Historic Bush Stadium in Indianapolis had three strikes against it, but instead of being “out,” it got another at bat. Currently under construction, the former baseball stadium that twice made the 10 most endangered historic landmarks list will soon become an apartment complex with commercial space.
Built in 1931 as Perry Stadium and later renamed Victory Field in 1942, the Owen J. “Donie” Bush Stadium was a beloved Indianapolis destination, home of the Indianapolis Indians minor league baseball team for decades, in addition to being home to a few Negro League teams and a Continental Football League team.
The stadium gained international attention in 1987 when Indianapolis hosted the Pan Am Games. That same year, it was featured as both Comiskey Park and Crosley Field in the Hollywood film Eight Men Out about the 1919 World Series.
Unfortunately, the property became vacant due to a new downtown ballpark built in 1996. The following year the property was leased by Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, who converted it into a dirt track for midget racing and renamed it 16th Street Speedway. Marsh Davis, president of Historic Landmarks of Indiana, considered the racetrack a “creative, neat use” of the property, but it wasn’t successful. Two years later the property was once again vacant.
From 2008 to 2011, the stadium was used to store cars traded in as part of the Cash for Clunkers program. “It made money for the city,” Davis said, “but the building was falling into disrepair.
It’s at this point that the stadium’s story blurs with future legend. According to Davis, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard organized a task force to determine the fate of the ballpark. Concurrently, 16 Tech Neighborhood Development, spearheaded by Develop Indy, began attracting attention for its efforts to capitalize on the momentum of Central Indiana’s growth in the life sciences and technology sectors.
A progressive urban technology park built with sustainability in mind and funded by public and private investments of approximately $955 million, 16 Tech is helping create new medical and research facilities, residential development and enhanced streetscapes and gateways that promote synergy between local businesses and academic institutions. It offers one million square feet (92,903 sq m) of development and redevelopment opportunities from commercial space to light manufacturing and assembly.
“There was a significant biotech industry focus in this corridor and major redevelopment was transforming the area,” Davis said.
Right in the middle of the corridor sits the stadium. Davis was concerned that “so much open ground would mean a ‘scrape job,’” so he began talking with John Watson, managing member of Core Redevelopment, about ideas to save the stadium.
“[They] approached me for an idea,” Watson said. “What could we do with it? I did some sketches to determine if it was feasible [to transform it into apartments]. We floated the idea to the committee voting to tear it down.”
Instead, Anne Shane, chair of Indianapolis Economic Development Inc., invited Davis to make a presentation to the committee. He made his “pitch” and waited for the decision. “it was the committee’s top pick,” he said.
Going to Bat for the Stadium
Luckily, nobody had rushed to tear it down during all the years it sat vacant, Davis said. That good fortune, combined with “creativity and lots of players,” rescued the old ballpark from certain oblivion by planning to preserve the original structure while establishing a beneficial function.
Stadium Lofts, as the complex will now be known, is being built within the shell and historic façade of the stadium in its original form. Retaining the U-shape of the original structure, complete with the press box above the units, the building will incorporate the original steel truss roof structure and associated columns.
“We had to get a variance from the state to leave the metal truss exposed, but it enhanced the historic character,” Watson said.
The structure was difficult to work with, Davis said, “but the city doesn’t need another baseball stadium.”
Convincing people the city needed more apartments and that the conversion could be done wasn’t easy.
“No one believed it could happen,” Watson said, adding that many thought it was a lost cause.
Now, he said, people love it. “No other project has garnered more attention.” That’s not surprising, since, he said, this is the only baseball stadium conversion project like it in America.
Leasing won’t begin until March 2013, but a waiting list already exists because of public interest.
Potentially easing the housing demand, a new 132-unit apartment complex, Stadium Flats, also will be built on the property, and remaining parcels of land will be set aside for the development of up to 118,000 sq. ft. (10,963 sq m) of commercial space.
Proximate to downtown shopping and restaurants, Stadium Lofts and Stadium Flats are within walking distance of the IUPUI campus, as well as other pedestrian paths and trails.
A Home Run
The original stadium was built in 1931 at a cost of $500,000 ($7.64 million in 2012 dollars). Converting it into a three-story apartment complex will cost $13 million. Work on the complex began March 1, 2012, with Indianapolis-based Brandt Construction Inc. serving as general contractor. The project is expected to be completed in August 2013.
Initial concerns regarding costly removal of asbestos and lead paint proved to be unfounded, with Watson reporting that there were no environmental issues. “It was pretty clean,” Watson said.
With the help of many excavators and six-day workweeks, demolition is complete and excavation work is nearly done. Much of the concrete has been crushed and used onsite to level the field.
“You hope for a neutral site,” Watson said. “It’s amazing that we have one, considering we crushed many tons of concrete.”
According to Watson, 80 percent of the bleacher sections has been removed and replaced with a wood frame structure in preparation for construction of 138 apartments ranging in size from 550 to 1,700 sq. ft. (51 to 158 sq m).
Once listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, the stadium is “architecturally significant,” Davis said, who was eager to save the art deco building front. “It’s also culturally significant — for baseball, the Negro League and the city. It’s an important place in our city’s history.”
While it honors the past, Stadium Lofts is not a museum.
“Historic Landmarks is trying to break the old stereotypical beliefs. We recognize life’s continuum: functions change, so a building must have an adaptive use. We realize that to allow a property to remain, sometimes it requires alterations. [Stadium Lofts] retains the essence, spirit, character and key defining elements that give it historical significance, but it has found a new, useful life. We hope it speaks well to the fact that things are not frozen in time. We consider it a model and hope to inspire others.”
It’s one of many nods to history, as the complex pays tribute to its roots through numerous features. “The exterior façade will be unchanged,” Watson said. “The interior façade is glass and metal; it will look like suites at a ball stadium.”
In acknowledgement of the old reinforced concrete building, the new apartments will feature exposed concrete floors on all three floors for a “loft finish,” Watson said, adding that, “it’s unusual to have concrete floors with a wood frame.”
In another historic gesture, apartments will be numbered like ballpark sections and seats.
The baseball playing field, which was recently used as a storage area for 2,000 vehicles from the Cash for Clunkers program, will be planted with grass. The baseball diamond will be re-created in concrete as homage to its glory days for future generations.
Watson said that Historic Landmarks of Indiana was made beneficiary of a preservation easement that will permanently restrict the property from development, thus preserving a little piece of sports history in the trendy tech district. CEG