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.
I’m rooting for this building!
Thank you for this excellent article! As one who grew up in Irvington, but who now lives far away, I can remember Woolworths, staring at those candies in the case. I am pretty sure our doctors Stadler and Sheehan (one or the other) had offices upstairs.
Across the street (west – the NW corner of Washington and Ritter) was Wolman’s Drug Store and down the street a Chevrolet dealer.
Of course, the Irving theater across the street saw us arrive with 50 cents – 25 for the movie, 10 cents for popcorn and 10 cents for a soda and a nickel for a candy bar.
Steve Barnett, the executive director of the Irvington Historical Society, forwarded me some research he had conducted on the property. I went back to look at it and saw that yes, Harold E. Stadler, physician, did indeed have his office at 5504 E. Washington. The years included in the sample of research were the mid ’50s. I didn’t see Sheehan’s name, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there (only a handful of years are included in the research). Personally, I would’ve loved a 50-cent movie. Much better of a bargain than the–what is it now–$10 or so for a movie ticket alone?
Steve Barnett and I were Howe High School classmates…he’s always been a loyal Irvingtonian! And well accomplished professionally.
Yes, I rmember the Woolworths there. My pediatrician, Dr. Stadler was on the 2nd floor along with a dentist. Woolworth’s had a lunch counter in the west side of the building. The Chevy dealer was Bill Kuhn, entrance to the service part was on Ritter just north of the drugstore. Past the Chevy dealer was old IFD STATION 25. Originally housing horse drawn fire equipment.
When I was in grade school we used to shop at Zales in this building, and also (in the last several years) we also shopped at Walgreens across the street. In the former building housing Walgreens, I remember having a soda at their soda fountain there. Its unfortunate there’s no “pedestrian” or “neighborhood friendly” business that can go into either location.
I’m not sure what business could go in there, and I think residents of Irvington are planning some brainstorming sessions themselves. However, I’ll tell you this–within five minutes of photographing the building, three people came up to me (one being the man reference in this feature) to talk about the building, and about Irvington. It’s quite a friendly community, really, and residents are often out walking. I live closer to downtown, but I still enjoy strolling around the area when I visit.
My cousin and I went to the Irving on Saturdays when admission was only 10 cents! A special tax upped that to 11 cents and we thought we were being robbed! Good luck in getting this building restored, too much of Washington St., has been destroyed.
Remember paying 10 cents at several East Side matinees…also, you’re right…too much of East Washington has been “leveled”, usually for under used parking lots or just weed covered vacant lots, all the way out to Irvington from the near east end of downtown, through Englewood and so forth.
I wish I had lived in those days. I used to go to the movies a lot; you know, back when it cost *only* $6 or $7 to see a film. More importantly, Ann, you hit the nail right on the head. Many of the individuals I spoke to about Irvington do not wish to see the area flattened into a parking lot. Though parking can be tight in the region, an empty lot isn’t going to bring visitors. It doesn’t promote small businesses or a growing community. The rehabilitation of this building is incredibly important–if it were sold and formed into successful local businesses, I think others would begin to understand that there are more historical areas to the city than just downtown.
I – too visited the Irving as a kid, I remember that I went with a group to see “Plaq
Plague of the Zombies”, and then later giggled as we walked past the Festival theater – that showed those “Nasty” mov ies. Oh, the fun!
Good job, Dawn.
Well written . Excellent photography and historic architectural information. I am a third generation Irvingtonian. I drive by that poor old building daily and wonder and hope it is saved… I too LOVE old buildings and old people with character ….Thank you ,looking forward to more…
Every time I drive by this building I think about the fact that Irvington could really use a banquet facility. With all those Churchs aka weddings, there needs to be a place to have the post-wedding celebrating, right in the neighborhood! Maybe a little small, but maybe room on the roof for a few more celebrators – I mean, if Fountain Square can… can’t we? SO, hang in there little building while a keep buying lottery tickets – but I guess I better win soon. I grew up in Irvington – it holds my heart and all of my memories of a wonderful childhood – I hate to loose a single piece of it.
