5502 E. Washington St.–The old Irvington Post Office, also known as the Stevenson Building. (photo by Dawn Olsen)
“I’ll tell you something about this building that you probably don’t know,” the man told me. I looked at him with curious politeness and trained my eyes on his lips, for the man spoke quickly, very quickly. Very passionately. “You’re too young to know, so I’ll tell you that this building used to be twice as long,” he said. “Well, not twice as long. Probably a hundred foot total. And it really wasn’t that building. It was another building built right next to it. Right here, facing Ritter. The door used to be right here. And now it’s gone. It’s all gone. Bunch of parking now.”
He walks to the approximate end of the now-missing building. “Ended here,” he said, pointing to the ground. “And you can tell where it was, too.” He nodded toward the back of the old Irvington Post Office, the object of my attention.
Before I could mumble a word, the man pulled from the inside pocket of his jacket a well-read community newspaper. “Here,” he said, opening it to a particular article. “This is why I stopped to talk to you.” I leaned in to read; the article discussed the old Irvington Post Office, a building in need of monetary affection. It talked of the application for demolition, and the April fundraiser.
“So there’s a future for this place, then?” he asked me.
But my utterances were cut short.
“’Cause, my God,” he continued, “it needs to be something. Has to be. All this”—he swung his arms wide, nodded both east and west—“was old buildings. And this? This old post office with the old bank across the street? No. A parking lot just isn’t a solution. Not at this intersection.”
And for the first time since the man began speaking—just five minutes after I had begun to photograph 5502 E. Washington St.—I squeezed in a sentence and a smile. “I’m not one for demolition, myself.”
The Irvington Post Office (also known as the Stevenson Building) was long-vacant when it was first included on an application for demolition in March 2012. In fact, when asked about the property, a co-worker—himself a resident of Irvington—said it had been empty for the 10 years he had lived in the area. Sadly, the building, located at the corner of Washington and Ritter, has been unoccupied for longer—since about 1997, actually. And, during that time, the condition of the building has steadily deteriorated. At present, there is a large hole in the roof (as seen from the satellite image).
As a result, the last owner—who estimated that repairs would cost $500,000—petitioned to the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission (IHPC) for demolition. The precise request? “Demolish primary structure. Install parking area.”
After hearing about the proposed demolition, Margaret Banning, executive director of the Irvington Development Corporation (IDO), appealed to IHPC and pushed for a continuance. Other members of the community contacted the owner’s attorney and asked if the owner would be willing to sell the property. Though the owner agreed to the idea, the condition of the property made the process of finding a buyer incredibly difficult. According to an Irvington Historical Society (IHS) newsletter article written by IHS president Don Flick and released in Jan. 2013, “it became evident that the only ‘willing’ buyer would have to be a non-profit which could procure grants and low-interest loans to buy, stabilize, and partially restore the building, which could then be offered for sale to potential buyers at a more reasonable market price.”
It wasn’t easy to continue delaying the IHPC’s decision. Even after IDO and IHS partnered to create the Irvington Post Office LLC, a price for 5502 E. Washington St. was frequently debated. “We went back and forth and back and forth,” said Banning. “And, frankly, we didn’t have the resources for it.” In what Flick called a “rather bold move,” the corporation offered $120,000 for the property. However, in a happy turn of events, Citizens Energy Group generously agreed to fund the purchase of the building with a low-interest loan. Finally, on Dec. 21, 2012, nine months after the application for demolition first appeared, the sale was closed.
“It was an early Christmas present for us,” said Banning.
The push to save the corner building was not unwarranted—as it is oldest commercial building in Irvington, the loss of it, as Banning said, would’ve been like missing a front tooth.
In the fall of 1903, Irvington realtor James Stevenson obtained a building permit to construct the property at a cost of $5,000. In December of that year, the Irvington Post Office relocated from its S. Audubon Rd. address to “commodious new quarters” at 5502 E. Washington St. According to research conducted (and generously forward to me) by IHS executive director Steven Barnett, Irvington businessman George W. Russell was the superintendent of the post office. Russell also dealt periodicals, stationery, newspapers, and school supplies from the facility.
The accompanying storefront (5506 E. Washington St.) first housed the Central Union Telephone Exchange, while access to the second-floor rooms was available through 5504 E. Washington St.—a third door in the middle in the building. Abraham C. Shortridge (the second president of Purdue University and whom Shortridge High School is named after), attorney Thomas Crutcher, and physician Alfred N. Towles are among the individuals who held offices at this location.
In the 1920s, the post office relocated once more, this time to the newly-constructed Masonic Lodge. The Stevenson Building was then host to a dress shop and an A&P Grocery. By 1930, Hook’s Drug Store began a thirty-year occupancy in the building. Zale’s Jewelry also held a branch at this location in the ‘60s and, eventually, Riggs Paint and Wallcoverings occupied the first floor. The last business to appear in the Stevenson Building was the plasma center, which is now located at the end of the same block. Most of the original buildings on the 5500 block of East Washington have been leveled to create a parking lot for the center. It can only be assumed that the same fate awaited the Stevenson Building if the application to IHPC had been approved.
Parking in the area is an issue, however. I asked both Banning and my co-worker what type of business they would like to see in the currently-vacant property. “Oh, I don’t know,” my co-worker wondered. “It’d be nice to finally see a business in there, but I think a lot of parking is taken up by that plasma center.” Banning, who informed me that a few spaces did come with the purchase of the building, responded similarly. “Parking is … a first come, come served basis … and it will be a challenge, thus it restricts the kind of business that can go in there. We think it would be ideal for professional offices and possibly live/work. The neighborhood would love a retail/restaurant use, but the parking makes that difficult.”
And though the LLC is seriously interested in finding future tenants and future owners, the bigger focus for now is funding, which is essential for pre-development and structural stabilization. The partnership did secure a grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and it is working to secure other grants, including a $50,000 matching grant from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology. According to Banning, the initial funds would be put toward an architect, a new roof, and insurance. And, eventually, they would like to restore and rebuild the façade to resemble its original construction (minus the middle door).
Of course, securing the “matching” part of the matching-grant isn’t going to be easy, either. So, to kick-start the process, a fundraiser is being held from 6 to 9 p.m. Apr. 6 at the Masonic Lodge. The cost? $10 in advance (which can be paid online), or $12 at the door. All of the proceeds benefit the former Irvington Post Office. Personally—as a fan of live entertainment, food trucks, and rehabilitation—I find it a bargain.
The toiling of IDO, IHS, and the entire Irvington community to save the old Irvington Post Office is still potent. The community could’ve lost its oldest commercial building as a result of poor upkeep. And though the renovation expenses are pricey, the building’s presence is essential and historical. “This is a key building,” said Banning. “And a parking lot would be a desert in the fabric of our district.”
Her sentiments are shared with the unnamed, fast-talking man whom I spoke to. “You just can’t get rid of that building,” he said.
Someday, the old Irvington Post Office will be occupied again. And, someday, I’ll write a “Prayers Answered” post concerning the property. And someday, if I ever see someone like me—someone who’s photographing the corner building on Washington and Ritter—I’ll go up to them and say, “I’ll tell you something about this building that you probably don’t know. It was almost demolished back in ’12, almost flattened and tilled like those other lots. But no. It was saved. Saved and made safe when it was 110 years old. I’ll bet you didn’t know that.”
Big thank yous to Margaret Banning, Steve Barnett, Bill Gulde, and Meg Purnsley for their willingness to answer questions and their eagerness to point me in the right direction. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of this endangered building.