The city’s Historic District will soon be short three more houses as members of its review board on Tuesday granted the request of a local business owner wanting to expand parking.
But they did so begrudgingly.
HRB member Elizabeth Dunn voted to approve the demolition, but she called it a “disservice” to the historic community.
“Because if we don’t do this, you’ll let these houses fall down, and that will just look worse,” she told the applicant, Matt Fredrick, the owner of Fredrick and Son Funeral Homes at 313 Church St.
“I just think it’s a shame,” she said. “I think people should have more respect for the historic community when they purchase properties within it.”
The HRB in November was presented with a plan from John Pielmeier, representing Fredrick and Son, to tear down the three houses — 317 Vigo St. and 314 and 316 Church St. — to expand parking at their downtown location.
The plan, Pielmeier told the board, is to raze the three homes to create a larger parking lot for the funeral home and to give their customers — as well as visitors to downtown Vincennes via the Lincoln Memorial Bridge — a better, more clear view to the sprawling historic home that houses Fredrick and Son.
Fredrick and Pielmeier again on Tuesday argued that the three houses, especially the one on Vigo Street, were in deplorable condition and need to be torn down.
HRB members hesitated in November at agreeing to the demolition, especially of the sister houses on Church Street, and wanted to get feedback from the community, specifically other residents living in the city’s Historic District.
A handful of people — largely members of the Vincennes/Knox Preservation Foundation — did show up last month to speak, most of them arguing to keep and preserve the homes on Church Street.
Most of them came back on Tuesday but stayed largely quiet.
Fredrick told the board that he began buying the homes back in 2009 and has made only minimal, necessary repairs as the plan all along has been to tear them down for more parking.
City inspector Brad Snider said he went to see the three houses on Tuesday; the one on Vigo, he claimed, is “beyond repair.”
“When you walk in the back door, the floor is gone,” he said. “You’re looking down into the basement.”
He also said there were holes in the ceiling and roof and plaster falling off the walls.
The other two houses, he said, need much repair as well. He cited rotting mortar and a foundation on one that is “beginning to roll.”
He said the homes’ interior did have some “historic aspects,” things like transom windows over the doors and wood trim.
“But when you look at it from the outside, what do you see that is actually historic about these houses?” Snider asked the board.
And it was then that the meeting turned somewhat volatile.
HRB president Tim Trotter said while he appreciated Snider’s opinion — as well as one provided by Fredrick from local contractor Steve Wolfe documenting a similar opinion on their condition — it was disappointing, from a historic preservation standpoint, to see buildings in the city’s Historic District be left to rot.
HRB member Sarah Wolfe, too, said she found it “curious” that a business would intentionally buy buildings in the Historic District then “choose not to maintain them.”
Fredrick then took issue with HRB members saying they were worthy of any kind of historic note.
“There is nothing historical about those houses,” he said, his voice loud, from the back of the room.
“You can’t tell people what they can do with their properties just because they’re in a historical district.”
Trotter, however, said it wasn’t about the three houses individually; the HRB’s charge is to protect the entire district.
“They all have a measure of historic value especially when put together,” Trotter said.
“So can you appreciate how frustrating it is when we see someone intentionally letting them go?” he asked. “It’s one of the most frustrating things this board has to deal with.”
Dunn, too, argued that Fredrick knowingly purchased homes in the Historic District, and while she understood their parking plight, it’s not a problem foreign to any downtown business.
It’s imperative, she argued, that people begin respecting the Historic District if it’s to be saved.
“Communities like New Harmony are a prime example of how well preservation works when everyone is preservation-minded,” she said. “Our history is our biggest asset, but people in town seem to either ignore or forget that.
“And if we keep depleting it, there will be nothing left.”
But one thing they could all agree on is that in rare cases, with houses that are seemingly beyond repair, sometimes razing them to make way for something else — something arguably better — is, in fact, the best option.
Pielmeier, himself, pointed to the board’s decision two years ago to allow Vincennes University to tear down four square blocks of homes in the Historic District just south of campus to make way for the French Village, a New Orleans-inspired student housing project.
HRB members agree that it represents a vast improvement to that neighborhood.
Dunn said she once felt unsafe walking in that neighborhood; those homes, and the crimes that often occurred within them, were a “stain” on the entire district.
“Those apartments are such an improvement to that area,” she said.
City councilman Brian Grove, also a resident of the Historic District, agreed and argued that the benefit of allowing for the demolition of the three houses outweighed the benefit of forcing them to remain, likely only to fall into a more serious state of disrepair.
Razing them, he said, would open up visibility from Vigo Street and onto Fredrick and Son Funeral Homes, one he said was “a business that has operated as long as we are old.”
“It would make more visible a property that people can look at and say, ‘If they can operate in the Historic District, then so can we,’ ” Grove said.
Grove, too, pointed to the success of the French Village.
“I hated to see all those houses go,” he said, “but when we go by there at night now, the difference it has made in that community is amazing.”
Fredrick, too, came armed with an improved plan for the parking lot the funeral home wants to build. They’ve hired John Sprague, who serves as city engineer but who also operates his own firm, Sprague Engineering, to design it.
It will add about 50 more spaces for the funeral home but will also include green space, trees and shrubs, things to make it more aesthetically pleasing.
Pielmeier, too, said they’ve spoken with residents living in that area, businesses, too, and encouraged them to all to use the parking lot whenever the funeral home isn’t.
It will also feature a handful of places to sit and enjoy a few minutes outdoors, he said.
“It will have green space, lighting,” he told the HRB. “It won’t just be a parking lot. It will improve the look of the neighborhood.”
It will, however, for one year be just gravel, allowing for the area to settle, he added.
Pielmeier called the project “progress” for Fredrick and Son Funeral Homes, and he argued that the city should do more to help businesses who choose to remain downtown.
“The history is fine, but we can’t live that with the way businesses are run today,” he said, “not with the amount of business we do and the cost.
“You have to make it convenient for people,” he said.
In the end, HRB members thought allowing for the demolition better than allowing the homes to continue to deteriorate; Wolfe, however, did vote in opposition.
For her, she said, it’s as much about a larger housing issue. The city needs affordable housing for young people, she said.
Dr. Alan Snyder, who owns a business in that square block, said he understood the HRB’s frustration; he served on the board for 12 years.
Moving forward, he said, the city needs to begin thinking about how to work together to preserve what is left of the Historic District.
Other communities, he said, are excelling as they make historic preservation efforts a priority. Vincennes needs to figure out how to do the same and instill pride in those who live and work within its boundaries, he said.
“Regardless of what happens tonight, we all need to move forward and find a way,” he said.
And Trotter agreed.
“This isn’t personal,” he told Fredrick. “It’s just a frustration that this board has had for a long time in trying to maintain the historic integrity of this community.
“We keep losing buildings, and before you know it, there will be no Historic District left.”