Richmond Neighborhood Restoration volunteers renovate historic houses in Richmond. Executive Director Roxie Deer said the renovations keep some of the old while incorporating amenities homeowners currently want. Supplied by RNR

Valuable housing stock deteriorates despite 3 groups’ efforts

Historic homes stand out.

They can be beautiful, even if they’re in disrepair, have boarded up windows, or are inhabited by people with nowhere else to go.

These buildings represent the past, but their futures are in question.

“Historic preservation is very important to a city like ours,” Richmond Mayor Dave Snow said. “We are surrounded by living history.”

Multiple reasons justify saving historic homes, but that takes support in the form of money, time and public interest. Richmond Neighborhood Restoration, Richmond Columbian Properties and the city’s Historic Preservation Commission promote preservation and strive to save these pieces of local history. They do their best individually, but so far lack a coordinated effort.

“I think the first step and most important step is an open line of communication,” said Roxie Deer, executive director of RNR, an area nonprofit that saves and sells historic homes. “Communication leads to collaboration, and more collaboration is better for all of us. If we communicate and raise money, we could be in a good place in a few years.”

Matt Stegall of RCP, which he said is “the leading advocate for historic preservation and neighborhood reinvestment,” indicates he wants to work with other preservation groups.

“We need to help one another,” he said. “We all have the same goal in preserving historic architecture and stimulating development of historic neighborhoods as appropriate.”

Stegall has attended HPC meetings and offered assistance. He scheduled his group’s annual Quality of Place Conference for May 9 so that Bill Schmickle, who will speak about historic preservation commissions, can attend the HPC’s May 8 meeting and address commission members.

One HPC member thinks a summit among the three groups would prove beneficial.

“I think if we did a summit, it would not only facilitate greater communication and all of us working together with synergy, but it would also help establish Richmond as a centerpiece of historic preservation,” Michele Walker said.

Richmond’s planning has prioritized historic preservation for the city’s future.

“Our community-led Richmond Rising Comprehensive Plan identified historic preservation as a key component in our future growth,” Snow said. “We are so fortunate to have many individuals and organizations working to keep Richmond beautiful and vital. In large part these groups and individuals take great pride in their projects and do a great job of navigating the necessary process.”

Why save?

Saving century-old homes doesn’t just preserve architecture. It can expand the life of well-built homes featuring high quality artisanship and safe, sturdy materials.

Scott Bartel of Architectural Restoration Techniques said he considers preservation a sustainability and environmental issue. He prefers one building that lasts hundreds of years over a handful of structures built and demolished on a given site in succession.

“It’s more efficient, I believe, for humanity and the environment,” he said. “We do not use our richest building stock for the greatest use because it’s too expensive to maintain.”

Perceptions of expense may be a matter of whether the cost of damage to the environment is factored in. According to a 2012 study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it can take between 10 to 80 years for a new energy efficient building to overcome, through efficient operations, the climate change impacts created by its construction.

The same study found that residential rehabilitation creates 50% more jobs than new construction.

Residents should consider stewardship of their buildings, not ownership, said Bartel, whose company uses pre-1920 techniques to restore homes. He said longer-term thinking beyond current use could extend buildings’ life spans and prevent deterioration.

Bartel said societal buy-in is necessary for preservation to really succeed. Residents need to put in hard work, he said, by selecting an old home and living in it while rehabilitating it. Cambridge City has found preservation success, Bartel said, because people with strong voices believe in the older buildings. He singled out Jim and Jill King and Dr. James and Norma Bertsch.

Stegall also said not enough people support preservation, noting that apathy builds neglect.

“The key is people have to start to care in our community and think it’s important enough to stand up and take charge,” he said. “We can’t blame the politicians if we’re standing on the sidelines.”

RNR has 150 volunteers on its roster, Deer said, calling volunteers the heartbeat of the organization. About six or eight volunteers work weekends on the group’s projects, including two about to be completed, the Hill House on East Main Street across from Glen Miller Park and the upper floors of the downtown building that formerly housed The Secret Ingredient. That upstairs will have four apartments and office space.

That means RNR is lining up its next project. The nonprofit selects properties on high-traffic streets to make passersby feel better and excited about their community. Deer said when RNR improves an eyesore building, it often inspires neighbors to step up with new paint or better lawn care.

While walking through possibilities for that next project, Deer said one vacant home had a beautiful staircase and fireplaces. She said society hasn’t learned to value that craftsmanship, but those are attributes many want in their dream homes.

“Richmond and Wayne County have been so unbelievably blessed with what we have with our housing stock,” said Deer, noting there are “gorgeous, gorgeous homes.”

