Bloomington’s Showers Building still a vibrant hub of activity 20 years after the “Miracle on Morton Street”
F.A. Wilhelm Construction has come a long way since Francis A. Wilhelm built his first concrete porch for a neighbor in 1923. Then and now, F.A. Wilhelm Construction builds structures – and client relationships – that last.
In this series, we’ll take a retrospective look at some of our favorite projects – projects that illustrate the values of hard work, innovation, and flexibility upon which the company was founded. These projects were built on client relationships that have stood the test of time and which have helped to make Wilhelm Construction the success it is today.
Enjoy this blast from the past with Project Rewind.
Today, Bloomington residents and the thousands of Indiana University students that flood into the city each year enjoy a wealth of options for dining, shopping and entertainment in its vibrant downtown. But ask longtime residents here what Bloomington was like 20 years ago, and they’ll tell you a very different story – one of urban blight that was beginning to infect the downtown area.
One of the most visible signs of the downward spiral was the old Showers Brothers Furniture factory located on Morton St between 7th and 10th street on the near northeast side of the courthouse square. What was once the home of Bloomington’s largest employer and celebrated benefactor of the city’s growth and development throughout the early 20th century had become just another old, abandoned factory when the company shut its doors in 1955. Indiana University purchased the building in 1959, and it sat largely unused for the next 30 years until the city and its business leaders began looking for ways to revitalize the downtown area. Bill Cook, a local developer – was among them.
Bill Cook was one of the founding members of CFC, Inc. – a property management and development company in Bloomington. Jim Murphy, President of CFC, said that Cook had become very interested in historic preservation in the mid-70s. After building a highly successful medical equipment manufacturing company in Bloomington, Cook wanted to use his success to help the community. He saw a lot of potential in the downtown area and believed historic preservation offered a path to a new kind of economic vitality.
Murphy explained that at that time, many of the businesses in downtown Bloomington were moving out to the new shopping mall on the east side of town leaving behind vacant buildings and few reasons for people to visit the area. “There were numerous empty buildings, some of them were historic and some were not, but they were architecturally interesting,” Murphy said.
The Showers Building was both. The factory was constructed with heavy timber beams to support the floors and roof and large, double-leaf doors to accommodate the movement of goods and equipment. One of the most striking features of the building was the sawtooth roofline. The Showers Building was one of the first in the world to incorporate this architectural feature, which combined with large six-over-six pane wood frame windows on all sides of the building, provided an abundance of natural light and ventilation for the factory before electricity was available.
Recognizing the historical significance of the Showers Building and seeing its potential for the revitalization of Bloomington’s downtown area, Steve Ferguson, then-president of CFC and involved in Cook Ventures, began working with the university, the city and Bloomington Advancement Corporation – a nonprofit organization dedicated to economic development – to explore options for its restoration.
Paving the way toward the Showers Building restoration was as complex as the renovation itself. Murphy, who was tasked with handling negotiations, making decisions, and participating in the management of the contracts for the project, said, “It was a very complicated project because you had involvement from four entities.” He said BAC first had to purchase the building from Indiana University and then arrange to lease part of it back to the school for a research park. Another part of the building would be leased to the Indiana University for its new offices. The group came together to get the area designated by the state as an Economic Development Target Area to provide key tax incentives to help the project move forward. “It took several years to pull it all together,” Murphy said.
Once the restoration work began, Murphy said, “The biggest challenge was working with so many partners to get the restoration right.” For example, he explained that it was important to retain as many of the original windows as possible to meet historic preservation requirements. Those they couldn’t restore had to be replaced, and they all had to match the originals. “We ended up paying a premium for the new windows we needed to make sure they looked the same on all four sides of the building.”
BAC hired F.A. Wilhelm Construction to manage the project. Having begun building its own expertise in historic preservation in the early 1970s, Wilhelm, with more than two decades of experience and a wealth of expertise, was well prepared to breathe new life into Bloomington’s oldest remaining industrial building.
The Showers Building renovation was Murphy’s first experience working with Wilhelm. “They had the resources and the necessary knowledge and skill sets to do the job.” Reflecting back on his work with James “Tippy” Wilhelm, son of company founder F.A. Wilhelm, Murphy said the project was probably a “big challenge” for Wilhelm. “They worked not only with private entities, but also government – three owners of one building – to make sure we all received what we each wanted.”
The $28 million Showers Building renovation soon became the centerpiece of Bloomington’s revitalization efforts fostering a new optimism for the city’s future and leading one BAC member to dub the project the “Miracle on Morton Street”. That name has endured along with the spirit of growth and change in Bloomington – the preservation of its past and the building of its future.
Today, the Showers Building is a hub of activity – home to Bloomington’s city-county offices and host to the community’s farmers’ market, which draws more than 8,000 people to the downtown area any given weekend.
Murphy said historical preservation retains the character of a community. “Not that we want to stay frozen in time forever. But there is an importance in maintaining the history and integrity of the community.” He said CFC continues to look for opportunities to restore new buildings. Murphy said his company has also branched out into new construction, noting the construction of the award-winning Kirkwood Apartments that Wilhelm completed for CFC in 2004.
Bloomington continues to grow and change. Murphy said, “Whenever I reflect back at this project working with Wilhelm and working with Tippy, I have the utmost respect for Wilhelm Construction. They are a company of quality with integrity and exceptional workmanship and craftsmanship. It will be interesting to see what the next 20 years in the Showers Building brings.”