By BEN Z. HERSHBERG
At first glance, the brick building at 1614 East Spring St., New Albany looks like many of the city’s 80- or 90-year-old houses. But Dick Bliss, a builder and a member of the New Albany City Council, came to realize several years ago that it was a special place with a special history. And now, after purchasing it, he’s renovating it for office and commercial space.
“I like old buildings,” he said.
It’s much larger than its graceful appearance from the street would lead one to believe. One section of the first floor houses a dance studio, and there is adjacent space for several other offices or small businesses.
The second floor once housed a basketball court for the old Calumet Club, an important early 20th century sports and social organization.
The 17,000-square-foot building, known as the Calumet Club Building, was built in 1919. It caught Bliss’ eye while he was working on a nearby building a few years ago.
He said he expects to spend about $300,000 renovating it — more than he spent to buy it. He declined to disclose the purchase price.
The building was owned by the Calumet Club, which at one time had 900 members, until the late 1930s, when the club apparently lost the building as a result of the Great Depression, Bliss said.
The federal government owned it after that, with the U.S. Army Reserve and the Selective Service using it until the late 1950s.
Bliss said older New Albany residents have told him about swimming and other sports activities in the building, and about newly inducted soldiers leaving from the building for training on their way to the Korean War.
He bought the building from the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees about three years ago, after discussing the purchase with union officials off and on for a couple of years.
Since then he has made repairs as time and money have permitted, and between several other construction projects.
Bliss’ plan is to have the office space on the first floor and to make the basement and the second floor available for parties and meetings. The basement space — which can accommodate about 120 people at 15 tables — should be available next year.
“It is a very pleasing-looking building,” said Scott Wood, New Albany’s chief planner.
The building’s high-quality architectural detail, tile roof and pleasing proportions are in the Arts and Crafts Style, Wood said. It was rated as an outstanding building in a 1994 inventory of architecturally significant structures prepared for the city by a consultant, Wood said, and he thinks it’s worthy of listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Wood said Bliss has worked hard to maintain the historic integrity of the building’s exterior in his renovation.
“I think he’s done a wonderful job with the roof work and window work,” Wood said. “You can tell he takes a lot of pride” in the building.
Architect Ron Stiller, who has worked on some aspects of the renovation with Bliss, said he too is impressed with both the building’s quality and Bliss’ renovation.
Getting the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in addition to highlighting its quality, would make it eligible for significant tax benefits, Stiller said. While he thinks the building is worthy, he said, it will take some work by Bliss to win the designation.
That’s because, beyond the building’s architectural quality, Bliss will have to document its historic significance to the city.
Because it is a mere 84 years old, state officials — who must approve it for listing before it can be submitted to federal officials — may need more proof of its historic and architectural significance than for older structures, Stiller said.
As Bliss showed the building to a visitor, he spoke about its structural quality and special features — like second-floor windows that are nearly seven feet tall and more than five feet wide.
He also pointed out how expensive it has been to maintain and repair some of those special features. He said he spent $6,000 to replace a cast-iron sewer pipe that had rotted beneath the building, and hundreds of dollars apiece to replace big old broken windows with double-pane, thermal windows that look like the old ones.
With such expenses, Bliss said, “I won’t make the investment back in my lifetime. This building was in bad repair.”
But he hopes his family will keep the old building for many years to come.
“If you hold on to it,” he said, “you’ll get your money back in the future.”