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Friday, June 14, 2024

Withering Heights

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)[pagebreak]

When the neighborhood was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, local preservationists cited the district’s “important collection of late-Victorian frame houses” – grand styles, from Gothic Revival to French Second Empire, designed by the city’s leading architects for some of its leading citizens. Among those who built stately homes on Washington Avenue were Max deJong, an importer and fine clothing retailer; Antonio Sierra, superintendent of the Fendrich Cigar Company; and William Akin Jr., a well-to-do meatpacker who later became mayor of Evansville.

The neighborhood is adjacent to the Riverside Historic District, filled with the well-restored former estates of the titans of Evansville’s 19th century industries. But as preservationists have noted, the Washington Avenue Historic District is a world away from the Riverside neighborhood in terms of recognition and protection. The Washington Avenue district – where 23 percent of the houses have been demolished in the last quarter-century – never attracted the investment that Riverside did. Local and state preservation experts fear the demolition of structures in the Washington Avenue district along with the accelerating decline of what remains could jeopardize the area’s status on the National Register of Historic Places.

Evansville Historic Preservation Officer Dennis Au thinks that’s a crime. “In its heyday, Washington Avenue was a grand residential corridor. It was a gateway into our city,” he says. “We need to get people to recognize that it was once part of the core of our city. And you know what happens when the core of a city goes bad? The whole city rots from the inside out.”

Just what happened to the Washington Avenue neighborhood? A multitude of things, Au says, beginning with World War II. In the 1940s, the city’s population exploded when it became a wartime manufacturing center. In 1942, an additional 15,000 workers alone were needed just to build the Landing Ship Tanks in the city’s new shipyard. Patriotic homeowners along Washington Avenue rented rooms to wartime workers. “There was such a demand for housing that some workers were renting rooms by the shift,” Au says. “One worker would rent the room to sleep at night; a worker on the night shift would rent the same room to sleep in during the day.” After the war, new housing sprang up around the outskirts of the city, fueled by low-interest mortgages and a surge in automobiles and cheap gas that made Evansville’s streetcar lines, including the one that ran down Washington Avenue, obsolete.

Prosperous homeowners in the Washington Avenue neighborhood moved out, leaving behind houses that continued to be divided into apartments. The housing stock, predominantly wood frame, didn’t weather with age as well as the brick and masonry homes in the Riverside neighborhood. As the houses deteriorated, so did the perception of the neighborhood.

There have been efforts to stop the decline. In the late 1970s, the city promoted a concept known as re-gentrification to lure affluent homebuyers back. In a controversial move in 1978, the city bought a house in the 200 block of Washington Avenue and spent more than $310,000 in community development funds to renovate it. The intent was to showcase the house as evidence of the city’s commitment to the neighborhood. But the effort backfired; the costs, once published in the newspaper, ignited an uproar of criticism from those who thought the money would have been better spent assisting low-income homeowners already in the neighborhood.

The neighborhood continued to deteriorate despite efforts of individual homeowners and neighborhood associations who, among other things, lobbied the city to crack down on absentee landlords. In 1999, the Preservation Alliance of Evansville named the Washington Avenue Historic District to its “10 Most Endangered List.” In 2002, it became the focus of the local Historic Preservation Week events. The attention again triggered efforts to save the neighborhood. Among them was the creation by Weinzapfel of the city’s Front Door Pride program, which provides matching grants up to $5,000 to property owners in older neighborhoods for exterior renovations.  (Continued on Page 3)[pagebreak]

The Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana also teamed with the city to purchase an abandoned house in the 400 block of Washington Avenue through an innovative partnership that has worked well in other cities. Contractors were hired to repair the home’s exterior from the foundation up to give it “protective coverage” and then painted the exterior in historically accurate colors to give it curb appeal. It worked. Last year, the Foundation sold the house, recovering its money, and then re-invested it in another home in the neighborhood at 620 Washington Ave.

“This is more about community revitalization than historic preservation,’’ says Foundation staff member Stewart Sebree. “It’s about making an investment that will lure homebuyers who may have been reluctant before to move into the neighborhood.” Will it work? Not on its own, both Sebree and Weinzapfel say.

“What’s happened to the Washington Avenue Historic District was decades in the making,” Weinzapfel says. “We can’t buy up every home in the neighborhood. It’s going to take people who are willing to invest in the neighborhood again. We’ll be there to help, but we need partners in this project.”

Historic Landmarks Foundation Vice President Mark Dollase says it takes intentional effort and significant sums of public and private money to salvage a decaying neighborhood. A success he points to is the Fall Creek neighborhood in Indianapolis. Once known as “Dodge City,” the 26-block inner-city neighborhood was known for its high crime rate and boarded-up properties. With a $4 million federal grant and $15 million in city money for major infrastructure improvements, the project leaders lured builders and developers into the area with incentives to renovate old homes and build new homes that closely mirrored the architectural details of existing houses. The city worked with banks to create special financing packages for homebuyers in an effort to make Fall Creek a mixed-income neighborhood with homes selling from $94,000 to $400,000. In five years, more than 400 new families have moved in. The crime rate has plummeted, the property tax base has soared, and significant private investment in adjacent historic neighborhoods has increased.

It worked, says Dollase, because a number of key players, from bankers to politicians, realized the larger benefit from the massive infusion of money into a single neighborhood. While a project the size and scope of Fall Creek can’t be easily duplicated, Dollase says, “the lessons learned at Fall Creek, about how to put together a project and how to build the partnerships to execute it, are invaluable. That can be replicated.”

After years of starts and stops, Weinzapfel says the revival of the Washington Avenue Historic District is close to the tipping point. He likens it to the slow process involved in the Main Street loft projects. “At first, it took a few investors who acted on faith. Then people liked what they saw, and the project turned a corner,” Weinzapfel says. “Now there’s a kind of ‘buzz.’ We need to create that same kind of buzz for the Washington Avenue district.”

Teacher Chris Brown is doing her best to do just that. She and her husband, David, have bought several houses in the Washington Avenue district, investing significant capital to transforming them from decaying multi-unit apartment houses into well-kept duplexes rented out by college students and young professionals who think a historic neighborhood is a hip place to live. University of Southern  Indiana students Melissa Clark and Ashley Robertson are two of her tenants, who share the bottom half of a house on Washington Avenue. “I heard some kids in class talking about this lady who had some awesome houses,” Clark says. “I think it’s cool what she’s doing to these old houses.”

Brown, who lives in an historic home near Downtown Evansville, has a reason for making her houses in the Washington Avenue district so appealing. “If I can get these middle-class kids to fall in love with this neighborhood now,” she says, “hopefully, they’ll eventually want to buy a home in this neighborhood.”

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