The Battle Over Meridian-Kessler’s Historic Homes

As a wave of new construction moves into the neighborhood, those fighting it believe they have history on their side.

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Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

A few dozen neighbors gathered at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church on 52nd Street one night this winter, and though the Good Book might discourage it, they were there to throw stones. In a well-worn lounge, a series of petitioners pitched the Meridian-Kessler Land Use Committee on their various projects. A representative of Napolese pizzeria requested the committee’s blessing for a three-way liquor license, currently prohibited in that area (approved). The owner of Fine Estate Rugs pleaded his case for a retail shop in the old library building at 42nd Street and Broadway Avenue (still under discussion). But the evening’s main event was a remodeling project by Litz & Eaton Investments, the most successful of a group of builders that have been reshaping the historic neighborhood in recent years.

Co-owner Brad Litz handed out renderings of a house on 51st Street that his company had torn down to the studs, clad in cement board, and was now seeking a variance for an attached two-car garage. As he made his brief appeal from a seat in the second row, it became clear that the proposed addition consumed most of the lot. In almost any neighborhood in Fishers, the house would be commonplace. On a Meridian-Kessler block of 1920s Arts and Crafts bungalows, it was the sort of project that filled a normally sleepy public meeting with agitated homeowners.

Several residents raised their hands and expressed concerns about the design. Then Bruce Race, an associate professor of architecture at Ball State who lives across the street from the project, chimed in. Without turning around to face Litz, Race began to lecture. “There’s a tradition on our block of historic small cottages,” he said. “The lots aren’t very big, and none of the houses have the garage facing the street. This is a suburban tract home. To have a garage and house span the entire front of the lot would be completely out of character with the neighborhood. You’ll be able to see it from space.”

Behind him, Litz just rolled his eyes.

 

As historic neighborhoods in Indy go, you’d be hard-pressed to identify one with a better argument for preservation than Meridian-Kessler. The National Register of Historic Places called the row of mansions along Meridian Street (the area’s western border) “one of America’s great streets.” The Monon Trail (eastern border) is Indy’s most popular greenway. Kessler Avenue (northern border) pays tribute to George Kessler, the internationally celebrated landscape architect who designed many of the neighborhood’s parks and boulevards. And for two miles down to 38th Street (southern border), a dense grid of stone and brick homes—some small, some large—make up what is thought of by many as the most desirable locale in the city.

Although it stands in stark architectural contrast to Carmel and Fishers today, Meridian-Kessler shares a very similar history. As white flight began in the 1920s, developers started to build in the cornfields north of Herron-Morton. Houses going in near College Avenue tended to be small, while those a few blocks west trended toward limestone–and–leaded-glass marvels. Storied architecture firms such as Pierre & Wright and Vonnegut & Bohn contributed work to the area, but a new kind of builder-designer emerged. These craftsmen offered ready-made floorplans for what were still spectacular homes and encouraged buyers to forgo an architect—not unlike developers do today.

Among the many famous residents over the years, author Booth Tarkington was perhaps the most entertaining. He frequently hosted Hollywood types like Groucho Marx at his house at 4270 N. Meridian St. But actress Frances Farmer, pharmaceutical executive Josiah Lilly, cartoonist Kin Hubbard, and scores of governors and senators have also made Meridian-Kessler home. Many of them didn’t call it by that name—until 1965, when the city started drawing boundaries around developments and identifying them, that area was often just referred to as “the north side.” But Meridian-Kessler already had an established brand. Even as the city sprawled farther north in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the tony neighborhood was still near the places people wanted to go. The houses never fell into disrepair as they did for a time in the Old Northside and other historic areas.

“It has been a Who’s Who location for business-owners in this city for a long time,” says Paul Diebold, author of The History & Architecture of Meridian-Kessler. “If someone wanted to film a Cadillac commercial in Indianapolis, they’d probably do it on Washington Boulevard. The houses just exude class and quality.”

Of course, not every home there amounts to 10,000 square feet. Nestled among the giants and upper–middle-class estates are plenty of solidly built bungalows. And it’s those dwellings, along with the occasional empty lot, that have attracted investors in the last few years. Drive around Meridian-Kessler today, and it’s not uncommon to see so-called pop-tops under construction—one-story houses being converted into two, sometimes with little regard for architectural style. And a few lots that once hosted large oaks and maples now squeeze in as much new construction as a variance from the city will allow.

In some ways, Meridian-Kessler is a victim of its own success. The neighborhood’s reputation for nearby dining (Patachou, Taste, Recess), bars (Red Key, Aristocrat, Moe & Johnny’s), and great houses has created a land rush in an area with no land left. While they’re far from the only builder in the area right now (Boaz Construction, Bly Bennett Inc., and others work there), Litz & Eaton is one of the most active. Having remodeled or built 10 Meridian-Kessler homes in 2014, it’s on track to double that this year. Litz & Eaton yard signs have become such a familiar sight in the area that the company decided to sponsor the 2014 Meridian-Kessler Home & Garden Tour. It’s not unusual to see its high-end rehabs sell for between $500,000 and $1 million. In tearing down aging homes to the studs and rebuilding on spec, the firm has made a lot of customers happy. It’s also made a few enemies.

“With infill development, you’re always going to run into some people who don’t want to see things change,” says Litz, a longtime resident of Meridian-Kessler himself. “We have a project at 47th and Washington Boulevard that looked great on paper. But when we added the second floor, it turned out to be too big for the block. People called to complain, so we’re going to take the second story off the front. We make concessions. I don’t want neighbors to be mad at me or dislike my product.”

