Commission staves off demolition of former Boxman’s Restaurant, aka Player’s Pub building

Getting a reprieve from demolition on Thursday night was the building on the 400 block of South Walnut Street in Bloomington, just north of Seminary Park, which most recently was home to The Player’s Pub.

A vote by the city’s historic preservation commission (HPC) to end the 90-day period of demolition delay, and to allow owner Josh Alley to tear down the structure, failed on a 3–5 vote.

On a nearly mirror image vote—5–2 with one abstention—the HPC voted to start the formal process for a review of the property, with an eye towards putting it in front of Bloomington’s city council for local historic designation.

The building is not in a local historic district or local conservation district that is under the jurisdiction of the HPC. But the request to demolish the building had to go in front of the HPC because it is listed as “contributing” in the Indiana Historic Sites and Structures Inventory as well as the local inventory.

When the HPC hands off the question to Bloomington’s city council, the HPC can also put the property under interim protection, which would prohibit the owner from demolishing the building in the meantime. The interim protection can remain in effect until the city council approves the proposed historic district boundary map, by adopting it in an ordinance, or rejects the map.

Under local code [BMC 8.08.010(d)] the next steps for the HPC include: preparing a map setting forth the new historic district’s boundaries and building classifications; holding a public hearing on the question; notifying adjacent property owners about the public hearing; deciding to submit the map to the city council for consideration; and preparing a report for the city council detailing which of the specific criteria justify historic designation.

Two criteria are satisfied, which make the building eligible for local historic designation, according to Conor Herterich, the city’s historic preservation program manager.

One criterion is that the building be associated with a person who played a significant role in local history. In the case of the former Player’s Pub building, the person is Henry Boxman, according to Herterich. Boxman is described in the HPC meeting information packet as having operated a successful and highly popular restaurant business out of the building for almost four decades, with a connection to Colonel Harlan Sanders, the storied purveyor of fried chicken across the globe.

The other eligibility criterion is that the building be the work of a builder whose individual work has significantly influenced the development of community. In the case of the former Player’s Pub building, it is the association to the Mitchell brothers, Stanley and Ira, according to Herterich. The brothers built a handful of brick commercial block buildings along South Walnut in the 1920s.

Monroe County’s online property records list 424 Walnut LLC as the entity that purchased the building for $625,000 on July 23, 2020.

Weighing in for demolition were the statements from three different contractors in the HPC meeting information packet.

From Construction Planning and Management: “It is in CPM’s opinion that the cost needed to incorporate this building is not economically feasible vs. demolishing the building and building new.”

From BFW Crane: “The single-story portion appears to have a significantly insufficient floor framing system as evidenced by the obvious deflections/slope of the floors. … The entire roof system appears to be randomly framed, with deflections/deformations of components visible in numerous locations. …We recommend that wholesale demolition/reconstruction be considered.”

From Gilliatte General Contractors: “We have determined that the roof on the north end of the building is in eminent danger of collapse. …It is our professional opinion that this building is not in a viable condition to be saved and should be demolished in its entirety.”

Representative of the response to the structural assessments among HPC members was a statement from Chris Sturbaum, who said, “It’s a good building with history. Nothing cannot be repaired. And that’s going to be my position.”

Sturbaum indicated some frustration that he’d not heard a response to some of his suggestions to preserve the facade.

The building owner, Josh Alley, told Sturbaum, “Our goal is to repurpose as much of this stuff on the front as we can.”

The interest in preserving at least the facade appeared to be one of the arguments that persuaded some HPC members that they should not allow demolition, but rather start the process to consider historic designation. With a historic designation, the HPC would have a say in the granting of possible certificates of appropriateness for the future work on the building.

HPC member Duncan Campbell put it this way: “If you want to continue in a conversation with Josh about ways to save the facade, as some of you have said you’d like to do…then I’d like to stay in the conversation through the process. And if you don’t, and you allow demolition, nobody’s going to ask you anything again about what happens here.”

Campbell added, “Our job is to look at the history, determine if we think it’s significant enough to tell a story about Bloomington that we think needs to be preserved. And to stand up for the buildings that represent that history. That’s our job. That’s all it is.”

Alley indicated that he did not think it was feasible to preserve the entire facade, but said, “We would do our best to repurpose the limestone and as much of a brick on the front facade and the new building as we possibly could.”

Alley also told Henry Boxman’s son, Charlie Boxman, who attended the video-conferenced meeting, “We would name the new building The Boxman.” He added, “We’d be more than happy to put up a plaque and reference, all the stuff that [historic preservation program manager Conor Herterich] just read.”

“It’s not that we want to just tear down as many buildings as we can—that’s not the nature here. It’s just this building is beyond salvage,” Alley said.

Later in the meeting, Alley returned to the cost of preserving the facade: “Saving the initial facade is not economically feasible. You know, it’s always easier to talk about spending money when it’s not yours.”

Alley added, “With the pandemic, you know, 2 x 4s went up 60 percent here in the past month, a sheet of plywood went up almost 100 percent, actually over 100 percent. And so doing the things that you guys are talking about is easy when it’s not your money.”

HPC member Doug Bruce was one of the three members who voted on the losing side to allow for demolition. He pointed to the public response which ran about two-to-one in favor of allowing the building to be demolished. Bruce said many of the comments in favor of preserving the building talked about their experiences at the Player’s Pub.

Bruce called that “an emotional response to a place where they had a really good time.” He added, “But saving this building would not bring back the Player’s Pub.”

Bruce did not make much of Boxman’s relationship to Colonel Harlan Sanders and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Bruce said, “The whole KFC connection, I don’t give any credit to that. That’s a corporate symbol that was used to sell crappy food.”

Like some of the public commenters, Bruce pointed to Seminary Park, a half block to the south as a problem. ” We have a homelessness issue at the park a block away. …And I think this is a time to revitalize this part of downtown, which needs it.”

HPC member Sam DeSollar, who voted for demolition said, “Every neighbor, every business owner in the neighborhood wants to tear this thing down.”

One nearby business owner, Tim Ellis, said during public commentary, “This building has had different changes in different designs and different uses. It’s not a beautiful building. It doesn’t have historical significance. … So I would heartily support the petitioner’s request to demo this building.”

Ellis also disputed whether the building was constructed by the Mitchell brothers.

The kind of considerations that won the day were described this way during public commentary by Steve, whose last name did not appear on the video-conferenced screen: “I just want to say that these buildings are not ordinary. Typically, when you designate a property, or when you recommend designation to the city council, it’s because of its architecture.”

Steve continued, “In this case, the architectural argument is there. But there’s an extraordinary argument for the biographical criteria here. And it’s very unusual that you have this strong of a story. … So I think that makes this one unusual when it comes to designations.”

Steve also pointed to a potential impact on other buildings from the same era: “And another thing to keep in mind is its relation to the other Mitchell buildings in the community. And there’s going to be development pressure to tear down other ones, too. There’s houses on Walnut Street, and other commercial buildings that were related to the family.”

Steve warned, “And if this one goes, I think you’re probably going to see people come forward to propose demolitions of other ones, too.” He wrapped up by saying, “If we care about these wire brick and limestone and tapestry brick buildings that the family built in the 20s, then now’s the time to start sending them to the city council.”