The Illinois Building in June 1926, shortly after completion. Designed by Indianapolis architects Rubush & Hunter, the building was constructed on the corner of Illinois and Market streets. (Photo © 2008 Indiana Historical Society)
Behind me, the sounds of the city echoed—people walking. Cars honking. The wind swirling. But before me, in the shadow of Market Tower’s 32 stories, was the Illinois Building. I stepped up to a window and cupped my hands around my eyes, squinting into the darkness. It was empty, of course. Empty and unkempt. I saw unfinished projects, a checkerboard pattern of there-not-there ceiling tiles. I peered further into the building, smudging my nose against the glass. Someone had been there; vents were systemically exposed. Insulation was piled in one corner. There was even a Mountain Dew can resting atop a wooden stool. Who knew how long it had been there, how full or empty it was.
I pulled my face from the glass and took a few steps back, looking up. My eyes paused on the bronze light fixtures and limestone carvings. A few people on the street stopped with me, also gazing upward. Two others halted their conversation and, like me, pressed their noses to the window. Businesspeople, lawmakers, shoppers and tourists steamed past. It was a popular corner, Illinois and Market. And I asked myself, how? How could a structure just a few steps from Monument Circle, and just a few steps to the Statehouse, be so empty?
The Illinois Building, whose construction was announced in 1924 by L. Strauss & Company president A.L. Block, was designed with grandeur in mind. The architects responsible for the building were Rubush & Hunter, an Indianapolis firm who also claim the Madame C.J. Walker Building, the Masonic Temple (Freemasons’ Hall) on Illinois Street and several buildings around Monument Circle.
Rubush & Hunter planned a ten-story building, one with frontage on both Illinois and Market streets. According to an Indianapolis Star article published Dec. 7, 1924, the architects gave “special attention to the display windows on the first floor, to the end that each store will be afforded the maximum amount of plate-glass frontage. This has been accomplished by a system of cantilever construction, thereby avoiding any columns on the front in the first story, which … is entirely new in this locality for buildings of this extreme height.”
Though the Illinois Building is now in the shadow of newer downtown skyscrapers, it was once luxurious, and was constructed with Italian marble, African mahogany woodwork and “vitreous tile floors” that included terrazzo mosaics. The cost? $800,000 (more than $100 million presently). The Meyer-Kiser bank underwrote that amount, and offered to the public tax-free preferred stock through the Illinois-Market Realty Company. The proceeds of the stock, which matured serially from 1928 to 1940, would fund part of the construction costs. However, the Meyer-Kiser bank, which financed the Spink-Arms Hotel and other Indianapolis buildings, suffered from the 1929 stock market crash, succumbing in the early ‘30s.
But before the Depression, the Illinois Building was highly advertised as a place of elegance. The above-mentioned Star article stated that tenants for first-floor stores were considered only if they handled “merchandise of quality.” A 1925 advertisement—which today sounds partial—was marketed toward “high principled men” who enjoyed downtown conveniences and refined services.
The Illinois Building was clearly one of class—it included circulating ice water on each floor, along with toilet facilities. Four high-speed elevators were also part of the construction, and were equipped with modern safety devices to ensure “not only speedy service to the offices, but maximum safety.” The building was fancily decorated—bronze doors opening to the vestibule, marble walls, polychrome and gold ceilings. Indeed, the building was “finely finished throughout and [had] a special appeal to those desiring office space of the better class.”
Fast forward nearly five decades, to 1972. In September, the Illinois Building was sold by the Brams family, who had purchased the structure in 1965. The building was purchased by an out-of-state investment company for an undisclosed amount. In fact, the only dollar amount mentioned in the announcement was $400,000—the 1958 appraised value of the land beneath the building.
In the ‘80s, things got more costly and more complicated. “Illinois Building might be sold to settle owner’s debts” and “Renovation of Illinois Building to include shining up the old” were just two of the headlines that addressed the property. In 1988, The Indianapolis Star ran a story discussing a $16 million renovation to take place within the Illinois Building. The renovation included a four-story atrium with a waterfall, an all-glass wall on the atrium’s south side, the relocation of restrooms, and the refurbishing of the brass-and-marble lobby. The renovation promised to restore stateliness.
Skip ahead a few more years, to the 2000s. The Illinois Building was empty, save for a Gold’s Gym and a food court. Soon, even they would be gone. The building would be first placed on Indiana Landmarks’ “10 Most Endangered” list in 2006 and would remain an object of their concern. The structure would also be a focal point for the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Committee. In 2008, a Michael Rubino article in Indianapolis Monthly summarized the troubling future of the site.
A lease—which was created before the construction of the Illinois Building—is set to expire in 2018. The lease states that any improvements or changes to the land (including the construction of buildings) revert to the landowners. However, according to the article, the Illinois Building rests upon three parcels of land—one belongs to one owner, two belong to another.
Rumors concerning the Illinois Building have been circulating for several years. Will it be renovated or razed? Demolished or added onto? (Rubush & Hunter reportedly constructed the walls of the building so that it can support an additional four stories, if/when needed.) That said, the Illinois Building is structurally sound. It’s just … empty. And dark. Haunting the thriving downtown corner of Illinois and Market.
Back on the street, I was looking up, lost in thoughts an architecture, when a man accidentally bumped into me. After quick apologies from us both, he asked me what I had been looking at.
“Oh, just … things. The old, the reflections. The bronze.”
“Gotcha. Yeah, I was thinking that place was empty.” He gestured to the floors above.
“For awhile now,” I said.
“Yeah. It could be something, though,” he said, continuing his path up Illinois. “It could be something.”