Some places bury their development histories more discreetly than others. Demolition followed by new construction is the most effective way to relegate the built environment of the past to some weathered photographs stashed away in a vault at the state archives. At best, a historic marker may commemorate what once stood there. But it’s amazing how quickly those structures vanish from the collective memory. For example,
Obviously other districts approach this dilemma differently, perhaps encouraging businesses to adaptively re-use historic structures or, as has been popular in the past, retaining only the façades of the original structures to preserve patina and ambience of an older commercial center, while a different structure, new floor space, massing, and radically different programming operates behind those deceptive architectural faces. But who is doing all this? Thus far I have struggled to incorporate a real noun, an agent to these initiatives. The fact remains that, with the exception of a small portion of the urban fabric across the country, there is no real instigator. While large urban redevelopments usually command a great deal of attention throughout the public approvals process—bringing together planning commissions, metropolitan development departments, conservationists, historic preservationists, affordable housing advocates, and a laundry list of other interest groups—the majority of projects happen without recognition. Virtually no one is thinking about them. A perfect example sits on a nondescript stretch of Madison Avenue on the Near Southside of Indianapolis:
I had passed by this commercial building hundreds of times before I finally noticed what was going on: it looks like a squat commercial building has devoured an old house, judging from the gable that protrudes from the space directly to the right of Club Zeus. Without really knowing when or why this took place, I can at least speculate what happened and what this reveals about the settlement patterns on this side of town. Unlike the north, west, and east sides of
Though Madison Avenue has long been a primary southbound arterial out of the city, the city’s southerly urban growth has subsumed what was at one time a mostly rural highway. The gabled roof with its lonely window and chimney comprise the visible portion of what I suspect was an old wooden farmhouse, possibly dating over 100 years. And the squat commercial structure? A nighttime photo of the back reveals that it wraps tightly around the home on three sides, forming a U shape.
My guess is that the building that houses Club Zeus is at least fifty years old, if not more; the most revealing clue is the fact that it was built out to the street, without parking in front, clearly dating the structure from a time when that was still a visible commercial building typology. By the 1960s, when nearly every Midwestern household owned at least one car, a commercial structure such as this would have included plainly visible off-street parking, usually between the building and the sidewalk. (In this instance, it appears that the north side of the structure offers a handful of parking spaces.) I can only speculate that owner of the house with the protruding roofline sold the property over half a century ago. The new owner, recognizing Madison Avenue’s growing importance as a commercial corridor leading out of the old city limits, decided to build a retail structure. However, rather than demolishing the old home and rebuilding, the new owner decided to build around the old house, perhaps creating an eccentric live-work hybrid. But how many people are going to want to live in a house where the first floor has no light exposure on three sides? What about alternative escapes from the house in the event of a fire?
Zoning and permitting regulations would have probably prohibited this bit of construction if it had rested within the city limits of