(photo by Dawn Olsen)
It was a sunny afternoon, and the breeze, though light, brought with it the scent of smoky decay. It breathed through the once boarded-up windows of the Oxmoor Apartments and engulfed me and my fragile lungs with dust, ash, and secrets. It was a musty smell, one heavy with age. It came from the red brick. From the tired, worn wood. From the blackened plaster. From the remnants of the asphalt roof, which pebbled the stoop on which our six-person tour group stood. Included within our party were Michael Osborne, president of the Near North Development Corporation (NNDC); and Jason Ellis, a partner in North Meridian Community Partners (NMCP).
We had gathered at the Oxmoor for a “dusty boots” tour, an event organized by NNDC and “led” by Ellis. There were board members and stakeholders in attendance. And then me. Little me, with my camera, ready to document some of the renovation work. After introductions and a run-down of the building’s history—which includes a devastating fire in 2010—Osborne suggested we move inside.
“Lead the way, Jason,” he said. And Ellis, who knows the physical building better than anyone, eagerly opened the door.
The Oxmoor Apartments, located at 3640 N. Meridian St., were constructed in the 1920s as the Rensselaer Apartments. The exact year when they were built is uncertain, but the official parcel information lists 1920 as the year of construction. (The years 1922 and 1924 were included in other sources, the latter of which appeared in the Shortridge-Meridian Street Apartments Historic District nomination.) However, this much is certain: the brick foundation was laid in the first half of the decade, because, in 1925, the Rensselaer Apartments made their first appearance in the city directories. The Glendower Apartments—the Rensselaer’s sister building—was also listed for the first time. The Glendower (now called the Winston, I believe) is located just south of the Rensselaer at 3630 N. Meridian. It is my guess that the Rensselaer became the “Oxmoor” by the 1990s; the parcel information mentions that, in 1989, a corporation named Oxmoor Apartments, Inc. became the owner of the property. (Since 1975, the Oxmoor has switched hands nine times.)
In 1925, both the Glendower and the Rensselaer had 25 units listed. (This suggests that a room was perhaps located in the basement, as the buildings are listed as having 24 units today.) At the time, only four of the apartments in the Rensselaer were vacant, two of which were located on the upper-most floor. (A man by the name of Theodore S. Kuhns lived in No. 25.) As for the Glendower? It, perhaps, was a bit newer than the Rensselaer, for—at the time the city directory was printed—15 of the 25 units were empty.
Architecturally, the buildings were designed by the firm McGuire and Shook. William H. McGuire, a Rushville native and Purdue University graduate, formed a partnership with Versailles native Wilbur Briant Shook in 1916. Starting in 1924, the firm began designing schools throughout the city of Indianapolis, including Old Southport High School. In the 1930s, the firm was involved in the design of institutional buildings (including the Indiana State Sanitarium in Rockville) and, in the 1940s, was noted for designing churches, two of which are located on North Meridian. The firm was well-known throughout the state of Indiana by the time they added two long-term partners as employees. That was in 1958. But in 1924, McGuire and Shook were just getting started with the Rensselaer.
Wilson Realty Company contracted with State Construction Company to begin work on the Rensselaer, which is a three-story brick building with restrained Colonial Revival detailing. The brick exterior is mapped out in English Bond style, though the front façade features a different brick pattern below the limestone belt course. Said belt course lines the exterior of the building, and serves as a sill for the first floor. The original windows were a six-over-six fashion, though many of them have since been replaced with vinyl. Furthermore, the Oxmoor is H-shaped (a “fat” H, albeit), with front, back, and center staircases. The open hallway stretches the entire length of the building, providing access to apartments both in the front “half” of the building, and the back “half.” Each “half” has four apartments, two on each side of the hallway.
It was into one of the front-most apartments that Ellis led us.
“This is one of the three-bedroom units,” he told us, the tour group. “There is a lack of three bedroom apartments in this area, so we wanted to make that a priority when renovating. This whole half was originally two apartments, so we combined them and made it into one larger unit. Basically, we’re reducing the number of units in the building from 24 to 20, so it will be easier for families to find a place to rent in this neighborhood.”
It was hard to believe the compact apartment had once been two separate units. All the same, I snapped photos of the wood floors and one of the few, remaining original windows. I also visited the bathroom, which held the original tub. (Ellis informed us that the original bathtubs would remain in the apartments, but would be refurbished and restored.) You could smell new wood, old wood, smoke, dirt. The rooms, though framed, were exposed to each other. Naked. Fragile, almost. But after the fire, the Oxmoor needed to be gutted to just a brick shell; it needed everything: new plumbing, new electrical work, high-efficiency HVAC.
“It’s more attractive and more viable to target very bad buildings,” Osborne had said. “Because you can always bring it back.”
I kept those words in mind as Ellis led us to the second floor of the Oxmoor, to an apartment near the stairs.
“This is where the fire started,” he said.
