In 1960, when a group of Indianapolis civic leaders created Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, the development department in Indianapolis had a quota requiring them to tear down 3,000 buildings a year. The city’s architectural character was being systematically demolished by the wrecking ball.
“Historic preservation was viewed as nice, but not necessary,” recalls J. Reid Williamson, who has recently retired after leading HLFI for the past 31 years. A recent survey found that there are now 8,000 abandoned buildings in the city. This means there are 8,000 buildings with the potential to be rehabilitated and reused. “Now,” Williamson says, “the sense of place and maintaining what you already have imparts more character and attracts more creative people. Old buildings do not have to be eyesores,” Williamson adds. “They can be fixed up.”
From its first success, reviving Lockerbie Square, to its role in advocating for the preservation and reuse of vintage facades in the design of the Circle Centre Mall, Historic Landmarks has played a major role in preserving and enhancing Indy’s built environment.
Historic Landmarks has grown to become the largest private statewide preservation group in the United States, with an Indianapolis headquarters on the Central Canal downtown and nine regional offices.
“Fifteen percent of our staff have Phi Beta Kappa keys,” says Williamson, not trying to conceal his pride. “Two-thirds of our staff have master’s degrees. Our department heads average 17 years with us. Six current staff members have left us and then come back, which is wonderful. You talk about a dedicated staff, we set the standard.”
HLFI helps people preserve landmarks, neighborhoods and even commercial districts. As a last resort, the foundation buys vacant, endangered historic buildings as a way of inspiring neighborhood revitalization. The foundation reaches out to the general public through the creation of historic sites, tours, publications, meetings and workshops. Williamson has also been involved in the city’s 20/20 visioning process and has been an outspoken advocate in favor of the creation of a set of downtown design standards.
“You add up all of our historic districts, there are over a dozen now in Indianapolis, that represents pretty close to 25,000 people,” Williamson observes. “The Indianapolis Preservation Commission cannot accommodate all the districts and areas that want to come under their protection.”
For Williamson, old buildings are the physical embodiment of our community’s memory. They connect us to previous generations. So the preservation of historic buildings is not only a way to improve the visual character of the city, it also helps us better understand who we are. “We are not losing significant historic buildings anymore in Indianapolis. That was not the case 25 years ago.”
- David Hoppe