Litz & Eaton homes are popular in the neighborhood for a reason. Their open floorplans and contemporary finishes reflect current tastes and demand for square footage. But from the perspective of a few in the Meridian-Kessler Neighborhood Association, it’s a worrying trend. Several years ago in Hinsdale, a suburb of Chicago, builders tore down swaths of historic houses and erected new ones in their place—catching the attention of USA Today. Could the same thing happen here? Longtime MKNA board member Mary Owens believes it already has. “Most historic neighborhoods across the country—Shaker Heights in Cleveland, Buckhead in Atlanta—have historic-district protection,” she says. “We don’t.”

 

Stuffed into a tiny office on the 18th floor of the City-County Building, David Baker and his Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission staff are no strangers to this kind of tension. Ever since the state legislature created the IHPC in 1967, they’ve been fielding requests from neighborhoods hoping for protection from the erosion of their character. Lockerbie Square was the first historic district that the group recognized, meaning just about any alteration to the outside of a home there (including paint color) needs to be cleared by the commission. The Old Northside, Herron-Morton, Woodruff Place, and others followed.

You won’t find Meridian-Kessler on the IHPC’s list of 17 historic districts, although that’s not for a lack of trying. In 1994, Owens drafted a proposal for historic designation. “It was a familiar story,” she says. “A developer was putting up cheap houses, and we needed protection. But we were beaten by Ransom Place near IUPUI, which was expanding at the time. And I think the IHPC wanted to stay small. Meridian-Kessler has more than 5,000 homes.”

The process of getting recognized by the commission is deliberately slow. First, a neighborhood needs to identify what’s historic and what guidelines it hopes to establish for construction. Then it needs to prove there’s strong support. Traditionally, this has involved petitioning neighbors and getting a nearly impossible 70 percent of them to agree to the idea of asking city government for permission to change their window shutters. Then it goes to the IHPC for consideration, and then a Metropolitan Development Commission public meeting, before final approval. “We’ve chosen to build in steps to drag out the process,” Baker says. “People are afraid that the government is going to come in overnight and zap you. Look at the timeframes. It doesn’t happen that way. You can’t do this in less than two years, and often it’s more like four. The designation should happen after it has been widely vetted by everybody.”

As you might guess, this almost never works out. Woodruff Place tried three times before it was finally granted historic-district status. And even in Irvington, which joined the list in 2006 with overwhelming support, it took five years. By far the largest historic district yet recognized, that addition doubled the number of houses under the IHPC’s umbrella—significantly challenging the small staff’s ability to handle the caseload. Meridian-Kessler is almost twice as large.

Even so, Owens and a cadre of neighbors are in talks with the IHPC about making another push. There’s no question Meridian-Kessler qualifies as a historic area—a stretch of Meridian Street is already protected by a separate state statute. The biggest challenge will be getting the residents and investors behind conserving the entire district. A subsection of the neighborhood, Forest Hills, tried for historic designation and failed in 2004 when not enough homeowners would endorse the idea. But breaking the large neighborhood into smaller chunks remains an option.

The rewards of winning can be significant. A study commissioned by Indiana Landmarks and conducted by independent economist Donovan Rypkema found that in almost every case, Indiana historic districts outperformed their counterparts in home-price growth. The comparison between Fletcher Place and the adjacent Holy Rosary neighborhood was particularly telling. Both were close to downtown, both were influenced by Lilly, and the two had comparable housing. The only difference was that in 1982, Fletcher Place was designated a historic district by the IHPC, and Holy Rosary wasn’t. Over the next 15 years, home prices in the latter simply kept pace with the local housing market at large. Fletcher Place, on the other hand, skyrocketed more than 100 percent.

 

The Meridian-Kessler Land Use Committee ultimately rejected the proposed attached garage on 51st Street, and Brad Litz accepted the verdict rather than pushing it to the Board of Zoning Appeals, where the committee would have challenged him. He lost the buyer in the process. Looking back on it, he wishes he had resisted when the client asked for the anomaly.

While it’s not likely to be the last showdown Litz has with the committee, he admits to liking the idea of having them around. “The opposition can be a little annoying at times, but it also serves a purpose,” he says. “If people like that weren’t here, we’d have sporadic building all over the place. Who knows what Meridian-Kessler would look like?”

And surprisingly—despite the fact it would increase the hassle of remodeling in Meridian-Kessler tenfold—Litz wouldn’t oppose a historic-district designation. “As long as the rules are reasonable, I’d be fine with it,” he says. “People think the big, bad developer comes in and only cares about money. I live here! I care about the character of this neighborhood.”

Convincing a majority of Meridian-Kessler’s 15,000 residents to sign up for more red tape remains a longshot. But if successful, the movement to designate the large neighborhood a historic district could act as a model for other local communities where redevelopment of old homes is imminent or already underway—Windsor Park, Bates-Hendricks, Butler-Tarkington. Race, the associate professor who opposed the 51st Street project, believes the same affluence that attracted builders to Meridian-Kessler in the first place could be what makes the push to corral them successful.

“In most parts of Indianapolis, we just don’t have the resources to care about these things,” he says. “Meridian-Kessler is the one neighborhood with the capacity to make a stand. We’re fortunate enough that we actually worry about architectural standards here—a lot of places would love to attract any new construction at all. But if we blow the roof off every small house and stick a suburban second story on it, the neighborhood isn’t going to be the same. Interested in a big new house with an attached two-car garage? There’s a cornfield somewhere waiting for you.”

 

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