VINCENNES, Ind. (AP) — Crews working on the renovation of the old Hills Department Store building downtown got a bit of a surprise recently when they found a piece of history no one had seen for probably 70 years.
“They called it the Fresh Air Hotel, or at least that was its nickname,” said Derick Donovan of Donovan and Donovan Associates, the downtown architectural firm working on the project, as he stood in the building’s vast — and now largely empty — first floor. “It was a 7-story steel frame building that was just never finished.”
Donovan said crews found some of the structure’s remaining steel foundation when they went to pour a new concrete foundation; all of the old steel must be removed first.
“You never know what you’ll find down here,” Donovan said with a laugh.
The Hills building is currently being renovated for use by Pioneer Oil. Wolfe Construction is the contractor and Donovan and Donovan is handling the design.
The Illinois-based oil company plans to move some 40 employees to Vincennes, possibly sometime this winter.
“Construction of Phase I, which is the exterior of the building, was supposed to take 4-5 months,” Donovan told the Vincennes Sun-Commercial (http://bit.ly/1jKapwF ). “But with this discovery, it will probably push that back by a month.
“So, yes, it will cause a delay, but it’s interesting all the same. With this kind of construction project, surprises are expected.”
Local historian Norbert Brown said the site was first home to a building owned by Bierhaus and Co., which later sold it to William Burchfield, who opened the Burchfield Department Store there in 1922, renting out the rear of the building to the Indiana Bell Telephone Co.
In February 1926 fire destroyed the building, the blaze killing three people, and ruining Burchfield; at the time there were numerous tax liens against the store and insurance wouldn’t cover his losses.
After that, the corner sat vacant for a number of years until a developer commissioned Vincennes Steel, now Wabash Steel, to build a grand hotel called the George Rogers Clark Hotel in the early 1930s.
“It was supposed to be this big, nice, fancy hotel,” Brown said. “Vincennes Steel actually erected the steel, but then the company building it went bankrupt. The skeleton just stood there, earning it its nickname, until the middle of World War II.”
Brown said in 1942 the United States government bought the steel for use in the war and completely dismantled it.
The corner again sat empty until the Hills building was built in 1951.
The building as it stands now was listed as non-contributing in an inventory of buildings within the Historic District when Pioneer Oil bought it last year. It was constructed in “commercial vernacular” style, which according to Historic Review Board member and county assessor Cathy Lane, essentially means a blank, often somewhat boring, canvas.
It’s composed of limestone, stucco and yellow Art Deco bricks, Donovan said.
But Donovan has designed a whole new facade for the structure, one that will feature darker brick, sandstone with more than 80 decorative windows, a design much more similar to the other buildings along Main Street.
“The exterior has completely been stripped,” Donovan said. “We want to give it a more historical look so it fits in better with downtown.”
Adding the windows, Donovan said, gives the inside a fresher look. The third floor, he said, was once so dark crews needed a flashlight even during the day to get around. Adding the windows — there were only 12 in the entire building before — opens the space up for Pioneer’s employees and will significantly cut down on the size of the electric bills.
Pioneer has also hired an artist to paint a large mural on the backside of the building, Donovan said, one that features renderings of the company’s founding members as well as some of the equipment used in the oil field.
“Much of it is already stenciled in. You can see it,” Donovan said gesturing up at the now white-painted brick wall. “I think they wanted to cut down on the cost but also portray the history of their company as well.
“And it’s the entrance their employees will use, so it’s nice that this is what they will see.”
Once they finish the outside, Donovan said Phase II, the renovation of the inside, will begin. They’ve already removed a drop ceiling on the first floor and taken out a few walls in preparation for a large lobby space and offices all the way up to the third floor.
“This has been a really exciting project for us because we are creating an asset for downtown,” he said. “And I think the surrounding downtown neighbors will appreciate it. It will really help to brighten up the street scene on Main Street.
“But on the other hand, projects like these are always a lot like exploratory surgery,” he said, referring back to the discovery of the historic steel. “When you open up floors, walls you find things.
“But that’s what we’re here for. We’ll take the challenge one at a time.
“We haven’t found one yet we couldn’t handle,” he said with a smile.
Information from: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, http://www.vincennes.com