333 N. Pennsylvania Street
Some people you never forget. Some places you miss like old friends. Such was the case with me at 3:00 a.m. on April 17, 2013 — insomnia notwithstanding. The previous October, I had for the final time, departed the back door of the American Building at 333 N. Pennsylvania where I’d worked for nearly five years. Though it had some notable blemishes, I loved that old building. The smells… the creepy basement… the drafty stairwells… the inconsistent elevators… the sudden, unsettling spectral moans that came from the windows when it blustered outside (and even some of the less-enjoyable quirks) had over the years become comfortable companions.
As I left it, the building’s early Art Deco/Art Moderne glory still peeked uncertainly through evidence of indelicate handling by janitors and tenants, though the lobby still boasted some magnificent marble, brass and plaster details.
And, while the features of some levels were completely unknown to me, the tenth floor in particular offered luxurious carved-wood panels as well as spectacular views of the surrounding parks and city skyline from three directions — an excellent vantage for parades and fireworks.
The unofficial “11th floor,” a seeming afterthought to the structure, was nothing more than the addition of a brick and stucco hut on the roof, accessible by a spiral staircase from the tenth floor only. The concrete penthouse floor boasted a surprising collection of inlaid tile and stonework odds-and-ends. It was a quirky little hide-away of stained glass and old wood — a lovely spot that was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, but always just right for a quiet 10-minute work break.
The “11th floor” was a place to ponder questions like:
Who built this odd little oasis?
How did they come to choose such a pleasing mish-mash of materials…?
So, in the wee-hours of that aforementioned April morning, like a teenage girl who stalks a crush on Facebook, I took to the Internet to learn more about my mysterious companion…
The base of the building was constructed in 1910-12 as a modest three-story low rise structure and named the “University Park Building,” likely due to its location directly east of said park.
A look at the 1898 Sanborn map revealed that the city block, which is currently bounded by Vermont, Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware streets, was at that time bisected by two others: Susquehanna (later to become Talbott) and Tippecanoe streets. Research yields spotty information about the tenants of the original building from Chamber of Commerce and American Federation of Labor reports, and newspaper ads. Early occupants seem to have centered largely around the building trades.
In 1927, the famed and prolific architects Rubush & Hunter were commissioned to add seven stories and a new Indiana limestone facade to the original structure. I noted this last fact with some irony as, the entire first year I inhabited my office, I watched out my window in amusement as construction teams added floors to a neighboring building at 429 N Penn (incidentally another Rubush and Hunter building constructed for the Reserve Loan Life Company in 1924). My mental “time capsule” is bursting with memories of observed construction worker mischief… but I digress!
Upon completion in 1929, the newly dubbed “Architects and Builders Building” became headquarters to the renovating architects themselves, as well as home to the firm of S.E. Fenstermaker, Heating and Mechanical Engineers, Wege Marble & Tile, and several insurance companies.
The greatly enhanced structure now featured impressive Egyptian-relief pier carvings at the second and tenth floors. The carvings are said to depict figures associated with construction trades and were heavily influenced by the Art Deco stylings of the time. The lobby was also adorned with an arch inlaid with travertine marble in the form of a landscape just inside the entry, and cast plaster ceiling moldings.
At the time of the 1929 addition, the structure shared the city block with the YWCA, a garage, an auto repair shop, the Pressly Apartments, and the organization that would eventually take over the entire block — the Indianapolis Star “newspaper printing and broadcast station.”
For more than 40 years, this location was the seat of the city’s booming architectural profession and building trades. In the early years, the first two floors housed exhibits and displays of the finest building materials, as well as a state-of-the-art library of design books and renderings. The floors above offered large windows to provide ample light to tenant architect’s suites. Rubush and Hunter located their own offices on the top floor in a 9500 sq. ft. space which featured specially designed wood cornices and detailing.
By the early 1970’s tastes shifted and taller, more modernized buildings began to draw tenants away from the location. In 1974, occupancy dropped below 25 percent and the building came into foreclosure. It was purchased by American Fletcher National Bank, and thankfully marked for rejuvenation rather than demolition. The 1978 “facelift” came complete with a new name: The American Building. New tenants included Waterfield Mortgage, Western Union, Shoppers Charge and American Fletcher.
Yet another 40 years brought the building new ownerships and new challenges. In 2012, the building with its former glory long-faded, was only 47 percent occupied. Tenants included bankruptcy attorney Mark S. Zuckerberg, the Indianapolis Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), and the Greater Educational Opportunities (GEO) Foundation. In February of that year, the parent company of the Indianapolis Star sold the building for about half the asking price to two local real estate firms.
Reborn once again, construction is now underway to retrofit the building to accommodate 72 apartments. Rents will range from $900 to $1,500 per month, depending on the size. The facility will have an exercise room, business center and community space. This newest repurposing is expected to cost $7-10 million. The ground floor will retain commercial space. Construction is scheduled to be completed in late 2013.
Curiosity about how the historic design elements would fare in the new incarnation led me to DkGr, the architects in charge of the project. The firm reports that while little of the American Building’s original construction has been left intact on the upper floors, the initial circulation pattern has been restored which, in turn, has allowed for the restoration of the terrazzo floors on levels 4-10. Thankfully, my “11th floor” thinking spot will also remain (stained glass and all), and will be included as part of a large two-bedroom unit that houses the historic spiral staircase which services the small penthouse. A spokesperson for the firm offered, “We at DKGR are passionate in preserving what is left of Indianapolis’ historic architecture and respect immensely the work of significant local firms like Rubush & Hunter.”
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