When J. Reid Williamson first arrived in Indianapolis 31 years ago, he rented a room at the Indianapolis Athletic Club on Meridian Street. Williamson came here to take charge of the fledgling Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, an organization dedicated to identifying and preserving the state's historic properties. On his first evening in town, Williamson decided to walk to Monument Circle.
J. Reid Williamson: No longer a "throw-away society."
"I wasn't quite sure where that big monument was that I'd seen in my previous visits," Williamson recently recalled. "So I asked the concierge. Was that within walking distance? He said, 'I wouldn't do that, sir.' I said, 'Why not?' 'I wouldn't walk down there.' 'Well,' I said, 'just tell me how many blocks away it is.' 'Well, it's only three blocks but I advise against it.'"
Williamson insisted and the concierge finally pointed him in the right direction. "I think I was the only person on the street. You wouldn't be the only person on the street today."
A lot has changed in Indianapolis in the past three decades. Reid Williamson has played an important role in many of those changes. He led the successful effort to transform the Lockerbie neighborhood and was responsible for pushing developers to incorporate historic architectural facades in the design of Circle Centre Mall. During his tenure, Historic Landmarks has gone from having a staff of three and 200 members to a staff of 53 located in 10 offices throughout the state and nearly 11,000 members. Today, this makes Historic Landmarks the largest organization of its kind in the U.S. other than the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Williamson took time out to speak with NUVO about his working life and the changing face of Indiana.
NUVO: What drew you to historic preservation?
Williamson: In the late '50s I was working in Savannah and the old section was literally being obliterated. Developers from Florida were coming up and buying the old brick buildings for the value of the brick. Tearing them down, loading the bricks on railroad cars and taking them down to Florida to use the Savannah brick as facing on concrete block, one-story motels along the Florida East Coast. Thereby ruining a historic city and a virgin coast in one activity, as we used to say.
So a group of volunteers formed to try and stop that demolition of historic buildings. I was a history major in college. And Savannah has a lot of history. But we were losing the face of our history - that's what got me started.
NUVO: How would you characterize the situation you found in Indiana?
Williamson: Historic preservation was viewed as nice but not necessary. Mayor Lugar had a development department that had a quota of tearing down 3,000 buildings a year. Old, vacant buildings were not considered opportunities for restoration, but eyesores, and the only way to take care of the problem was to knock them down.
Now look at the difference: Under Mayor Peterson, the survey of the city a couple of months ago found 8,000 abandoned buildings. The first strategy of our abandoned building task force is rehabilitation - not demolition. We've played a heavy part in that whole abandoned building initiative.
NUVO: What else has changed?
Williamson: The whole movement to protect our environment, to not be a throw-away society had a direct effect on not knocking down buildings and throwing them away, as well. I think there's been a subtle realization that our built environment - where we live and work and play, and what we see every day - comprises an awful lot of buildings, and that old buildings do not have to be eyesores. They can be fixed up.
Circle Centre Mall is a good example. A blend of the old and the new and how the old architecture contributed greatly to how the new architecture was designed. I remember when Circle Centre was first up so people could see it. I had occasion to go down there and would kind of kibbitz on peoples' conversations. Total strangers. They'd be talking about the old facades, not the new.
NUVO: What do old buildings teach us?
Williamson: Everybody remembers their grandparents' house. I know I remember my first school building. I remember my first Sunday school. Each one of those experiences, each one of those memories, has a building associated with it. All of which, as you're growing up and learning who you are, are physical embodiments of your own character. The same thing, to me, is true of a community. It's their landmarks. Even new landmarks, like the St. Louis arch. They contribute to that sense of identity.
NUVO: What's the state of our built environment today?
Williamson: I think it's very heartening right now to look at what is going on. We are not losing significant historic buildings any more in the city of Indianapolis. Historic preservation is an accepted program now as evidenced by the 20/20 visioning process the city just went through. Historic preservation was one of the six key components of the vision for the future.
NUVO: Where is Indianapolis in terms of establishing meaningful design standards?
Williamson: We have formed an urban design oversight committee that has grown into a citywide committee. I have been co-chairing it. We now have 42 members and we are implementing the urban design vision of the Regional Center 20/20 plan. That should improve the process and policy the city has had in place for approving or not approving new designs. We just went through a good example of how inadequate we are with the Simon headquarters. If there were design guidelines in place and a more open policy for approving major new buildings, I don't think we would have had that controversial situation and the backtracking and changing that's cost money. A developer going in will know what the standards are, and know what to expect by way of whether their design is going to be judged thumbs up or down.
NUVO: What are the challenges?
Williamson: You would think the largest and most effective historic preservation organization would be in the South or along the East Coast, but it's here. By any index - by number of members, by budget, by number of employees - we have 10 offices around the state; we are truly a statewide organization, not trying to control or manage historic preservation from Indianapolis, but in the communities where the historic buildings are. And there are 180,000 historic buildings in the state of Indiana. Trying to continue and sustain the growth we have seen in the past 10 to 15 years will be a challenge.