Housing needs

Housing has become a need for Richmond and Wayne County. It was mentioned multiple times during a Hoosier Enduring Legacy Program public input meeting Feb. 23.

With local business expansions and recent economic development announcements by Liberation Laboratories and Viking Group, the additional jobs could attract employees to relocate, if they can find housing. That doesn’t just mean new construction; it also means historic homes.

“People are starting to realize that housing is the next thing for community improvement,” Deer said.

RNR, which began after the 2008 housing crisis, considers itself the physical labor arm of rehab efforts, with its volunteers working on projects. RNR generally rehabs one house at a time. It maintains some attributes of the old homes, then modernizes them with amenities families now want, such as larger bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms and closets.

“We love to keep the old, but add a breath of fresh air,” Deer said.

The group, which receives assistance from the city, county and groups such as Indiana Landmarks, must sell each renovated house to fund its next project. With more money and more volunteers, it could tackle more projects. Information about volunteering is available on its website, Facebook page and Instagram account.

Education and outreach

Richmond Columbian Properties took over the former Knights of Columbus building in 2008, Stegall said, creating the William G. Scott House, which hosts events. In 2019, RCP won the Servaas Memorial Award for nonprofits from Indiana Landmarks.

It annually hosts the Quality of Place Conference, and Stegall said it also has a photography show and sale, walking tours featuring historic architecture and Alley Kat neighborhood cleanups. This year, it will have a summer camp to teach children about historic architecture and preservation.

In addition to Schmickle, this year’s conference will feature presentations by Paul Smith, retired director of the Southeast Neighborhood Development Corporation in Indianapolis, and Brittany Miller, director of Indiana Landmarks’ Eastern Regional office. They will talk about Community Development Corporations and Historic Preservation Commissions.

Stegall, who said towns such as Cambridge City and Greenville, Tipp City and Versailles in Ohio have done well with preservation, would like RNR to become Richmond’s nonprofit Community Development Corporation, making it eligible for grant funding. Deer said there has been some communication about that idea.

Stegall also would like a stronger Historic Preservation Commission that can take control of abandoned buildings and land-bank them. Land-banking means securing the buildings to prevent further deterioration. Incentives could be offered for investment in those land-banked buildings.

If deterioration stops, restoration costs less; whereas, the necessary investment in more deteriorated buildings exceeds possible returns. Lower costs might mean more people would take a chance on restoring a historic home.

Currently, the HPC is charged with community outreach and promoting historic preservation. It’s working on a pamphlet and website updates to better inform the public about the commission and its preservation role.

In addition, it oversees the Depot, Linden Hill, Harry A. Frankel House and Lauramoore Home conservation districts, considering Certificate of Appropriateness requests for homeowners wishing to make exterior changes or demolish structures within those districts.

During its February meeting, the group voted to allow demolition of four structures along North Ninth and North D streets that would provide land for a planned four-floor building. The four houses, three of which sit alongside the U.S. 27 bridge, have been vacant for decades, with no indication they’d ever be rehabbed. Tina Conti, president of the HPC, said it was a difficult decision made with safety in mind because of the dilapidated conditions of the buildings.

“Sometimes you have to make the tough decision to approve a demolition,” she said.

Stegall and several others opposed the demolition, asking the commission to preserve the historic structures, which were among seven remaining residential structures in the Depot Conservation District.

Members, some of whom live in historic homes, are appointed by the city to fulfill the dual mission. That, according to Snow, is the city government’s historic preservation role.

Proactive approach

Demolition decisions fall on commission members; however, earlier intervention could prevent buildings from deteriorating badly enough to require such decisions. All four residences had owners who enabled them to deteriorate.

Bartel joins Stegall in wishing the commission had more teeth. He said the city has resisted expanding the commission’s power during previous overtures, including one about a decade ago when other North Ninth Street buildings were demolished so the Indiana Department of Transportation could reroute the curve just south of the 27 bridge.

“I’ve made several attempts for them to be proactive about preservation, but never got there,” Bartel said.

The city’s expanded code enforcement staff has been bogged down with blight. The city contracts to have houses demolished or secured through emergency actions or Unsafe Building Commission sanctions.

Deer said enforcing codes could absolutely help protect historic residences from catastrophic deterioration. RNR would be open to conversations about its volunteers helping secure neglected historic buildings identified by the Historic Preservation Commission.

“We don’t want houses to fall down,” Deer said.

Bartel had hoped the preservation commission could provide a more proactive approach to protecting historic buildings. Still, he doesn’t fault any of the local organizations, saying they do the best they can without a groundswell of societal support.

For him, that narrows preservation to one question: “Are we willing to do the hard work?”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 1 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Mike Emery is a reporter and layout editor for the Western Wayne News.