Schroeder Whitby (born in 1982). The sisters’ father, John Schroeder, and grandfather, Chester Schroeder, also both worked in the building on the 12th floor for Northwestern Mutual Life.

“When we would come to see him, we would kind of round a corner to a right to get to his office,” says Lisa. “He would be sitting there in his chair, have glasses with one of the sides in his mouth. That was always kind of a constant memory that I have in my head.”

“I remember (my dad) always knew somebody,” she adds. “I always got the feeling that it was a place where everybody kind of knew everybody who worked there for as big of a building as it was.”

In 1987, Purdue University student Dan Grimm came to work at Northwestern as an intern. When he graduated in 1989, he joined full-time as a financial representative and worked closely with John.

Still with the company today, Grimm is one of the few tenants who experienced the building after ONB’s exit. Northwestern remained in the tower until 2006, at which time it took up residence in its current location at 335 Cross Pointe Blvd. on Evansville’s East Side.

“It was different; it seemed not as vibrant,” says Grimm, whose favorite aspect of working at 420 Main had been meeting new people in the elevators and common spaces. “I think the other thing was everybody knew where that building was. And I think back in the day, there was some prestige of being in that office as well.”

Much of the building’s reputation developed from its unique fixtures. The branch on the main floor went against the standards for banks of the time, which were known for ornate columns and historic facades.

“The bank where the tellers were and all that was modern,” says former Evansville Press business editor Mel Runge, who made routine visits to the building for interviews and press conferences. “The other banks around town, their lobbies were pretty ornate.”

Instead of a typical drive-thru banking option, ONB had something most Downtown structures lacked: a parking garage. From the second through the fifth floors, the garage was overseen by parking attendant Terri Reibold.

“It was certainly different for Evansville,” says Staser “It was a nice convenience not to have to go out in the rain and slush when it was either too warm or too cold.”

Julie McCarty, co-owner of Colonial Classics Landscaping and Nursery with her husband JT, remembers paying $30 a month to park in the garage when she started working in the building in 1991. McCarty started on the eighth floor as a corporate trainer for ONB. She was promoted to director of Corporate University and worked on the 10th and 13th floors before moving with ONB to its new headquarters.

“My last office had a beautiful view of the river,” she says. “I’ve never had that kind of view since I left that floor. I worked in that building so long that it felt like home.”

Indeed, the “second home” saw many major life milestones of some of its tenants. All had fond memories of dining at the Petroleum Club or the unnamed sandwich shop with casual café-style seating on the ninth floor.

Hinton met his wife Debbie in the building. She worked in the marketing department while he was on the sixth floor. In 1993, they gave birth to their first and only child, a daughter named Taylor. While home from Indiana University one summer, Lisa Schroeder filled in for her father’s secretary, who was recovering from surgery. Staser and Grimm met many lifelong acquaintances in the elevators and offices they visited every day.

Eventually, 420 Main itself would become a legend of Evansville history, a skyline standout, a towering reminder of the unstoppable passage of time and progress in developing downtowns. But before 2004, it was still a bustling city within itself, which made ONB’s decision to leave — one that fell largely on Hinton’s shoulders — all the more newsworthy.

“I was the person that the board asked to lead the decision as our lease came up,” says Hinton, who lead a taskforce on the matter. “I harbored a personal preference for trying to stay in the building, and we did everything. We made exhausting attempts to try to purchase it.”

Although Old National’s name was plastered along the top edge of the tower, it was actually owned by “an absentee landlord,” according to Hinton. Part of a generation-skipping trust, he says the owners did not want to end up with “capital gain” from selling the building.

“It was kind of crazy to be investing the dollars the bank did into a building they didn’t own,” says Hinton, who left Old National in 2006 and is now the chairman and CEO of Evansville’s Lochmueller Group. “Ultimately, we couldn’t make a deal. It was a long, arduous decision made with full recognition of the feelings and emotions that were attached to the building and its history with the bank.”

