By Dale Moss
Did it really happen? Did the Calumet Club’s basketball team really beat visitors from the University of Louisville?
Richard “Dick” Bliss has heard it did.
For sure, the place where that win supposedly happened is again a winner. Bliss sat recently at about midcourt, my guess, explaining why he spent the past decade turning the club’s old base into a potential new magnet for his hometown, New Albany.
“It would’ve been a damned shame to let this old building crumble down,” he said.
Richard “Dick” Bliss has heard it did.
Bliss’ project is at 1614 E. Spring Street, in a neighborhood perhaps now best known for its White Castle. What’s latest and greatest about the rehab is the completion of the cavernous third floor, the top floor where not only ball was played but balls were held.
Dick Bliss looks out the window of the restored Calumet Club. After a decade of effort the Bliss family finishes restoring the historic building in New Albany (Photo by Pam Spaulding, the Courier-Journal)
May 14, 2010
The floor is hardwood and the windows stretch high. The way up and down involves a choice, elevator or stairs. The space – room for about 330 people, Bliss said – offers a mix of options for wedding receptions, banquets, parties — most anything short of hoops.
The game goals are gone, replaced by new goals for a new Calumet Club.
“The selling part is getting people in the door,” said Mark Bliss, Dick’s son and the building’s manager. “Once they’re in, it sells itself.”
It opened 90 years ago, the clubhouse for an elite group. Members bowled, shot pool and played cards, as well as took advantage of one of the area’s premier gyms. They were envied, go the stories, but their club was not invincible. It could not survive a depressed economy and advancing, competing community amenities. It folded in 1932.
Huge and handy, the building served on and on, though. It became a National Guard armory and a union hall. Unemployment offices were there for a while, as was the Selective Service.
Dick Bliss bought it from the union, years after he had first offered. He owned nearby property, a vantage point from which he noticed both the place’s possibilities and its many problems. Some windows were shot, the roof leaked, etc. An incredulous friend asked Bliss if he knew of what he was getting into.
Bliss has remodeled – handling the work himself as much as possible – as he has been able to financially. He took out a loan only to install the elevator and to add the staircase.
“Now, me and the bank own it,” he said.
Bliss, 72, lost his job operating a press that made crankshafts when International Harvester closed in Louisville in 1984. He took up buying houses and other buildings, fixing them, selling some and renting others. His wife, Mary Pat Bliss, and their family also started a business, Bliss Travel, which now operates in the Calumet Club. Mark Bliss counts on providing people not only a setting for a wedding and a reception but also honeymoon arrangements.
Son applauds father’s perseverance on work costing at least $1 million. Mark Bliss said his father did not allow himself to be overwhelmed.
“He will not cut corners,” Mark Bliss said. “He just will not do it.”
A city agency, the Historic Preservation Commission, honored the Calumet Club project this year. Parts of the building already have been available for rent and, last year, the New Albany chapter of Tri Kappa sorority used a downstairs area for its annual luncheon and fashion show. Needing more space, the sorority recently became the first to party upstairs.
“I love the nostalgia of the building,” Tri Kappa member Remy Branstetter said. “And it’s beautiful.”
Locals are donating Calumet Club memorabilia and are debating if Calumet was actually pronounced Cal-u-may. Bliss said a display will be set up. In the meantime, an open house is to be held Tuesday from 5 to 8 p.m.
“When he gets to show the building, he lights up like a kid,” Mark Bliss said of his father. “It’s his baby.”
Dale Moss’ column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Reach him at (812) 949-4026 or firstname.lastname@example.org.