Split Personality

Like a scene from “Portlandia,” Audubon Apartment dwellers Jessica and Vincent Pinnick embody the urban attitude of the popular sketch comedy set in quirky Portland, Ore. In fact, the couple’s television was tuned to the Peabody-award winning IFC show when I arrived to talk with them about their choice to live in Downtown Evansville, in one of the city’s most recently renovated historic apartment buildings.

The Pinnicks, both 35, have lived at the Audubon for a year and a half with their three cats. Vincent is an environmental engineer and Jessica is an interior designer. Hoping to sell their prior home in Louisville, Ky., they currently enjoy third floor balcony views of the Ohio River. “We love it here so much that we are not planning to buy a house,” says Jessica. “This is perfect for us. We love the arts and the crafts/nouveau style.”

Like many of the Audubon’s residents, the Pinnicks frequent neighborhood establishments like the Penny Lane Coffeehouse, Bokeh Lounge, and River City Food Co-op. Several Audubon residents have vegan diets and live green with mopeds and bicycles, and if you hear music overflowing from a balcony, it is more than likely jazz or someone playing their piano or guitar. The Pinnicks laughed with me about the similarities between the characters on “Portlandia” and Audubon dwellers.

I moved to Evansville last year with what we could fit in the back of a two-seated sports car. The lure of a job in a tough market for my partner Richard Sellers brought us here on a shoestring and short notice. We left our five-bedroom home in Florida and jumped into a more simple way of life at the Audubon Apartments on Southeast Riverside Drive in the Haynie’s Corner Arts District.

We knew we wanted to live in Downtown Evansville after viewing it on Google Earth, cruising up and down the streets via laptop and appreciating the beautiful historic homes. As soon as we spotted the Audubon building, we had to live there, and subsequently contacted Mike Martin — the owner of Architectural Renovators who renovated the property — to sign a pre-lease.

We loved the basement lofts with the scored and stained concrete floors, and the old pumpkin brick walls had a great patina of old paint patches. The accents of stainless steel light fixtures as well as stainless kitchen appliances, granite counter tops, and stylish cabinetry appealed to our eclectic tastes.

The Audubon first caught Martin’s eye when he was 20 years old and working on his first restoration project on Sixth Street. He occasionally used the payphone on the corner of Southeast Second Street with much trepidation. The Audubon, built nearly 100 years ago, was then abandoned and heavily deteriorated when Martin was called in to re-roof the building. 

Over the years, the leaking roof had caused plaster to peel from the walls and ceilings. There had been a fire in the 1990s. The basement was filled with rubbish, and trees occupied much of the space. There also was a structure next door that had to be demolished — a space that now serves as a courtyard and gated parking for the apartments.

Despite the condition, Martin was compelled to purchase the building with its majestic stone entry and Brazilian brick and terra-cotta stained mortar. He was able to salvage many of the original architectural features such as some hardwood floors and moldings. The 140 brass doorknobs and plates had years of accumulated paint removed and were then polished. Doors were stripped to the original wood, and the staircases were restored. Spare space in the basement became an equipped exercise room and rentable storage closets.

Each of the 13 apartments is unique because the building is not square, but angled. They range from one-room lofts with about 500 square feet to three-bedroom, 1,100-square-foot luxury apartments, and all largely are occupied by professionals just like the original tenant list. “When it was originally built in 1914, it was billed as the Honeymoon House because many of the first residents were newlyweds,” says Dennis Au, Evansville’s historic preservation officer. The original dwellers were lawyers, doctors, businessmen, teachers, bankers, and a librarian.

George C. Smith, founder of Evansville-based Smith and Butterfield Stationary Co. who built the mansion-like apartments, was father-in-law to former famous resident Albion Fellows Bacon, says Au.

According to a story in the Evansville Journal on Feb. 1, 1914, the Audubon replaced a large home “in one of the most exclusive residential areas of the city.” The article also says the apartments were arranged to have the privacy of a detached house and the advantages of an apartment.

Residents Mark and Amanda Thompson observe they never see the other residents. Newlyweds themselves, Mark, director of operations for Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp., says, “The building is unique with its historic characteristics, if that is what you are seeking.” Amanda, an ICU nurse at Deaconess Hospital, adds that it’s not necessarily something that would appeal to their friends as a lifestyle, although it is “perfect for us.”

Influential residents have historically spawned inspiration while living at the Audubon at 832 Riverside Drive. Albion Fellows Bacon, a poet, writer, and social worker, is best known for her efforts in major slum clearance projects along the riverfront. She was appointed by former President Herbert C. Hoover to the Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership.

Brenda Coultas, also a former resident, is now an award-winning Midwestern poet who has written several celebrated works, including The Marvelous Bones of Time: Excavations and Explanations and A Handmade Museum. She currently resides in New York City.

Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke’s wife, Carol McClintock, lived at Audubon 25 years ago in one of the largest apartments, which now is a dwelling for semi-retired empty nesters who downsized from their 3,500-square-foot home. Married 42 years, the couple decorated the space with pieces from their former house.

The basement of the building was made into single-person sleeping rooms in 1945 to accommodate the men working at the Evansville Shipyard, which was located along the riverfront and produced naval ships during World War II. Martin did not originally intend to put apartments in the basement, which was a washroom, clothes drying room, and boiler room. (When I signed my lease, the hooks were still in the wall where the cords must have hung for drying clothes.) 

In total, Martin spent more than $800,000 to restore the Audubon to its former glory. By his painstaking efforts and risks, he has helped to define a lifestyle in Evansville that was underrepresented. As he moves forward on his current project, the renovation of the Euclid Apartments on Third Street, the re-urbanization of Evansville will take yet another progressive step toward defining a turn in social profiling in a previously blighted area of crime and decay.

Many are finding the Audubon’s location, history, and connection with the past to be a comfortable fit. As one tenant says, “I am not a things person; I am an experience person. You cannot buy things for peace and stillness; it is inside you.” Residents are finding that life at the Audubon is an experience.

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