Splendor in the Sky
Of all the tenants that occupied Old National Bank’s former headquarters, none became more synonymous with the high-esteemed elegance of Evansville’s tallest building than the Petroleum Club.

Residing on the 17th and 18th floors, the Petroleum Club was chartered in 1948 by wealthy oil men at the height of the oil boom in the Illinois Basin. The men wanted a place that would represent the luxuries they experienced at home in Texas and Oklahoma and function as a spot away from the drudgery and grime of the oilfield.

The basin’s unofficial capitol, Evansville was chosen for the men-only supper club, with the McCurdy Hotel (101 S.E. First St.) serving as its birthplace. As membership grew, the club moved inside the Vendome Hotel, back to the McCurdy, and then the Citizens Bank building before finally settling atop Old National in 1970.

The club had been privately owned until then, but with the move to the new tower, it was acquired by the Club Corporation of America.

The CCA expanded the club’s membership outside of the oil industry to other prominent professionals — lawyers, doctors, CPAs, owners, and company executives. Members included auto dealers Kenny Kent and Joe O’Daniel, Southern Indiana Gas & Electric Co. CEO Norman P. Wagner, and architect Jack R. Kinkel.

The CCA spared no expense when it came to design, and every detail, down to the soap dish in the ladies’ powder room, was carefully selected.

Themed in traditional and conservative patterns, both floors featured high beamed ceilings, rich dark oak paneled walls, spacious rooms, and autumnal colors in the rugs, drapes, and other furnishings. Plush carpeting coated the floors as gleaming brass Flemish chandeliers brightened the club from above.

“We had people from out of town say it was as nice as any club in any major city, and it was a special place,” says retired attorney Alan Shovers, former chairman of the club’s board of directors. “People loved it, and it had a history.”

A spacious area for dining and dancing, a comfortable cocktail lounge, and a reception room all were located on the 18th floor. The 17th floor contained a card room, bar, and grill. Livening the mood was live music under the direction of band leader Phillip “Red” Wick.

Old English antiques — Victorian reproductions of the Tudor period — decorated the club’s luxurious 14,000 square-foot interior, including a stained-glass window taken from an English estate house displayed above the stairwell in the reception room. Members often described it as “walking into an old English castle,” according to a 1970 Evansville Courier article.

An 1893 original lithograph by French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec depicting cabaret singer Aristide Bruant in a dramatic silhouette with a wide hat, black velvet jacket, and red scarf hung above the bar. Purchased by Club members for $700 in 1959, the lithograph had been used in several films, including 1950’s “All About Eve” starring Bette Davis. Shovers says the lithograph’s current whereabouts are unknown.

Serving a mixture of French continental, classical European, and traditional Midwest cuisine, members and employees alike cherished the club’s upscale atmosphere and gourmet meals, whether buffet style for lunch or evening table service.

“We had a very diverse menu,” says Ed Ellis, the Petroleum Club’s executive chef from 1988 to 1993. “We had a seafood cart that we presented to our members when they dined in the evening, and it had just about everything on it: shrimp, pickled herring, smoked salmon, fresh shucked oysters, and a variety of caviar. At one time, the Petroleum Club served more caviar than anywhere else in the Midwest.”

Dishes were made in-house from scratch, including the popular puff pastries and Danishes prepared each day by the club’s baker. Even the bread loaves that encased sandwiches were baked fresh daily.

The club’s fine dining service and attention to detail was largely overseen by its most memorable employee, maitre d’ Tommie Wilson, who led front-of-house operations for 36 years. Wilson passed away at age 73 in 2012.

“He was service with a smile,” says Charles Evans, a longtime employee of the club and former assistant maître d’. “He had a server’s heart, and you had to have one to be in the type of work we were in. He just loved people, and he loved to talk, and he loved to show off.”

