The nonprofit Indiana Landmarks has named the former Gary Heat, Light & Water Building at 900 Madison St. one of the state's 10 most endangered buildings. Staff photo by Jonathan Miano
The nonprofit Indiana Landmarks has named the former Gary Heat, Light & Water Building at 900 Madison St. one of the state's 10 most endangered buildings. Staff photo by Jonathan Miano
Gary has at least 12,000 abandoned buildings, many of which are uninhabitable and beyond repair, but a preservationist group says one is a definite gem that should be saved.

The Gary Heat, Light & Water Building was one of the original buildings U.S. Steel commissioned when it built up Gary as a company town in the early part of the 20th century. It was the last building designed by renowned architect George W. Maher, who was responsible for the Gary Bathing Beach Aquatorium at Marquette Park, the John Farson House in Oak Park and the since-demolished Patten Gymnasium at Northwestern University.

Now the nonprofit Indiana Landmarks has named the crumbling building at 900 Madison St. one of the state's 10 most endangered buildings. 

"Our mission is to save meaningful places, and this is a list of 10 important places in the state that are in great danger of being lost," said Indiana Landmarks President Marsh Davis. "But they're not lost causes – all have the potential for revival and reuse."

The Gary Heat, Light & Water Co., a U.S. Steel subsidiary, hired noted Chicago firm George W. Maher & Son to design the building in the 1920s. The steel framed, well-ornamented structure housed utility employees for years and later was home to the city's general services department, which left in the 1990s. It has been empty since then. 

"Maher was a Chicago architect who was very well known, and a lot of his commercial buildings still stand," said Tiffany Tolbert, director of the Indiana Landmarks Northwest Field Office. "He was of the period, part of the Prairie School-style movement in the 1920s, and influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. He was also known for mixing in the Arts and Crafts style."

His Gary Heat, Light & Water Building, which looks similar to the pavilion in Marquette Park, is a good example of early Prairie Style with the way its brick windows are shaped, Tolbert said.

U.S. Steel did not skimp on the building, which was designed to look prominent so that people could immediately tell it was used for an important government function, she said.

Features include pilaster columns, dentil molding and light fixtures that resemble lanterns. The interior includes a terrazzo floors and a semi-elliptical staircase.

In 2012, Gary declared the building blighted and added it to a demolition list. The city did not have the money for renovations. Building commissioner Steven Marcus said there are no immediate plans for demolition, but no one has come forward to save the building.

Gary would be willing to work with a developer to try to preserve the three-story structure, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said.

"I was intrigued to learn of the history of the building when it made the top 10 list," Freeman-Wilson said. "While no developer has come forward at this time, I would be open to a reasonable proposal to save the building."

The building could be renovated for multiple uses, including small offices and apartments, Tolbert said. A developer could potentially secure tax credits, including federal credits for any restoration of the building's original condition if it were added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Extensive renovations, including a whole new heating and air conditioning system, would be needed. But such an investment would preserve an important part of the city's history and architectural fabric, Tolbert said.

"Even in its vacant state it's a striking landmark," she said. "Its design really catches the eye."

The building is one of the few remaining from the period in the early 20th century when the Gary Land Co. transformed marshland that settlers long passed by into a booming steel town. City Hall and the Lake County Courthouse still flank the northern end of Broadway, and a few of the original homes are still scattered across the northern part of the city, but many of the other early buildings are gone, Tolbert said.

"You don't really see this type of construction or ornamentation anymore," she said. "It's pretty notable."

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