This is the first in a series of stories this week on Greenfield's downtown historic district.
GREENFIELD — At first glance, the houses surrounding downtown seem like little more just that – houses, a neighborhood like any other. But what these quaint cottages, low-slung bungalows and candy-colored Queen Annes don’t reveal with a passing glance is a rich history, architectural significance and the ties to some of the very people who formed the city that’s built up around them.
For that reason, more than 300 homes and 200 other features of downtown Greenfield’s residential district were added to the State and National Registers of Historic Places last year. The homes and other structures within the district tell the story how Greenfield really came to be, gaining from its situation along the National Road and the money brought in by the Gas Boom – still evident in some of the district’s finer homes.
“It really sets aside properties in Greenfield that have more significance,” said Candy Hudziak, who served as the consultant completing the application and lives in a historic home within the district.
The effort was funded by a grant from the state of Indiana and was supported by matches and other contributions from Indiana Landmarks and Greenfield Main Street, Inc. Hudziak, passionate about seeing the project completed, donated half of the hours it took to finalize the project.
“I wanted to be a part of this project,” she said. “I thought it was an important thing (to get done).”
The district doesn’t just recognize fine homes, but also the people who have made them noteworthy.
At one time or another, the district was home to some of Greenfield’s most important residents. Founders, farmers, bankers, executives, politicians and artists have all lived in the district.
Some, like one-time Greenfield Banking Co. President Charles Barr, had magnificent homes built, in which their legacies live on.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Barrs were one of Greenfield’s wealthiest families. Barr commissioned well-known architect John Felt to build an ornate Queen Anne-style home at 25 W. Walnut St. Now the For Hymn Bed and Breakfast, the Charles Barr home is one of the most well-preserved examples of this popular and flamboyant style of American architecture in the district.
Other homes are less architecturally significant, but instead are important for the people who lived in them – such as Will Vawter’s 1900 Dutch Colonial Revival. The home has suffered much change since Vawter lived there, but the artist’s legacy was is an important one, so the home remains noteworthy. Famed poet James Whitcomb Riley and wealthy benefactor Mary Moore were also one-time residents of the historic district, and their homes remain highlights.
For both the neighborhood’s significance in the development of Greenfield and its many iconic architectural standouts, Hudziak said the district had been on a “wish list” of sorts — one of many properties and districts that the state wanted to see added to the national Register.
The application process is not a short one – especially for a district as large as this.
After determining the district’s boundaries, with help from the Department of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, Hudziak and her employees had to walk the entire district. A one-page survey and photo is on file for each of the 539 resources that contribute to the district.
“It’s a huge district,” she explained, “with a huge amount of architecture represented.”
Homes in the district were built between 1840 and 1960. At least four distinctive periods of American architecture can be found within its blocks – not a common sight, Hudziak said.
Months of work, research and meetings eventually paid off, however. The 50-plus page application was submitted to the state and accepted without revision. The district was added to the Indiana Register in October 2011 and the National Register in December of that year.
The district was not always as densely populated by homes as it is today. Houses once sat on large lots of one acre or more. Several contributing homes along West Fifth Street, like those at 114, 202 and 216, maintain some of the look and feel of family estates that used to prevail throughout the area. Though the home at 202 was built for someone else, the prominent Boyd family at one time owned all three homes. Each still sits on more than an acre of land. The founder and president of Citizens Bank, Philander Boyd, lived in the two-story brick home at 202 W. Fifth Street. The homes on either side were built for his children on land Boyd owned.
Hudziak said these homes are some of the finest in the district, all built in the popular Italianate style, known for their large size and dramatic roofs with wide, over-hanging eaves borrowing from architecture of the Italian Renaissance.
While large homes, elaborately decorated, were hallmarks of the district’s early period, it was filled in with more modest homes. Residents of more modest means made popular Queen Anne cottages. They were usually just one story, but they still feature some of the decorative elements that make the style so recognizable. Through the early and mid-1950s, the popularity of the heavily adorned Italianates, Queen Annes and Revival-style homes gave way to more modest bungalows and cottages.
Craftsman-style bungalows were particularly popular and are still found throughout the district. One of the best examples is the Robb House at 205 E. Grant, complete with the characteristic low roof with wide eave overhangs that extend over the front porch. The exposed rafter tails and brackets are all marks of a high-style Craftsman bungalow.
The district is also home to several unique properties, which are not only rare in the district but outside of it as well. Several rare home styles and floor plans – like a Prairie Revival with Asian influences and a Queen Anne “X,” are also unique to the district.
Another such example is the 1949 Lustron house at 720 N. East St. Made of prefabricated enameled steel walls, Lustrons gained incredible popularity in the post-World War II era, but only 2,500 homes were ever built. The company was overwhelmed by a rush of orders in the late 1940s and went bankrupt before completing the majority of the 20,000 orders it received. The steel construction makes the homes particularly interesting, as magnets can be stuck to nearly any surface. This example is still painted in its original yellow – one of four colors available – and was owned by the Pickett family.
While having a property on the National Register can certainly be seen as an honor all its own, the, the recognition has other perks. It allows property owners access to tax credits for historic rehabilitation, which is especially beneficial for the many properties that would not be significant to make the Register on their own merits. Being part of a listed district gives them the same perks, though.
Rebecca Smith, Community Preservation Specialist with Indiana Landmarks, said property owners do not need approval to make changes to listed properties.
“It’s one of the most common misconceptions,” Smith said.
But if property owners want to have rehabilitation work certified, the owner can qualify for tax breaks at the state level. Commercial properties can be eligible for breaks on both state and federal taxes.
“Greenfield has such a wonderful collection of historic structures… (Landmarks) wanted to ensure that the people in Greenfield realized what they have,” Smith said, “and we wanted to see the residents have those opportunities.”
Friday, read about Ken and Joyce Benbow’s 1869 Italianate style home, and how they’ve renovated it over the last 35 years.