By 1981, the Petroleum Club finally allowed women in its membership ranks. With the best view in Evansville, many people clamored to gain entry — including celebrities and politicians visiting the Tri-State — but entry was only granted to members and guests of members.

The Petroleum Club endured for another three and a half decades after moving into the tower at Fifth and Main streets, including a peak year in 1990, when it was named Club of the Year by the CCA. Ellis was also named Executive Chef of the Year.

But by the earlys 2000s, the club began experiencing hardships. Business lunches and dinners were going out of fashion, and club became too formal and expensive for the average person, with an initiation of $300 and yearly dues of $240. The club had also returned to private ownership, with a board of directors taking over from the CCA in its final 10 years.

In 2001, a fire destroyed an entire wall of the 18th floor that brought questions about the club’s fire safety. The final ax fell in 2004, when Old National Bank relocated its headquarters to its current riverfront building.

“We lost our largest customer, and we couldn’t make it,” Shovers says.

The Petroleum Club officially folded in 2006, bringing an end to more than a half-century of lavish dining and the best birds-eye view of the city.

“I thought, this is where I’m going to finish out my life. I’m going to be just like Tommie,” says Evans, who by that time was the club’s assistant manager. “Then all of a sudden, they came up one day and said, ‘Oh by the way, we’re closing our doors.’”

On The Way Out
After Old National Bank moved into its current headquarters and the Petroleum Club closed its doors, 420 Main sat mostly vacant. Several renovation ideas were floated to rejuvenate the building, the most recent by Carmel, Indiana-based Domo Development, which bought the site in 2019. A post-purchase assessment determined the cost to renovate the tower would exceed any revenue it would bring it, and the decision was made to topple 420 Main and the adjacent Sycamore Building. General contractor Barton Malow of Nashville, Tennessee; Indianapolis-based demolition contractor Renascent, Inc.; and Maryland-based explosives expert Controlled Demolition Inc. worked with Evansville city and public safety officials to craft a plan to implode the 18-story tower, which occurred under a quiet morning rain on Nov. 21, 2021.

A small crowd of contractors and their families, city officials, Evansville Police officers, and news media camped out at CDI’s command center at the corner of Locust and N.W. Fifth streets just before 7 a.m. With all pedestrians cleared from the detonation area and the weather agreeable enough, the green light was given. For a moment, as the demolition crew reached the end of its implosion countdown, it looked like something may have gone wrong. The voices counting down had reached “one,” and nothing happened. Silence hung heavily in the damp air, and notably, 420 Main still stood. But as quickly as the idea of a mishap appeared, it was chased away by 10 bangs of strategically laid explosives. Each rolled down the 18-story tower and elicited a sharp crack of sound. As the first wave ended, the site again descended into quiet, but those watching from around the command center knew this pause wouldn’t last.

As a second wave of explosions began, a deep rumbling that resonated in your bones accompanied it and shook everything within reach. 374 pounds of explosives began caving in the structure in a cascade of strategic spots — first the parking garage, then the north end — and gravity and inertia did the rest. At exactly 7 a.m., the entire building was on the ground in a plume of dust, and the bells atop the adjacent Old Vanderburgh County Courthouse chimed a well-timed death knell. 420 Main was gone, its grandeur lost in a heap of twisted rubble and dust wafting skyward and camouflaging the city’s new skyline.

A New Chapter
What comes next? Smaller, mixed-use buildings and a park to add more office, residential, and retail space to Downtown Evansville. An adjacent park named CenterPoint Energy Square, after a $1 million donation from the utility, will include a mix of recreation (a stage for music) and commerce (space for the Downtown Farmers Market).

“Connection is so important, and physically this space will connect our NoCo District and Haynie’s Corner, the Ford Center and the Riverfront. Thousands of people are going to pass this park on a daily basis,” Candace Chapman, Downtown Evansville Development Corp. executive director, told the Courier & Press in May 2021. “Relationally, public space brings us in proximity to people who may not live like us, look like us … those connections are going to grow right here.”

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