2 buildings face different destinies

Calumet Theater's fate sealed as church gives old courthouse new life
2010-06-01T00:05:00Z 2 buildings face different destiniesBy Jeff Burton - jeff.burton@nwi.com, (219) 933-3246 nwitimes.com

HAMMOND | As hundreds of people gathered Thursday to celebrate the rebirth of the old federal courthouse on State Street, a much smaller group gathered inside the former Calumet Theater less than a mile away to mourn the loss of another historical structure.

Shuttered for more than a decade, the old movie house has been ravaged by time and neglect.

From the outside, the stone building with ornate etchings appears merely to need some sprucing up.

The dull red and yellow stripes along its classic marquee could use repainting. The few flashing light bulbs could use replacing.

A handwritten sign on the doors proclaims the Calumet will be reopening soon -- but the inside of the building tells a much different story.

Trash lines nearly every square inch of floor space. A steady trickle of water flows from the ceiling near the projection room, and the smell of mold and mildew throughout the building is chokingly strong.

The screen, where Hollywood blockbusters flashed for generations of families, is ripped to shreds. The stage, where Miss Hammond contestants competed for years after the theater's 1930 opening, now is filled with old bicycles and littered with debris.

"You can't save this," said Phil Taillon, director of planning and development for the city, whose Redevelopment Commission bought the building last year. "It's not very difficult to have a building get to the point where it's unfixable. This is definitely one."

The story of the Calumet Theater's fate mirrors that of some of downtown Hammond's most notable buildings. Like the structures that once housed the Goldblatt Bros. Department Store, the Parthenon Theater and The Hammond Times, the Calumet's curtain call will come courtesy of a wrecking crew.

After it was vacated for a much larger campus on Hohman Avenue in 2002, the old federal courthouse on State Street could have been one of those condemned landmarks. But like dozens of buildings around it, the iconic limestone building constructed by the Works Progress Administration in 1939 was bought by the trustees of First Baptist Church in 2008.

The church paid $550,000 for the building, and, after completing more than $3.5 million in renovations, it opened the building to the public Thursday.

The first floor of the building looks much like any newly constructed office space, with the smells of fresh carpeting and paint wafting through the halls. On the second floor, though, the building's history shines.

Gone are the mold and debris the church found when it took possession of the building. The marble walls and intricate terrazzo floors gleam just as they did in the 1940s. In the old courtroom, the solid wood-paneled walls have been polished, and many of the original art deco-style benches have been refinished.

"We redid as many as we could," said Eddie Wilson, the church's media director. "We even tried to get new lighting fixtures that look pretty close to the original."

The work First Baptist did is indicative of what Taillon envisions throughout the city's downtown district. Buildings that have been shuttered for years are beginning to show subtle signs of life, Taillon said.

"I meet with people regularly who show interest in downtown Hammond," Taillon said. "We get people from Chicago that come and look at (buildings) all the time. It's just a matter of hooking the big fish."

Taillon said a task force actively is looking at how to carry out portions of a comprehensive plan for the area's redevelopment. He said while the city can't start businesses to fill empty spaces, it can offer a variety of incentives for existing businesses to locate downtown and can help provide a safe and inviting atmosphere.

"We've already started getting the ball running on this," Taillon said. "Something the city can do is landscaping."

Another part of the plan Hammond can control is the relocation of all city offices into the Calumet Building. Taillon said the city is in talks with the owners of First Midwest Bank -- the building's current owners who occupy the ground-level space -- for an option to buy the building, although nothing has been finalized.

"One thing the mayor has already talked about with moving City Hall downtown is he wants to know what residents of Hammond really feel about it, so we're looking at ways to do that," Taillon said.

Another concern with the possible move is finding a use for the existing City Hall on Calumet Avenue. The last thing the city wants is another vacant building, Taillon said.

In the meantime, Taillon is eager to see the effect the Hammond Academy for Science and Technology charter school will have on generating traffic downtown. The school is being built at the site of the former Masonic Temple on Muenich Court and is scheduled to open in 2011. Parents will need to transport their children, bringing hundreds of vehicles downtown each day.

"I truly believe downtown may not be what it was, but it can be great again," Taillon said.

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