By Dan Vance
FORT WAYNE — As downtown Fort Wayne continuously evolves, the repurposing of historic buildings remains one of the trademarks of the city.
Local author and historian Randy Harter, who recently released his third book, “Fort Wayne Through Time,” is one of the foremost authorities on downtown buildings. In his new book, he and photographer Daniel Baker take a side-by-side look at the structures of the city. The book gives a glimpse into how Fort Wayne has changed and how many business owners have helped the imagery of the city stay the same.
“The book is kind of sad in some respects; we’ve lost a lot of great buildings over the years, replaced by something bright and shiny,” Harter said. “At the same time, it captures the history that we had and preserves it, which is why doing that last book was so much fun.”
Harter likes to see the repurposing of the facilities. He can name numerous historic buildings in downtown that sat empty for years and risked being eliminated at some point. The current History Center (formerly city hall), Lincoln Tower and the former home of Wolf & Dessauer each spent nearly a decade vacant at some point. Last fall, Aptera moved into the 113 W. Berry St. site that held Sears Roebuck until 1953.
“I don’t think we want downtown to just be mirrored glass windows and concrete,” Harter said. I think it is important to hang on to our past and, especially, the architectural detail that you no longer get in new buildings. I think it adds to the flavor of downtown and not just another office park.”
“It is what makes downtown what it is and hearkens back to the era when downtown was a lot younger.”
The Heart of Downtown
In 1987, Barrett McNagny, LLP, moved into one of the city’s oldest multipurpose facilities. The now-142-year-old law company took up its new home inside the building at 215 E. Berry St. that is most commonly known as the Elektron Building.
“In 1985, our firm was experiencing rapid growth and found itself squeezed inefficiently into two adjacent office buildings. So the decision was made to develop a plan for meeting our long-term anticipated housing needs within a single building, ideally a distinctive one, with room for expansion and a flexible enough floor layout to reasonably accommodate our changing needs,” Bob Walters, senior counsel at Barrett McNagny, said.
With limited available options that would fit their desired needs, the firm decided to move just down the street to the Elektron building. Over two years, with the help of architect Rich Wismer of MSKTD & Associates, as well as Gary Bergmeier and Zumbrun Construction, the building was restored and expanded to 50,000 square foot.
Built in 1895, the building was the brainchild of Ranald T. McDonald, one of the founders of the Jenny Electric Co. He used Wing & Mahurin architects, who also designed city structures like the Bass Mansion, also known as Brookside, and the current History Center. Over the years, the building developed its multipurpose-use reputation. It served as a temporary courthouse from 1898 to 1902, then as a temporary library from 1901 to 1903. It was the home of the Lincoln National Life Insurance Co. for 12 years and has served as a general office building; part of it was even briefly a bank. The large bank safe still resides in the basement.
While adding modern amenities in the 1980s and ever since, the goal of Barrett McNagny was to keep the true essence of the building and its history alive.
“The challenge was to bring a historic building up to modern standards, and we liked the idea of Fort Wayne’s oldest law firm finding its new home in the historic Elektron Building,” Walters said. “We had located the original Wing & Mahurin architectural plans and specifications for the building, and we strove to incorporate many of the designs, amenities and finishes of the original building.”
Harter, who talks about the Elektron Building in his newest book, was able to tour the building with Walters two years ago and still marvels at the neoclassical revival architecture.
“What a gorgeous building that is if you stand outside and look at it from across the street,” Harter said. “Everybody in town knows what the Elektron building is. You take some of those other buildings downtown that are fairly boring-looking and people can’t tell you the name of the building. There is not the association, the rich history at those buildings like the Elektron Building.”
A Working Example
At Martin Riley Architects, they have been able to use their repurposing of a historic Fort Wayne building as the central piece of their own brand. In the summer of 1996, the company closed on the Baker Street Train Station and spent the next half-year renovating part of the building for their new offices, which they moved into between Christmas and New Years Eve. They then renovated another tenant space that was ready for use six months later. Eventually, they used grant money to renovate the concourse, which today is used often as a banquet facility.
“It has become kind of an iconic image for our company. It has provided a fantastic identity that is synonymous with Martin Riley,” company principal Jack Daniel said of the building that opened in 1914 as the Pennsylvania Station.
“It is a building that would cost a fortune to reconstruct it to its quality and grandeur by today’s dollars and standards. In that regard, we had a tremendous head start asset that we acquired for pennies on the dollar, but we put substantial money into it, and we continue to put substantial money into maintaining it.”
Martin Riley’s purchase of the facility was to be the third and final attempt by the redevelopment commission to make Daniel believe it was destined for demolition and a future as a surface parking lot.
While Martin Riley’s company logo even showcases the iconic building, it has been able to use the work done there as an example of what the company does. One of Martin Riley’s areas of focus in the architectural world is adaptive-reuse projects, particularly of historic buildings. In layperson’s terms, exactly what it has done for itself with the Baker Street Train Station.
“It is a good working model to illustrate what can be done,” Daniel said. “We’ve taken a building that was built for public use and converted it to public and private use and are doing it successfully.”