Guest Editorial by Link Ludington

The Elks Club building
is too important to lose to demolition

Link Ludington

(June 2012) – It has now been more than five years since the Madison Elks Lodge No. 524 Building was severely damaged by fire, and a little more than three years since the Elks deeded the property to the Cornerstone Society, which in turn deeded it over to the current owner, ReBarr Restoration LLC, along with funds earmarked for stabilization of the building.
The Cornerstone Society retained a reversionary interest in the property that is recorded with the deed to ReBarr. Although ReBarr Restoration has made substantial progress in stabilizing the structure so it can be rehabilitated, the progress has been painfully slow, and much work remains to be done. The City of Madison continues with litigation to obtain a court opinion validating their demolition order, despite the additional progress that has been made since the order was put in place.
Residents and owners of neighboring properties are justifiably upset and frustrated with the lack of improvement. So why, in the face of all this, has the Cornerstone Society continued to oppose all efforts to destroy the building?
The answer is that the Elks Building, like the Jefferson County Courthouse and all the other outstanding examples of period architecture in Madison’s National Historic Landmark District, cannot be replaced, and is too important to lose. The elegant Beaux-Arts Neoclassical style of architecture, a style that became popular especially in more advanced urban centers in the United States, originated in the French art schools known as “l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts” in the late nineteenth century. Although larger cites were blessed with many examples of this ornate style, there are only two in Madison’s National Historic Landmark District, namely the Elks Club Building (built in 1904) and the commercial building at 101 E. Main St. (popularly known in modern days as “Rogers’ Corner”).

Historical Elks Photo

Photo courtesy Jefferson Co.
Historical Society Reserach Archive

This photo shows what the Madison
Elks Club No. 524 building
looked like in 1905.

The demolition of the Elks Club (designated as an “outstanding” structure in the 1988 Indiana Historic Sites and Structures Inventory and “Contributing’ resource in the 2005 National Historic Landmark nomination) would be detrimental to the overall historical integrity of the district, leaving Madison with only one surviving example of this under-represented style. Beyond the loss of a significant individual structure, the demolition of the Elks Club Building would leave a gap in a significant streetscape. This gap could not possibly be filled with any kind of structure that would equal the scale, presence, and detailing of what is there now.
Other major public buildings along West Street include the Second Presbyterian Church, the Old City Hall (also damaged in the Elks fire), and the present City Hall. Another major public building in the same block, the Romanesque Revival Post Office, was torn down many years ago for a park and parking lot – a tragic loss still lamented by many people who remember that important landmark.
After the fire, engineers evaluated the Elks Building and determined that it could be stabilized and rehabilitated. In addition to hauling away tons of debris that had remained in the building in the aftermath of the fire, the current owner has stabilized and braced the walls and constructed a new roof.
Work was halted for several weeks recently because the City of Madison issued a “stop work” order on the rehabilitation. The order was later lifted, and the owner has resumed the work, concentrating on the ornamental sheet metal cornice and other work on the façade. Despite damage caused by the fire, the decorative elements of the façade can be conserved and restored with materials available on the market today designed and proven for such applications. Elements that were completely destroyed in the fire could be reconstructed, using appropriate substitute materials, if necessary, in much the same way the Jefferson County Courthouse has been reconstructed.
After the façade has been stabilized, the fence can be removed and the sidewalk can be re-opened to pedestrians while work on the remainder of the building continues. There is a valid State Plan Release from the Department of Fire and Building Services, and a valid Building Permit from the Madison Plan Commission. The work is being conducted under the supervision of a licensed Professional Engineer.
All in all, the Elks Building is now in better condition than it has ever been since the fire. Because the fire did not completely destroy the character-defining historical features of the building, there is a good chance that it can still be certified as a “Contributing Historic Structure” for the purpose of rehabilitation for a 20 percent tax credit under the provisions of the Tax Reform Act of 1986.
The process of obtaining that determination has already been started. If it is determined that it is not eligible for that designation, then it is still potentially eligible for a 10 percent tax credit for rehabilitation of a non-residential building placed in service before 1936.
If the current owner proves to be unable to continue with the work to complete the stabilization and subsequent rehabilitation, other mechanisms are already in place that would make it possible for the work to be completed by others and the building placed in the hands of a new owner with sufficient resources to complete its rehabilitation.
After the Jefferson County Courthouse was nearly destroyed by fire in 2009, the Jefferson County Commissioners immediately made the commitment to reconstruct it, and this has been accomplished. Right next door to the Elks Club, the Old City Hall was similarly rescued after it was damaged by fire, and it, too, has been beautifully rehabilitated.
The Elks Building has not been so fortunate, but it is still standing after all. Everyone’s patience is understandably wearing thin, but many nevertheless believe that now is the worst time of all to give up on this grand old edifice.

• Link Ludington is a Madison, Ind., resident and Vice-President of the Cornerstone Society Inc., a nonprofit preservation group based in Madison. The Cornerstone Society, was founded in 1988 as a local preservation advocacy and education 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and is an Indiana Landmarks Affiliate Organization.

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