MK Place and Space is a regular feature column dedicated to the exploration of ideas on what makes Meridian~Kessler special as a built community. We encourage relevant conversations on architecture, urban planning and design, development and redevelopment, conservation and preservation. We invite ideas that contribute to how we shape our notions of our places and spaces. We publish research, case studies, projects, opinions and interviews. MK Place and Space is edited by Kim Kourany, Mary Owens, Nick Colby and Christopher Vice. Please share your ideas for future columns. Email suggestions to email@example.com
As the assistant director for Preservation Services in Indiana, he reviews nominations for the National Register of Historic Places and records for the Indiana Historic Sites and Structures Inventory. He also assisted the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission (IHPC) in the creation of the Irvington Neighborhood Plan. He is the author of The History and Architecture of Meridian~Kessler and Greater Irvington, Architecture, People, and Places on the Indianapolis Eastside.
MK spark: What vision do you have for Meridian~Kessler?
Paul Diebold: Meridian~Kessler, like many historic Indianapolis neighborhoods, has always been a really vibrant area. It was designed that way. Meridian~Kessler’s residential areas are easy to navigate on foot or on a bike, and the strategically placed commercial districts support the residents and those who travel its corridors. The vision I have for Meridian~Kessler is one of sustainability, managed growth, and managed development, so that it maintains its character. The character is what makes people want to live there. They feel comfortable there. It feels like home, and I think maintaining that feeling is really important.
You mentioned that your vision for MK is the same as your vision for other historic neighborhoods in Indianapolis. Are there any neighborhoods that have made that vision a reality?
Yes, definitely. There are several. I live in Irvington, and I would say we have worked really hard to make Irvington a fantastic place to live. If you walk down East Washington Street, you will see gorgeous buildings that have stood for decades, and they are filled with locally-owned stores, breweries, restaurants, and services. People are bustling in and out of shops, sitting outside on a patio enjoying a latte, or walking to the bus stop. The success of this area is the direct result of the residents, business owners, and community groups working together toward a common vision. Because we value the history and character of Irvington and we manage the development here, we have made the vision a reality, and we are now reaping the benefits. Our properties’ value is increasing faster than ever, we have a nice place to walk and to shop, and our neighborhoods maintain that great “Irvington vibe.”
Does the City of Indianapolis have zoning codes that protect the heritage of historic neighborhoods?
The City has been adopting —for a while now—the use of Neighborhood Plans. In Irvington, we embarked on developing a new Neighborhood Plan in 2010, and we did look at zoning. Along Washington Street, for example, we changed the zoning to eliminate pole signs that you might see further out from the center of the city because they were not appropriate for our area. So there is the ability to rezone areas, but ultimately zoning simply provides some measure of control over the envelope of the building. It doesn’t typically address things like the quality of the building, the massing of the building, or whether the style of the building will fit with the community. Zoning is important, but it is a broader tool. It’s probably too broad a tool to greatly affect the preservation of a neighborhood. Things like zoning are for overall planning purposes.
What are the biggest threats to MK achieving that vision?
Meridian~Kessler residents have a shared heritage embodied in its homes, buildings trees and other features. There is a tremendous amount at risk when we start depleting our historic neighborhoods of the features that have defined them for more than a hundred years. Raising awareness about the importance of that shared heritage is the first step to putting tools in place to protect them. When a community values its heritage, sustainability, managed growth and managed development can occur in a way that benefits the entire area.
What does historic preservation do, in general, to improve quality of life?
Historic preservation increases the livability of places. When an area is designated, new construction, like infill buildings (i.e., typically new construction between two existing structures), and remodels have better quality of design and higher-quality materials. Areas with no designation are subjected to other peoples’ interpretation of what is appropriate. When you have quality design and construction, it attracts quality businesses and long-term residents who are interested in the future of that neighborhood. That, in turn, makes the area more livable.
What are some tangible steps that stakeholders can do to protect the heritage of MK while promoting vibrancy through continued growth and development?
When a neighborhood is ready to move from education to action, one thing stakeholders can do is look into the different historic designations. The National Register of Historic Places provides recognition and some degree of protection. It is often viewed as the litmus test to determine if a place is historic. Meridian~Kessler has several buildings and neighborhoods on the registry. Local designation, through an agency like the IHPC, is a more complete expression of protecting the neighborhood’s assets. The IHPC would help the neighborhood move toward developing a plan and getting people interested in defining their shared vision that would ultimately protect its heritage.
Is historic preservation for wealthy people and for homes where somebody famous, for instance, may have lived? Or is there significance to smaller or less famous properties?
The preservation movement has definitely evolved. It started by looking at homes of the rich and famous, like presidents and military leaders, but today, historic preservation looks at the role of the neighborhood in the city and the role of this form of housing in the growth of a city? Local significance is a legitimate reason for wanting to save a neighborhood, a type of home or a single house.
I think of it like a puzzle. The first thing you do when you want to build a puzzle is look at the box and dump out the pieces to make sure you have all the parts because you won’t have the whole picture, if you don’t have the all the parts. When you lose those once-common houses, you begin to lose the picture. The picture is what people want. The picture is what attracts people to live in an area.
Can you give an example of a collection of homes that might be significant to MK?
Sure. Bungalows were once common in the 1920s, but we are not building bungalows anymore. We can’t build bungalows anymore. We don’t know how—not to the quality that they were built before. We don’t have the time to go out and find first- or second-growth oak and quarter saw it to make the trim work. We don’t have the time to do real plaster. We don’t have the time to lay real load-bearing brickwork for the porches. These things are just too labor-intensive.
We certainly have many talented builders that can emulate a 1920s bungalow, but to take the time and effort to hand-construct them, as they once were, is nearly impossible now. That’s why I view these houses as a resource in the same way we view a tree is a resource. The difference is that if a tree becomes diseased, and you have to cut it down, you can plant another tree. You simply cannot replace a historic house.
Besides MK residents, who else plays a role in seeing that vision to fruition?
Property owners, residents and business owners are certainly stakeholders. Non-profits, churches, and schools are too because they are the moral anchors of the neighborhood. Everyone who lives or works or utilizes services in the area has a vested interest in determining what Meridian~Kessler will look like. In Irvington, for example, we have the oldest operational IPS school in our local historic district. There was some concern by IPS that they would not be able to fulfill their very important mandate to educate area students no matter what their means. Once we started to talk with them about what it means to be in a local historic district, they began to understand the importance of the guidelines. It turns out that they were able to make a sizable addition to their building that met all the preservation standards, and they continue to provide a great education for the students in a 110-year-old building. It’s proof that historic designation is not an impediment to businesses or schools or residents, and I would offer it is actually enhancing their experience.