That would be a good use for the building…especially since there’s “parking” available around it now…also, some type of Irvington visitor’s center and unique signage informing visitors that they’re in a unique place now…heck. Broad Ripple does that well, as does Fountain Square. Irvington will always be a little quirky, as are the Square and the Ripple, so why not advertise that and gain something from this “uniqueness”? This may sound crazy, but this has been done in other cities…add another building back to the Washington streetfront in similar historic style to, say, house another closely affiliated business with walking customer traffic next to this corner building with a well lit and safe passageway to Washington Street from the parking alongside and behind the building. This one building that’s left looks mighty “lonely” by itself anyway. Last, could another similar pharmaceutical use be found for the former Walgreens store? There’s always been a drugstore here in this immediate area that one could WALK to…from the neighborhood….plus someplace to mail letters and packages…forgive me…I’m rambling here…
Lets us know if we can help . I love this location. Think i gave blood there once? don
There’s a good chance you were inside–I believe the plasma center was located in this building before it moved down the street and into a new complex. If you’d like to help, you can attend the fundraising event April 6, or donate online (http://irvdevorg-es2005.eventbrite.com/?rank=1#). I think the biggest way anyone can help would be to think of ways to increase/advertise parking! The large-ish lot that is adjacent to this building was practically full when I was taking photographs. The plasma center seems to be a popular place.
Thanks for this. I just bought my tickets to the fundraiser! Save it, don’t pave it!
Thank you for reading! I plan to be at the fundraiser as well!
Excellent article! I would love to see the Hooks museum in that space. Possibly, Irvington needs to have some murals advertising the parking we have. I was surprised to see the large space for parking next to the old Walgreens..behind the Hispanic grocery. Thanks!
I live on Whittier, and that parking lot behind the grocery and Small Smiles rarely has any cars in it. During the day, I think some staff park there, but otherwise, it’s open.
Also, the city has designated five areas as Cultural Destinations. Broad Ripple and Fountain Square are two of them and receive special incentives and considerations. Irvington is not on the list.
If there be a part of Indianapolis that NEEDS to on the Cultural Trail, Irvington is definitely one!
I love this article. I’m always searching into the past of Indy. I live in the home biuilt by Morton Wolman, of Wolman Durg Store that used to be where the Walgreens is.
What a historical building! We attended the benefit dinner on Saturday – we’d love to be in the know regarding this building. Is there an e-mail sign-up or monthly newsletter that I could subscribe to? Just want to stay up-to-date! Thank you!
You’ve got a good person assisting you with the Irvington Historical Society; Steven Barnett and I were classmates at Thomas Carr Howe High School.
So sorry to hear this evening that the old Stevenson Building was heavily damaged in today’s severe storms that swept through Indianapolis. I saw the photo of the damage on my CNN page a short while ago and immediately called my mother-in-law (87 years old) to make sure she was OK since she lives near East 10th Street and Emerson Avenue. I’ve book-marked this web site since I grew up near the Irvington area, graduated from Thomas Carr Howe High School (50 years ago next year!!), and still have several ties in the area although I’ve lived in Las Vegas for the past 33 years.
Sadly, this building collapsed on November 17, 2013. It couldn’t withstand the violent storms that rolled through the area. It’s a shame so much history is now gone. It hurts that efforts were put in, to save it from demolition, only to have Mother Nature ruin it.
I was just reading the article on the old Irvington Post Office. I vividly remember going to Dr Stadler above the building, he was my pediatrician. Wolman’s Drugs was just across Ritter, then came Bill Kuhn Chevy which wrapped around Wolman’s with the repair shop being on Ritter. Then came IFD station 25 which originally had horse drawn equipment.
I too am a classmate of Steve Barnett’s from Howe (lass of 63 and I was in PS57 thru 8 on the south side of Washington. MY grandparents owned the Quality Shoppe further east on Washington, later inhabited by the McLeish Dance school