November 22, 2017

Trading Buses for Burgers in Evansville, Indiana

  • By: Nicholas Som
The exterior of Bru Burger Bar.

photo by: Lee Lewellen

Evansville, Indiana's Bru Burger Bar proudly preserves its history as a Greyhound bus terminal.

People once streamed through the sleek metallic building on the corner of Northwest 3rd and Sycamore streets in Evansville, Indiana, hurrying to catch their buses. Today, the pace has slowed considerably, but the flow of people hasn’t. That’s what happens when you replace buses with burgers, and at Bru Burger Bar, business is booming.

Through the efforts of Indiana Landmarks, the state’s largest nonprofit preservation group, Evansville’s former Greyhound bus terminal has found new life as the location of one of the city’s most popular restaurants.

The building, constructed in the late 1930s, was designed by William Arrasmith. The Louisville, Kentucky-based architect specialized in the Art Moderne style, evident in the Evansville structure's curved form and horizontal lines.

“It’s one of the most distinctive buildings in the state,” says Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks. “It’s all shiny, enameled metal panels on the outside. And to add to that, it has some really wonderful neon, with the running dog motif that’s used by Greyhound […] That in itself makes this building an eye-catching landmark.”

The building operated as a bus terminal until the 1990s. But when the city of Evansville decided to build a smaller terminal to replace it, the iconic structure was vacated.

It remained empty for more than a decade until Indiana Landmarks took action. At first, the nonprofit had no intention of taking ownership of the terminal, but after the results of a rehabilitation feasibility study came in, they decided that a fiscally responsible solution could be found. The city agreed to convey ownership of the building to Indiana Landmarks in 2013, along with the task of finding a new tenant to facilitate its adaptive reuse.

“It was going to be your fairly standard nonprofit approach to making things happen,” Davis says. “That is, we would find a use for the building that would fit the priorities of some of the local charitable organizations and foundations, something probably related to healthy living."

However, Davis eventually realized that “it had to be a stimulant for the downtown, to give [the city] a positive, income-producing, tax-paying entity.” And with Evansville in the midst of a revival, making a concerted effort to increase the number of quality food and entertainment options available to its residents, finding a great restaurant to occupy the former terminal felt like the best option.

The interior of Bru Burger Bar.

photo by: Indiana Landmarks

The interior of Bru Burger Bar, decorated with artifacts from its days as a bus terminal such as wallets and schedules.

Of all the restaurateurs in Indiana, Mike Cunningham stood out as one of Indiana Landmarks’ primary targets. Cunningham owned several successful restaurants in the state, from upscale bistros to burger joints. Convincing him to give the Evansville terminal a try, though, would require a complete rehabilitation of the building.

That’s exactly what Indiana Landmarks did, embarking on a $2.3 million rehabilitation project. The metal panels that covered the building’s exterior were removed and resurfaced, and the neon lettering that spelled out “Greyhound” was restored. Meanwhile, the interior had been poorly remodeled over the years and needed to be completely gutted. The Indiana Landmarks team took care to retain any architectural features that remained—including the stylish metal railings of the staircase that led to the second floor—but otherwise was working with a clean slate.

Cunningham saw the fruits of their labors and agreed to place a Bru Burger Bar in the building. It opened its doors on November 21, 2016, and has been thriving ever since.

The grand opening of Bru Burger Bar.

photo by: Indiana Landmarks

Bru Burger Bar held its grand opening on November 21, 2016.

“[Bru Burger Bar] is full virtually every day,” Davis says. “You can see a certain level of energy in downtown Evansville. We’re starting to get a critical mass of restaurants and things to do.”

The restaurant will soon have brought in enough revenue to pay off the debts incurred by Indiana Landmarks for its rehabilitation project. Once that happens, the organization plans to pass ownership of the building to Cunningham.

“[Indiana Landmarks] has been at this now for 56 years, and I think this is one of the best projects we’ve done, both because of the architectural restoration and the businesslike approach,” says Davis. “This model is what we do. We try to bring these [buildings] back to life and give them a useful purpose in their communities.”

Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

Related Stories

This May, our Preservation Month theme is “People Saving Places” to shine the spotlight on everyone doing the work of saving places—in big ways and small—and inspiring others to do the same!