January 4, 2014

Nineteenth-Century Church Receives Enlightened Renovation as Indiana Landmarks Center

  • By: National Trust for Historic Preservation

By Katherine Schminky, Public Affairs Intern

Methodist Church, now Indiana Landmarks. Credit: Susan Fleck
The Central Avenue Methodist Church in Indianapolis is now the new Indiana Landmarks Center.

“Inspirational” is how Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks, describes the organization’s new headquarters. And that's exactly the look the organization was going for when it chose the Central Avenue Methodist Church to be the new Indiana Landmarks Center.

“When people walk in, they say ‘wow,’” said Davis. “We want people to be inspired by preservation and this place gives us that.”

At the Richard H. Driehaus National Preservation Awards ceremony on Nov. 1, 2013, Indiana Landmarks received one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s honor awards recognizing its restoration of the Central Avenue Methodist Church in Indianapolis. The once dilapidated and crumbling site now functions as Indiana Landmark’s headquarters and a thriving center that hosts an array of events.

Originally built in 1891, the Central Avenue Methodist Church housed the largest Methodist congregation in Indiana. It embraced the ideals of the Social Gospel Movement, prioritizing the improvement of living conditions for the poor and launching community initiatives like the current Methodist Hospital. The remarkable Romanesque Revival church, with its domed ceilings and seven towers of varying heights, remained a center for charity and community influence for decades.

As time passed, however, the congregation dwindled. It became a victim of population shift and societal change, and when the church was forced to close its doors in 1999, there were fewer than 30 faithful remaining.

The Grand Hall balcony before and after restoration. Credit: Indiana Landmarks
The Grand Hall balcony before and after restoration

The Methodists gave the church to the Old Centrum Foundation, but the maintenance of the old building proved to be too taxing. They exhausted their funds trying to restore and maintain the site, and the structure continued to deteriorate.

It was “in 2006 or 2007,” recalls Davis, that he became intrigued with the idea of moving Indiana Landmarks to a building that could function not only as its headquarters but was also big enough to be used as an event center. When 2009 rolled around, there were a variety of candidates. But, as it became clear that the Old Centrum Foundation was swiftly losing the war against nature and age, Indiana Landmarks chose to adopt the Central Avenue Methodist Church as its own.

Of course, the organization faced the same financial limitations that thwarted the success of the church’s previous owners. With its original 650-seat sanctuary, Akron-plan Sunday school wing built in 1900, and 1922 school building, the church’s restoration was a major project -- and a costly one at that.

The basement was flooded, threatening live knob-and-tube wiring. Most windows needed replacements. Plaster flaked and the stained glass windows were in poor condition. Plus, the sanctuary’s domed ceiling featured a 30-foot hole, paired with splintered pews crushed in the collapse.

Conrad Schmitt Studios artisan at work. Credit: Indiana Landmarks
Conrad Schmitt Studios artisan at work

For help, Indiana Landmarks turned to the Cook family, renowned preservationists and founders of Cook Group Inc., a medical manufacturing company. The family was taken by the church’s architecture as well as the opportunity it represented, and eagerly joined the effort to return the church to its former splendor.

The Cooks took on the 1891 sanctuary and the 1900 Sunday school wing. Indiana Landmarks moved forward to repurpose the 1922 school building as its state headquarters, and designed a courtyard and “green” parking lot for the new venue.

Today, the Indiana Landmarks Center consists of two theaters, a reception hall, board room, break-out meeting rooms, an art gallery, and catering kitchens in both the 1891 and 1900 sections. All elements meet the preservation standards of the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission.

The roof, once rusted and collapsing, has been replaced with stamped metal shingles that imitate the original design, and the same organ that graced parishioners’ ears in 1892 was restored to charm a new generation of spectators.

The restored auditorium is now the Cook Theater, which is available for rental.

The project has not only become a successful events center accommodating over 40,000 visitors in 2012, but it also acted as a catalyst for other restoration projects in the Old Northside. As Tina Connor, executive vice president of Indiana Landmarks, explained, “After [the church] was restored, it made appraisals higher on surrounding streets, and projects became more affordable.”

Moreover, it has become a successful tool for outreach and preservation awareness. Since it opened in 2012, Indiana Landmarks has noticed a significant increase in public awareness and influence, not to mention more volunteers and donors. People are attracted to Indiana Landmarks Center’s cultural significance, and using it for an event allows them to make it a part of their personal history.

“The key is finding a way to encourage people to enjoy these historic places,” said Davis.

Each year, America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places sheds light on important examples of our nation’s heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage.

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