Raising the Phoenix

Despite progress,
Elks Club future still in doubt

Preservationists say demolishing
fire-damaged structure sends
a ‘sad message’ about Madison

By Don Ward

June 2012 Edition Cover

June 2012 Edition Cover

(June 2012) – A fire that erupted on the early morning of Aug. 25, 2006, and subsequently
gutted the Madison Elks Club No. 524 Building launched a five-year campaign to restore the majestic structure to its former prominence – a campaign that continues yet today.
Despite the effort by a private developer to shore up the building to state code and continue with its rehabilitation for re-use, Madison city officials say they are determined to get the project moving or else threaten to demolish it – at a cost of up to $80,000. In fact, the city’s Board of Works last year issued a demolition order that is now being reviewed in court for its validity. Once this “declaratory judgment” of the demolition order is approved, the city could begin tearing down the property at 420 West St. unless it deems that the work by owner Carolyn Barr of Cannelton, Ind., progresses quickly enough or meets their safety standards to avoid such action, said Madison Mayor Damon Welch.
“I became familiar with the Elks Club Building situation when I served on the City Council and this issue came up and was thrown in our laps,” Welch said. “We began to take a look at the safety end of it, and some things that had been worked out with the current owner were not happening. I wanted things to get going, but things were stalled and the building was deteriorating.
“So when I became mayor, I wanted to get things moving one way or another or no one will have to make a decision because it was going to fall down on its own,” Welch continued. “I never intended to go tear down a building, but I told the building inspector to stay on top of it. The neighbors are upset, and she wasn’t living up to her end of it. So I am committed to keep things moving.”
Welch said he will pursue the demolition of the building unless the project continues. As a result, local preservationists belonging to the Cornerstone Society have  begun to look for other alternatives.    Talks are currently under way with a developer who is interested in the project. Welch is familiar with these discussions and said a decision may be announced “very soon,” as early as the first week of June.

Read a guest Editorial about
the Elks Building by
Link Ludington

“There has been a good offer made, and I’m hopeful something will be worked out in the next week or two,” Welch said. “If it can be saved and we can get the proper people together to make it work, then let’s go forward. We want to try to keep as much of it looking the way it was and still enable someone to make some money, too. We want to save the facade and hopefully have a partially restored building and remove an eyesore.”
After the fire, which was later determined to be arson, the projected cost to rehabilitate the building topped $1.5 million, according to Peter Ellis, a Madison-based engineer who Barr hired to consult on the Elks rehabilitation. The Elks Club had just completed a $250,000 renovation of the interior of the building about a year before the fire, he said.
The Elks Club was still paying on that renovation and also on a mortgage. So when Elks Club members realized the cost was too high for them to keep and rehabilitate the fire-ravaged structure, they gave it to the nonprofit Cornerstone Society because their charter prohibited them from selling the property to a for-profit business. Cornerstone Society members, in turn, allowed Barr, who owns Rebarr Restoration, to take over the project in February 2009 and provided her with $35,000 in seed money to begin the rehabilitation of the building. About $4,000 of that money came from private donations and the rest was provided from insurance money resulting from the fire, according to Jan Vetrhus, Cornerstone president.

Peter Ellis

"Only if a building becomes a menace to public safety should it ever be demolished."
– Engineer Peter Ellis

“I don’t understand why the city has chosen to single out the Elks Club for demolition when we have many other dilapidated buildings sitting around town for years, and they aren’t pushing to demolish them,” Vethrus said. She cited the Old Cotton Mill, one of the largest structures in downtown Madison, as an example.
Vetrhus has appeared before the City Council on more than one occasion to lobby to save the Elks building. It’s an effort she continues today.
The covenants in the agreement between Cornerstone Society and Barr allow the society to buy back the property for what she paid for it or for fair market value, whatever is less, should Barr fail to meet the original terms for rehabilitation.
The City Council, meanwhile, continues to table a motion proposed in February by Councilman Jim Lee to fund the $80,000 needed to demolish the Elks Club building, adding even more drama to the saga. Other council members in advocate waiting for the judge’s ruling on the demolition order before taking further action. It is also unclear from where the money to demolish the building will come.
As part of the court review of the demolition order, Cornerstone Society was required to file “cross-claim” papers in Circuit Court to explain its position on demolition. The society filed those papers in March, arguing that what the city is asking from the court “will not effectively resolve the issues.” They further argue in the filing that “a declaratory judgment is not a just expeditious or economical means of resolving the controversy at issue.” Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Ted Todd is presiding over the case.