My stomach clenched. My eyes darted, eventually focusing on the holes the firefighters’ axes had left in the floor. Though the top layers of plaster had been torn down and tossed away, the deepest layers of the walls were still charred. Black as oil, crackled as drought-ridden soil. Ellis stood in what would soon be a bathroom, pointing out the tub and sink locations for the benefit of the group. But me? I could only stare at the holes. Stare and imagine the inferno that once swallowed this room and burst into the hallway, melting doors and blowing out windows. A thick smoke, suffocating. A few tenants scrambling for safety. The popping. The burning. The fear. The heat. The holes in the floor. I shivered.
It was Tuesday, April 27, 2010. A fire had broken out in a second-floor apartment thought to be vacant. William Smith, who had been a tenant at the Oxmoor, was quoted in a WISHtv article published the same day.
“‘I heard it sound like windows were breaking. Then I looked out the window and I could see flames in the apartment next door to mine and the windows was popping out. So, I immediately went to the bedroom to wake [my girlfriend] up and get her out of there and she went to the door and seen the smoke in the hallway and started screaming and hollering and we got out of there,’ said Smith.”
Smith and his girlfriend—two of the handful of people who lived at the Oxmoor—had escaped with just the clothes on their backs. Other tenants suffered injuries. Then-18-year-old Mercedes McKee was taken to a hospital in stable condition, and Sharon Jones, then 40, was transferred to a hospital in critical condition. The Oxmoor itself suffered, too.
Firefighters had arrived at approximately 5:30 p.m., and had gained control of the flames within an hour. However, the fire had blasted out of the apartment and, seeking oxygen, had blazed up the central staircase to the third floor. It shot down the back half of the hallway, finally reaching a shaft. It burned the walls and devoured the stairs. It damaged the roof and consumed the Oxmoor. A total loss.
AN UNATTRACTIVE NUISANCE
For nearly three years, the empty building collected crime, trash, and thousands of dollars in delinquent taxes. It was, as Osborne said, a “blight on the neighborhood.” At the time of the fire, only eight people resided in the building, leaving most of the units vacant. Homeless individuals routinely moved about, sleeping in the building. After the fire, the property remained a magnet for prostitution and vagrancy. “It was an unattractive nuisance,” said Osborne.
Furthermore, the condition of the Oxmoor had rapidly deteriorated. The roof had collapsed in the fire, leaving the stairwell exposed to the elements. Rainwater flooded the basement. Trash filtered into the building. Tenants who were forced to move tossed their belongings into the “pit.” Indeed, the Oxmoor was plagued with a disturbing, rotting sludge. (And critters, too.)
Ellis and fellow NMCP partner Greg Martz contacted NNDC in 2012. They were attracted to the Oxmoor and wished to partner with NNDC in order to rehabilitate the building. In Dec. 2012, just three days before Oxmoor was slated for demolition, the partnership between NMCP and NNDC closed on it. The partnership eventually received grants from the City of Indianapolis, as well as the Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis. The grants aid in the renovation of the Oxmoor, which will cost approximately $1.5 million and will be finished in July.
As Osborne said, “It’s not uncommon for a building like this to require federal funding. You need it to turn the economics of a building right side up.”
Of course, the partnership is focusing on more than just the financial status of the Oxmoor. Preservation-wise, the partnership plans for historic consistency—though many of the original windows have already been replaced with vinyl, the remaining few will be cleaned and balanced. The center part of the front facade will be made over with windows that resemble the original six-by-sixes. What original wood floors can be salvaged will be cleaned and refurbished. The bathtubs, as aforementioned, will also remain.
As Ellis summarized, “Renovation is a juggling act, questions about what to preserve, what to not.”
The third floor, Ellis said, was difficult to salvage. (Currently, the floor is made of plywood.) The floor plans, however, will remain similar to the original layout (with the exception of the first floor, where eight one-bedroom apartments were converted into four three-bedroom apartments). On the second and third floors, the 16’10” x 6’4” kitchen will be the first room one will enter. A large doorway then opens into the living room, which features a large closet and two windows. What can’t be saved will be remade; the framing around each apartment door is one such detail (only a few units still have it).
And then there’s the community. The partnership is currently exploring options for the Oxmoor; they hope to shed positivity on the community and build relationships with residents. As Osborne said, “… [NNDC] is excited about … making a strategic move to be directly involved in multi-family development.”
There’s still a lot of work to be done on the Oxmoor; work on the roof began just this past week. Plans for the basement must be made official—a bike locker, perhaps? Laundry facilities? There are rooms to be built, floors to be shined, wires to be run. Tenants to find.
But, by then, it won’t be scarred by fire. It will be hidden behind the walls, in the bricks. You won’t see it, you won’t smell it. There won’t even be holes in the floor. No, it will be new and fresh and comforting and the only scents will be those of new paint and a hopeful future.
Many thanks to Michael Osborne, Jason Ellis, and Greg Martz for aiding me with this story, and for allowing me to tour the Oxmoor with you.