Raising the Phoenix
Elks Club future still in doubt
fire-damaged structure sends
a sad message about Madison
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 citys 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
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 wasnt 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.
There has been a good offer made, and Im
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 lets 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
if a building becomes a menace to public safety should it ever
Engineer Peter Ellis
I dont 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 arent 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. Its an effort she continues
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 judges 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.
courtesy of Peter Ellis
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 snails 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 citys 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 Barrs 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.
Only if a building becomes a menace to public safety
should it ever be demolished, he said. My laymans
reading of the law says you cannot remove a building just because its
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, Madisons new Historic Preservation Officer and a
Cornerstone Society member, echoes Sekulas 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, Madisons 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.
We cant 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. Hortons 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 Hortons findings of arson.
So it seems both the beginning and the end of this story have yet to
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