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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.

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

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?

A May 1925 photo illustrating the beginning stages of construction. A few buildings were razed to make room for the Illinois Building, including the Jean Hat Shop, Rent-A-Ford office, the Leo Krauss jewelry store, and Mr. Smith's motion picture theater. The Illinois Building neighbored Rink's, pictured here.

A May 1925 photo illustrating the beginning stages of construction. A few buildings were razed to make room for the Illinois Building, including the Jean Hat Shop, Rent-A-Ford office, the Leo Krauss jewelry store, and Mr. Smith’s motion picture theater. The Illinois Building neighbored Rink’s, pictured here. (Photo © 2008 Indiana Historical Society)

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.

The intersection of Illinois and Market streets, circa 1910. This photo was taken from the Statehouse, looking east. (Photo © 2008 Indiana Historical Society)

The intersection of Illinois and Market streets, circa 1910. This photo was taken from the Statehouse, looking east. (Photo © 2008 Indiana Historical Society)

The corner of Illinois and Market streets, as seen today. (Photo by Dawn Olsen)

The corner of Illinois and Market streets, as seen today. (Photo by Dawn Olsen)

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.”

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

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 1915 Sanborn map (updated to the 1940s) illustrates the many fine amenities of the Illinois Building. The four elevators are seen to the right of the building. A parking garage is also labeled. Automatic sprinklers were also present in the building (though only on the lower levels), as was air conditioning.

The 1915 Sanborn map (updated to the 1940s) illustrates the many fine amenities of the Illinois Building. The four elevators are seen to the right of the building. A parking garage is also labeled. Automatic sprinklers were also present in the building (though only on the lower levels), as was air conditioning.

An advertisement from 1925 promotes the Illinois Building as one of refinement. One of the amenities listed for the building is a modern garage (seen in the above Sanborn map). (Photo © 2008 Indiana Historical Society)

An advertisement from 1925 promotes the Illinois Building as one of refinement. One of the amenities listed for the building is a modern garage (seen in the above Sanborn map). (Photo © 2008 Indiana Historical Society)

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.”

An Indianapolis Star article published Dec. 7, 1924, discusses the construction of the Illinois Building. The article, seen in the middle, features the image of L. Strauss & Company president A.L. Block, who announced the construction.

An Indianapolis Star article published Dec. 7, 1924, discusses the construction of the Illinois Building. The article, seen in the middle, features the image of L. Strauss & Company president A.L. Block, who announced the construction.

This section of a Dec. 7, 1924, article published in The Indianapolis Star discusses the funding of the Illinois Building. The cost of construction was estimated at $800,000, which is more than $100 million today.

This section of a Dec. 7, 1924, article published in The Indianapolis Star discusses the funding of the Illinois Building. The cost of construction was estimated at $800,000, which is more than $100 million today.

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.

Various 1980s headlines concerning the Illinois Building. (Newspaper clippings are housed at the Indiana State Library.)

Various 1980s headlines concerning the Illinois Building. (Newspaper clippings are housed at the Indiana State Library.)

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.

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

Two of the carved limestone reliefs that decorate the outside of the building. The left is of two Roman-style soldiers in combat. The right includes a bowl of fruit and griffin heads. (Photos by Dawn Olsen)

Two of the carved limestone reliefs that decorate the outside of the building. The left is of two Roman-style soldiers in combat. The right includes a bowl of fruit and griffin heads. (Photos by Dawn Olsen)

Bronze light fixtures line the exterior of the Illinois Building. The City Tower building lurks in the background, across Monument Circle. (Photo by Dawn Olsen)

Bronze light fixtures line the exterior of the Illinois Building. The City Tower building lurks in the background, across Monument Circle. (Photo by Dawn Olsen)

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.

The Market Street entrance into the Illinois Building. The doors and vestibule were made of bronze, and were constructed in order to protect the lobby from the weather. (Photo © 2008 Indiana Historical Society)

The Market Street entrance into the Illinois Building. The doors and vestibule were made of bronze, and were constructed in order to protect the lobby from the weather. (Photo © 2008 Indiana Historical Society)

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

(Photo by Dawn Olsen)

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.”

