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Area family restoring faded glory of downtown building

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From the third-story window of the building at 42 E. Washington St., people have watched a city grow from nothing. They’ve looked down on a muddy, stump-ridden rut of a road cutting through what would be Indianapolis. Abraham Lincoln marched past in a parade, and a blocks-wide fire in the 1970s destroyed old buildings to give way to new construction.

Today, Washington Street is at the bustling heart of Indiana’s most worldly and modern city. And that city’s oldest commercial building in existence will be soon be updated to join it in the modern age.

Jim and Linda Hunter, residents of Lamb Lake, have purchased the more than 180-year-old structure in downtown Indianapolis with plans to restore it. Along with their sons, Nick and Curt Hunter, they envision turning the first two floors into a high-end art gallery and immersion event space where nonprofit organizations can host fundraisers with local celebrities. Taking what was once a city landmark and restoring it to new life has become the family’s focus for the past eight months.

“You peel away parts of the building and see remnants of other times,” Curt Hunter said. “You can look at the wood and see it was put here a long time ago. That’s been fun.”

Preserving history

What: 42 E. Washington St., a five-story building in downtown Indianapolis that is one of the city’s oldest remaining commercial structures.

Built: At least as early as 1832

Uses: Originally housed a brickyard; in subsequent year, was occupied by a druggist, a wool factory, a business office of some kind, and Thompson’s Cafeteria, a popular downtown diner.

New owners: Jim and Linda Hunter of Lamb Lake

Future uses: The Hunters plan to remodel the building, adding a new façade and renovating the first two floors.

The first floor will be Gallery Forty-Two, a fine art gallery offering museum-quality statuary and oil paintings. The focus will be primarily traditional, Renaissance-style art as well as pieces reflecting styles ranging from Frederick Hart to Salvador Dali.

The second story will be devoted to an arts and entertainment business, Second Floor. Charitable organizations can host “immersion events” for fans of local and national athletes and entertainers. The business will provide customers with unique access not only to the celebrities themselves but also to elements of the celebrity’s given trade. Half of the proceeds will be donated to the charity hand-picked by each celebrity.

Their work has unearthed historic details and quirks about the building. Bricked up windows on the side walls, behind layers of drywall and plaster, reveal that it was free-standing at one time. A system of weights and pulleys help open heavy steel doors in what was once a business office.

Travertine tile floor — made of a form of limestone — shines a dull green from underneath layers of flooring. Below that, the original wooden slats put down in the 1800s remain strong.

In the basement, an alcove with an 8-inch-thick door was once used to store ice as a primitive refrigerator.

Aiming a flashlight into the dark and dusty interior, Linda Hunter pointed out what used to be a grand glass skylight. Some of the panes were broken, and a roof had been built over the top when another story was added to the building.

But the frame lets people use their imagination to see it again.

“You can tell where the glass was and what it looked like,” Linda Hunter said. “Things like this have been so exciting. We were looking for some gem of discovery that no one had found before.”

The family has spent months cleaning the space out. Contractors have torn out asbestos in the ceiling, torn away drywall and plaster and removed much of the trash from the interior.

Metal paneling on the exterior was removed to determine if the face of the building could be revamped.

Every time they clean out a corner or tear away a wall, a new treasure emerges.

‘Important to preserve’

Dusty glass panes more than 100 years old are piled next to spaces where windows have been boarded over. Vintage electrical boxes and equipment, no longer in use, have drawn interest from museums and collectors.

“We’re not going to give it up. That’s part of what we want to promote ourselves as, so if we give everything away, that takes away,” Linda Hunter said.

They purchased the structure in November 2012 and have devoted hours to the project.

On a strip where new construction, fancy restaurants and hotels dominate, the Hunters wondered why their tiny building has survived. No one has given them an answer, other than no one bought it and tore it down.

Indiana Landmarks, which focuses on preserving historic structures throughout the state, paid for a study to determine if saving it and others on that block was feasible. They did so because maintaining its role in the downtown streetscape was important, executive vice president Tina Connor said.

