ELKHART — Why was the Foster Mansion torn down, and why has nothing been built in its place?
One day in September 2002, residents of Elkhart’s St. Joseph Manor neighborhood were appalled to see a crew demolishing the Foster Mansion, a majestic three-story home built in 1917 in the Greek revival architectural style. It was built for W.H. Foster, a businessman and mayor in 1918, and designed by architect E. Hill Turnock, who designed many other homes in the neighborhood.
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Situated on a prime bluff on the south bank of the St. Joseph River, with a gorgeous view of the water, it had 29 rooms, including a third-floor ballroom, and was believed to have the city’s first elevator. As the old structure came down, neighbors traded stories about its past, according to Truth archives. Bing Crosby once sang there, and there were tales of movie stars staying there.
Owners Rex and Alice Martin, who run NIBCO Inc., the Elkhart-based flow-control products maker, bought the mansion and told neighbors they planned to renovate it. The previous owners, the Ashbaugh family, invested a lot of money to renovate it already. The Martins said they were going to move the home closer to the water.
But the couple told a neighbor at the time the home would cost too much to renovate it for their plans.
As angered and saddened as many neighbors were over the demolition, they took some solace in hearing the Martins’ plans to build a new home at the site. But 12 years later, all they see is a six-foot chain link construction fence that violates city code.
The Martins were out of town this week at a conference, according to Rex Martin’s secretary, and NIBCO corporate counsel Tom Eisele, to whom they had referred media questions about the mansion in the past, declined to comment when contacted Friday, June 27.
Ann Linley, who lives across the street from the site, was the homeowner association president when the home, a boathouse and a neighboring house were demolished. At the time, she said it felt the neighborhood had been “used” by the Martins.
Some neighbors quoted by the Truth at the time said they understood why the Martins would want to build a new house that was more livable for modern times.
When contacted this week, Linley, no longer association president, asked that the issue not be reported on again.
“I think this one is just going to open up a whole lot of old wounds,” she said. "It was a God-awful mess. Neighbor versus neighbor. It was a very ugly situation."
The Martins have never publicly said why they didn’t build anew on the site, nor have they told the association members why. Linley suspects it’s because they would have needed a variance from current city zoning code that requires the home to be set back from the water and neighboring homes. Obtaining the variance would require agreement from neighbors, and there wasn’t much goodwill left in the neighborhood after the demolitions.
The fence, erected by the Martins for safety reasons, also had been a point of controversy. The city in June 2003 had given the Martins three options: remove it, petition the Board of Zoning Appeals for a zoning variance, or replace it with a fence made of a different material that meets ordinance requirements, according to a Truth article at the time.
When contacted for comment Friday, city officials said they could not pull a file and answer any questions about what became of the situation.
Arvis Dawson, Mayor Dick Moore’s executive assistant, cited the administration’s policy of requiring written public records requests to be filed and processed by the city’s legal staff, a process that rarely can be completed in the same day, in order to obtain any information from city personnel about public matters. Dawson said the city’s three attorneys were out of town at a conference.
Of the fence, Linley said, "We’ve kind of gotten used to it."