13 responses to “Sunday Prayers: Illinois Building”

  1. Beth Austin says:

    Thank you for doing this article on the Illinois Building. It has always been one of my favorites! When I was a little girl in the 1970s, my dentist, Dr. Elizabeth Graves, had her office there. I remember the trips downtown to the Illinois for my six-month check ups and, when I was a teenager, driving myself there for appointments. I well remember entering the building through the Market Street entrance. It is such a beautiful building! I truly hope that they can save it.

  2. Jim GreyWell says:

    Nicely written and well photographed, Dawn. I remember the food court that consumed much of the ground floor. It seemed such an ignoble use for the space.

  3. basil berchekas jr says:

    An excellent example of a building that needs renovation to add to the economic vitality of downtown.

  4. Norm Morford says:

    Good job, Dawn. It sounds as though it and the Circle Tower building might have been built about the same time with many similar features.

  5. Dawn Olsen says:

    Beth, thank you for sharing your story! I had been wondering what other sorts of businesses the Illinois Building had hosted. I did look in a few directories from the ’20s and ’30s, mostly to see what first inhabitied the building. However, residency within the Illinois Building really declined as various structures for state employees were built. The offices they had once rented out were vacated. The ’80s seem to be full of new owners and remodels, and it probably would not have provided a stable environment for the building. One construction manager in the 1989 renovation said that “most people don’t know we’re doing anything in here,” mainly because the renovation featured the upper floors, away from the eyes of passerby. It still stuns me that something that was once marketed as glamourous is now empty.

  6. Dawn Olsen says:

    You’re quite right, Norm! The Illinois Building was constructed in 1925, and work for Circle Tower began just a few years later, in 1929. Both buildings were designed by Indianapolis architectural firm Rubush and Hunter. To my understanding, Circle Tower was inspired by the 1922 discovery of the tomb of King Tut. In a Friday Favorite post last summer, Tiffany Benedict Berkson featured Circle Tower’s details, which really play up the Egypitan motif. However, both Circle Tower and the Illinois Building have decadence in the details–they both include limestone carvings and bronze accents.

  7. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Thanks for this article. I’ve been quite interested in Rubush and Hunter buildings for a few years — since my office was once housed in their American Building at 333 N.Pennsylvania (originally Rubush and Hunter’s offices – then called the Architect & Builders building). Does anyone know what will become of that hidden gem, now that it is under renovation? I have some nice photos of some of the architectural features of the first and tenth floors… beautiful woodwork and other interesting features. I hope the renovators will preserve these character points.

  8. Stephanie King says:

    Why not turn the building into luxury apartments, like they did the WM H. Block building? It is obviously structurally sound and absolutely beautiful. There is always a demand for housing downtown.

  9. patrick zoll says:

    Dawn
    Great reading about The Illinois Building…….heard lots of stories from my parents about that building and the location. Someone in my family owned that land at one time. My mom (Mary L. Zoll (Smith) had a quarter of a quarter of the lease. There was a bar on part of that land called Smitty’s, it burn down. I have a glass mug from the bar. The stories involved a relative they call one arm Smith. My two sisters and one brother each had shares of that lease but I don’t know what happen………some of them sold their shares. Can’t remember when. Always visit that site when in Indy………….thanks

  10. Dawn Olsen says:

    Thanks for sharing your family’s connections to the Illinois Building! I had never heard of Smitty’s before. Currently, there is some work being done on the empty building, and there are “for lease” signs back up in the windows.

  11. Sandy Bruning says:

    Dawn, I really appreciated your wonderful photos and information on the Illinois Building. Last week, my mom and I reminisced about riding the city bus to downtown Indianapolis. My favorite stop during those shopping trips was having lunch at Frisch’s Big Boy Restaurant, which Mom said was in the Illinois Bldg. I loved eating their chili and hamburgers (topped with their special sauce) – and sitting at a balcony table where I was mesmerized by the bustle on the main floor. It was the most elegant “burger joint” I’ve ever seen! Mom can’t remember what else was in that building, but she wonders if a dime store was there. Thanks again for your interesting update!

  12. Barbara Haunton says:

    I’d love to hear more about what was in the Illinois Building in the 40’s and 50’s. The entrance and the building look so familiar, but, at 83, my memory fails me. I’m certain my family did some kind of regular business there. It’s doubtful any actual records remain, though. Any memories?

  13. Rick Davis says:

    In 1968 20th Century Fox had an office in this majestic building. Although I was only in the office on Mondays and only worked out of that office for a few months it is the downtown location I remember the most. Close to everything including the memorial statues.

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