July in Gary!

photo copySt. Louis preservationist and director of the Preservation Research Office consulting firm Michael Allen visited Gary yesterday to see the sights. After an obligatory lunch/dinner at the Bird, we started our tour in Miller Beach, where our two summer interns are completing a study of the Glen Ryan neighborhood including the area to the north of US-12/20 to Lake St. plus the three streets south of Melton Rd. but east of Aetna and south of Miller proper.

We then proceeded to City Methodist, one of Indiana’s most endangered historic structures. Construction was completed in 1926, with a third of the funding coming from US Steel alone under the leadership of Elbert Gary himself (you may have heard the name). Fancifully harkening back to a time when Gary was a haven of progressivism, the church’s pastor, William Seaman, was a controversial proponent of racial integration. While a central fixture of the core downtown area of Gary and also a key gathering place, the church fell into disrepair; even basic maintenance was expensive, and even after recovering from the hard-hitting Depression, strong membership in the 1950’s lasted only about a decade. The church was finally closed in 1975, and various efforts to renovate it have stalled. Salvageable? Probably, but not without millions of dollars of which the city has nary a cent.

City Methodist, date unknown. From the IUN Calumet Region Archives.
City Methodist, probably taken around the time of its opening. From the IUN Calumet Region Archives.

Most notably, the Gary Housing Authority tried to have the church demolished for parking for the Genesis Towers. (In case you’re wondering, this is the same Gary Housing Authority whose own properties, owing to a backwards split ownership arrangement, were foreclosed upon for back taxes, which our partners bought certificates for; they remained unaware that they had been foreclosed upon until served legal notice, and the case is still in court. The same types of people who want to demolish historic churches for parking lots.)

While missing a roof owing to a catastrophic fire, the place is surprisingly intact owing to a solid frame of steel, concrete, and limestone. Framing around the sanctuary’s gothic ogive windows leaves a surprising amount of glass intact, and you can still explore the third floor’s now open air gymnasium or the Seaman Auditorium. Solid oak door jambs separate rooms now littered with trash and decorated with graffiti.

901-11 W. 11th Ave., in all its glory.
901-11 W. 11th Ave., in all its glory.

Our last stop on Michael’s way out of town was the Slovak Club, a 1952 steel-framed behemoth clad in limestone and brick located at the corner of 11th Ave. and Harrison whose address, appropriate for its architectural state of emergency, covers the number 911. The institutional structure occupies a full eight lots and portions of two additional lots, per its lengthy, original plat description. Sold from its prior owner, the Slovak Political Club, Inc., in 1979, to Gary residents Lee and R.O. Richardson, our partners purchased the tax certificate for the building in 2012 at the June Lake County Commissioner’s sale.

A look at historical valuation takes us through Gary’s good years, its bad years, and its years whose quality apparently has little bearing on the way the County assesses property valuation: Assessed value from 1968-1992 dropped by more than half to $29,970 until increasing tenfold to its current rate of $269,600. Exactly how the Lake County Assessor determined that a vacant building was (taxably) worth $269,600 after selling for pocket change is a mystery to me, something we’re going to have an answer to by the end of the summer. Information about the building is harder to find and likely tucked away deep in a storage box at the Calumet Archives (something I’ll definitely get started on after the holiday).

Google Maps image of the block, highlighting the target area. Note the high rate of land vacancy and the roof damage on the Slovak Club itself: Normally a dealbreaker in a non-steel building.
Google Maps image of the block, highlighting the target area. Note the high rate of land vacancy and the roof damage on the Slovak Club itself: Normally a dealbreaker in a non-steel building.

Since the building was purchased, we’ve been working on a plan to figure out what to do with it and have since acquired the certificates for several other lots in the vicinity. In spite of a fully occupied set of housing units on the north side of the street and several occupied houses on the southeast corner of Harrison Blvd., the entire block at the southwest corner is completely vacant, with two habitable units, four vacant ones, and two empty lots.

Some proposals thrown around thus far have focused on the need for community space on 11th Ave., which the neighborhood is lacking in spite of a strong community, as well as some ideas for mixed-use development. At such a hefty footprint of around 8,000 square feet, one single use would seem unfortunately limited, and, coupled with the high vacancy rates of adjacent structures, there is an economy of scale (or certainly of concentration) which would make sense for development. A first step is to figure out how to ameliorate the grim tax situation (not that I’d ever suggest that Lake County doesn’t know what’s best for the large sums of money that they get from me).

Resident Linda Van Zant across the street told us she had led an initiative to have the building either developed or demolished, and provided us with some pictures that the Fire Department had taken when they secured the building. She also mentioned that some associates (or descendants?) of the former owners were attempting to retrieve the contents of the cornerstone, which has a time capsule inside it. Far be it from me to tell people not to look into the past, but I’d just as soon leave it for another sixty years– or, at the very least, know who these people are and see if they’re interested in helping get the building back into shape.

In the mean time, we’re investigating financing options. I told Michael he could have the gig to get it nominated for the historic register if he could accept payment in copper pipe.

Nat Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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