Inside the Elks

Photo courtesy of Peter Ellis

The Madison Elks Building No. 524,
destroyed by an arsonist fire in
August 2006, is an example of
Beaux-Arts Neoclassical style of
architecture and deserves to be
saved, local preservationists say.
The inside has been cleaned and
a new roof was recently installed
to protect the interior from
weather damage. More work must
be done to the stone exterior and
the windows to stabilize it,
according to consultant Peter Ellis.

Also in recent developments, the city in January issued a stop-work order until state inspectors could review and approve some minor technical changes made to the plans for the roof that was being installed. Once they were reviewed and approved, the stop-work order was lifted in February and work on the roof continued. But the work has progressed at a snail’s pace. Ellis, who met with Barr at the site as late as May 23, said he does not know why she has moved so slowly on the project, especially in face of the city’s demolition threats.
“Carolyn Barr does not have clear title to the building because of the covenants that Cornerstone has on it,” explained Ellis, 48, who happens to be a Cornerstone Society board member. “So Cornerstone still has an interest in the property.”
Ellis also noted that Barr’s building permit to do the work on the structure was good for only 21/2 years, and it expires at the end of June. He said the initial agreement with Cornerstone required her to take over the building and stabilize it, in hopes of subsequently developing it. She has recently completed installing a roof but still needs to finish putting a permanent cover on it. She also must finish repairing some stone masonry around the foundation and windows, and close or replace some windows to complete the goal of “drying it in,” he said. Some metal cornice also need to be repaired or replaced on the front facade.
All the initial demolition of fire-damaged interior areas and cleanup were completed in 2010.
Ellis advocates rehabilitation to demolition of such structures and says there are many alternatives available to a city or municipality before it should ever resort to the most extreme alternative of tearing it down. For example, a city can order repairs and place liens on a building until those repairs are completed. A city can place a property in receivership or take steps to have a property sold to a willing developer.

Elks Club After Fire

“Only if a building becomes a menace to public safety should it ever be demolished,” he said. “My layman’s reading of the law says you cannot remove a building just because it’s an eyesore. In the Elks Club case, I feel the building is structurally sound, and as the engineer on the project, I am the closest one to it.”
Greg Sekula has also lobbied the city of Madison to not demolish the Elks Club. He serves as director of the Southern Regional Office of Indiana Landmarks, a nonprofit agency dedicated to historic preservation of such structures statewide. In fact, Cornerstone Society itself is an affiliate of Indiana Landmarks, headquartered in Indianapolis.
“Many towns may have a historic building here and there, but when you talk about Madison, you are talking about an entire historic district, with entire streetscapes intact,” said Sekula, who is based in Jeffersonville, Ind. “So when you remove a building you are leaving gaps in the teeth, so to speak. Tearing down the Elks building would leave a sizeable gap in the streetscape on West Street and detrimental to the character of Madison and its reputation for historic preservation.”
Camille Fife, Madison’s new Historic Preservation Officer and a Cornerstone Society member, echoes Sekula’s comments. She says that demolishing the Elks Club would “send a sad message – the kind of message sent when the city tore down the historic post office right across the street from the Elks to make a parking lot and a park. They then tore down the house where the founder of Madison, John Paul, lived to make way for the new post office at the foot of Jefferson Street.
“If we continue on this path, Madison’s reputation for historic preservation will be weakened. We are a model that many other communities look to, and we must lead by example. When our courthouse burned, many people who visited here said, ‘If that had happened in our town, they would have torn it down. But not Madison. They rebuilt their courthouse.’

Elks Club Fire

“We can’t allow the Elks Club to be lost in the same way that we lost our beautiful post office.”
Meantime, no one has been charged with the arson of the Elks Club building. An investigation into the crime continues and remains an active case, according to Madison Fire Chief Steve Horton.
“It is still an active case, and nobody would like to see it solved more than I would,” said Horton.
Interestingly, the state fire marshal initially determined the cause of the fire to be with a light ballast. But Horton sent the light ballast to fire experts in Washington, D.C., for examination. They determined the light ballast was not the cause of fire. Horton’s crew subsequently proved that “multiple fires were set in the lower level of the structure,” he said. The state later sent a different team of fire inspectors from the Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms division to the site. They substantiated Horton’s findings of arson.
So it seems both the beginning and the end of this story have yet to be written.

Back to June 2012 Articles.



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