“It is one of the oldest buildings in the downtown area, and it was part of a continuous row of buildings that is historic,” she said. “We thought it was important to preserve it both for its own sake and to maintain the scale and rhythm of that block.

The building had remained vacant in recent years, except for certain retail stores occupying the first floor. A jewelry store had filled the space prior to the Hunters buying it.

Piecing the past together

The process has been slow, as they wait for city and state permits on nearly every aspect of the construction.

The Hunters have worked extensively with Indianapolis senior city planner Jeff York and structural engineers to ensure that the structure is safe in every regard. Support beams and foundations have been examined and double-checked to ensure the building is sound.

Reinforcements are needed to support some cracks in the brick and stone foundation, and holes in the floor need to be fixed. But otherwise, the solidly built structure remains sound, York said.

Partnering with Indiana Landmarks, a historic preservation organization, and the Indiana Historical Society, Linda Hunter has tried to piece together the building’s past.

She knows that the building was constructed at least by 1832 and maybe earlier.

In the early 1800s, Washington Street was barely a passable road. Linda Hunter has an engraving found at the Indiana Historical Society that depicts a few rough cabins, thick trees and a small lane passing between them.

“All the complaints were the tree stumps, that they couldn’t get their wagons through,” she said. “The government had cut down all the trees but left the stumps behind. Our building was looking down on that.”

Through hours of research, she has uncovered paintings, prints and photographs that clearly show their building in the middle of the burgeoning city.

For much of its life, the building housed a combination pharmacy and hardware store that carried paints, varnishes, medicines, soaps, flint and other items. At times it had been a brickyard, wool factory and business office space.

In the 1940s, the building’s first floor housed a diner. The checkered black-and-white floor is visible under layers of carpet.

“A lot of people look at this building and want us to bring it back to its ambiance. When this was built, it was probably a mover and a shaker,” she said. “But we can’t bring it back to the original, because we don’t have the pictures to do that.”

Fine art for sale

Still, the Hunters plan to infuse the old building with style it hasn’t had in decades.

The ground floor of the building will house Gallery Forty-Two.

Featuring reproductions of Renaissance-style artists and masters such as Frederick Hart and Salvador Dali, the gallery will cater to high-end art collectors in the area. Original works by artists such as Bobbie Carlyle, Tuan Nguyen and M.L. Snowden will also be featured.

“The price point is going to be a little higher and rarer. Not the type of art you’ll typically find in this area, but more what you’d find in Chicago or New York,” Curt Hunter said.

The Hunters plan to open up the mezzanine portion of the first and second floors, revealing the original 20-feet-high ceiling when people enter the gallery.

An ornate staircase will take guests to the Second Floor, a complementary business to the gallery, Curt Hunter said.

The space will be designed for charitable organizations and other groups to host immersion experiences for fans of athletes and entertainers.

“We’ve set up partnerships with different celebrities around the city and with charitable causes they might be associated with and collaborate to host an event,” Curt Hunter said.

Target opening Oct. 29

With a background in sports marketing and entertainment, Curt Hunter already has pursued local stars such as Reggie Wayne and Paul George. He has connections within Indianapolis’ sports scene from his time working with the Arena Football League.

He has hosted meet-and-greet sessions with fans in the past and noticed how events don’t allow fans to really interact with the celebrity they came to see.

So Curt Hunter wanted something more personal.

“I have a passion and interest not just in art, but in memorabilia, autographs, things like that. So we had the idea to create a more intimate, meaningful experience with the fans,” he said.

The Hunters currently do not have plans for the rest of the building. The hope was to convert the rest to apartments, but the narrow width of the building wouldn’t make it possible, Linda Hunter said.

The goal is to have the restoration done by the end of October, she said. That would coincide with the convention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is being conducted in Indianapolis on Oct. 29.

Until then, they have a considerable amount of work to do.

“I enjoy this kind of stuff, so we’ve spent hours looking at all of this,” she said.

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