by Marion Simon Garmel
The good news is that an application has been submitted by Indiana Landmarks to the Department of the Interior to place the long abandoned Beth-El Temple at the corner of 34th and Ruckle streets on the National Register of Historic Places.
The bad news is that there have been no viable proposals yet on how to save the historic building for use in the 21st century. Despite almost five years of fundraising and ideas, nothing has jelled into a viable solution. So a new push is on to find a new use for the old building.
“If there is any hero in this story it is Indiana Landmarks,” says Jackie Nytes, president of the Temple Heritage Center Inc., a nonprofit formed to save the building. “Landmarks has been the go-between here to hold everything together. If we get this designation, it expands our fundraising potential,” she said.
Once the center of a vibrant Jewish community on the near-Northside, the Beth-El Temple was an early home of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, which sold the building in 1958 to follow the Jewish population northward.
Another Jewish congregation, B’nai Torah, occupied the building until 1968, when it too moved northward. Three consecutive Christian churches called the building home until the early 2000s, when it was abandoned by its private owner and eventually taken over by the county for delinquent taxes.
Indiana Landmarks acquired the building from the county in 2014 for the nonprofit Temple Heritage Center Inc. The preservation group paid $50,000 for the site, and a $100,000 community development block grant to Mapleton-Fall Creek Community Development Corporation covered needed repairs to stabilize and preserve the building.
A matching $110,000 grant from the Central Indiana Community Foundation’s Efroymson Family Fund paid for the installation of a new roof. Since then any water damage has been repaired and two added garage features were removed to bring the building back to its original footprint. This spring the lawn was reseeded and brought back to life.
The Neo-Classical building is architecturally important because it was designed in 1924 by the local architectural firm Vonnegut, Bohn and Mueller, which also designed the Athenaeum and downtown L.S. Ayres buildings. Among the temple’s significant features are very detailed plaster work and unusual brick work, says Mark Dollase, Indiana Landmarks’ vice president of preservation services and the man whose office prepared the application for placing the building on the National Register of Historic Places.
The inspiration for saving the building came from Isaiah Kuperstein, a member of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and owner of Double 8 Foods, which had a store at 555 Fairfield Ave., around the corner from the temple. He could look out his window and see the deteriorating building, and spearheaded the early effort to save it while he was president of Temple Heritage Center Inc. (Jackie Nytes was then director of the Mapleton-Fall Creek Community Development Corporation and worked on early efforts to save the building. She is now CEO of the Indianapolis Public Library.)
As the oldest remaining Jewish congregation building in Indianapolis, the temple is doubly significant. There are older congregations—Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, for one—but the congregational buildings that were older than Beth-El Temple are all gone now. The words Beth-El Temple are inscribed on the lintel above the Ruckle Street entrance.
When an idea was floated to turn Beth-El Temple into a Jewish Heritage Museum, the idea died for lack of interest. Likewise, suggestions to use the building for a daycare facility and a job-training program have not materialized. The latest plan to use the building as a center for training people in the building trades in historic restoration collapsed when the possible partnering institution dropped out.
The Beth-El Zedeck Foundation, however, funded several gatherings of Jewish community leaders, architects, developers, nonprofit executives, and political and neighborhood leaders to discuss potential uses of the building. And Congregation Beth-El Zedeck Rabbi Dennis Sasso consulted on the application to the National Register of Historic Places to make sure the religious aspects of the building were accurate.
It can take one to two years to get the Historic Place designation, says Dollase. “Ultimately, when we’re listed, we can apply for grants and developers could use historic tax credits,” he said. Meanwhile, Landmarks is considering issuing a Request for Proposals (RFP) to gather new ideas for the building. “The question becomes, how do you really find a new use for this building?” said Nytes. “Our little committee, as much as we worked and thought, could not come up with a viable plan.”
She noted that there already are many churches in the area that offer rooms for community meetings, so a community center isn’t really needed. “We are very open to have the building serve a purpose that is educational or cultural,” Nytes said. “We basically are going to put out a cattle call,” she said. “Hey folks, here is a cool building with lots of history, lots of architectural integrity. If someone is interested let us know.
“We’ve become a very entrepreneurial city lately. Where this building is located—halfway between downtown and Broad Ripple—is ideal for development,” Nytes said. “There is no coffee shop in the area. A really cool restaurant would work.” Parking might be a problem but the Double 8 parking lot is sitting empty and there is pretty good bus service in the area, she said.
“Getting this application submitted is huge progress,” Nytes said. “It opens the opportunity for funding of many different projects. We offer thanks to Landmarks for their stewardship and interest.”
Longtime Midtown resident Marion Simon Garmel is a retired arts journalist and serves as secretary of the Woman’s Press Club of Indiana.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 2016 issue of the magazine.