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COLUMN

History vs. bureaucracy: Which will prevail?

Studio of 'dean of Indiana artists' struggles for survival

Saturday, March 29, 2014 - 12:01 am

When he died in 1957 at the age of 90, nationally known landscape impressionist Homer Davisson was remembered as the “dean of Indiana artists.” But that notoriety hasn't prevented his former Fort Wayne studio from being threatened by the ravages of time, bureaucracy and the personal hardship of the former Fort Wayne resident hoping to save and restore it.

The 121-year-old boarded-up building at 331 W. Pontiac St. doesn't look like much now – “It's a barn, there's no way around that,” historic preservation architect Craig Leonard concedes – but it means quite a bit to historians, artists and University of Wisconsin-River Falls associate professor of history Victoria Houseman, a former south-side resident who bought the property about three years ago before she even knew about its connection with the artist she had long admired.

“I like to come back to Fort Wayne, (the property) was very inexpensive and we thought we could turn it into a place to stay during visits. But I was always interested in Midwest painters, and I was thrilled to discover that Davisson worked there,” said Houseman, who with her husband spent more than $20,000 on reconstruction of the crumbling chimney and the removal brush and debris.

But when the long illness and eventual death of her father, Jerry Houseman (who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Mark Souder in 1996) brought renovations to a sudden and prolonged stop, her problems with the city's Neighborhood Code inspectors began.

When the people hired to maintain the property allowed the lawn to become overgrown in violation of the city's weed ordinance, the inspectors took notice and, according to Houseman, suggested at a hearing late last year that an order to raze the structure “might be closer than you think.” She is now seeking to have the structure declared a local historic landmark which would protect it from demolition, but another Code Enforcement is scheduled for next month, and Houseman fears the worst.

City spokeswoman Mary Tyndall, however, stressed that despite cracks in the foundation and other issues, there is no imminent threat. “But they need to show progress,” said Tyndall. Davisson's adjacent home, which was built in 1873, burned and was removed in 2004.

But to Leonard and other preservationists, even the possibility that the most visible remnant of Davisson's life in Fort Wayne might share a similar fate is enough to raise concerns. Leonard, who met Houseman earlier this year after she gave a lecture on local classical scholar and author Edith Hamilton at the main library, has contacted officials with historic preservation group ARCH, the adjacent Williams-Woodland historic district and others about the need to save the building whose plainness belies its importance.

“The problem is that the Housemans are not here, and it's difficult to deal with these things alone,” he said. “But it's a place associated with the 'dean of Indiana artists.' ”

I don't want to paint city code inspectors as the villains here. They have a difficult, endless and thankless job to do, and blighted properties can and do drag down entire neighborhoods. But it's equally clear that the Housemans made a good-faith effort to improve the property, and would have done more by now, had not life – and death – intervened.

“(The studio's) never been a home, but we want to make it into one. It was originally a carriage house. There's no plumbing and minimal electricity,” Houseman said. “This has really weighed on my mind. All of a sudden they just seemed like they wanted to knock it down. I don't understand the urgency. We're in limbo.”

Given all of the other buildings in town that are in a far more advanced state of disrepair, with no historic importance or hope of renewal, the city should do all it can to remove the uncertainty. The Housemans should make immediate repairs if necessary, and Code Enforcement should respond by giving them the time they need to finish the job.

Turning a boarded-up shack into an attractive, taxable, livable home is certainly preferable to creating another vacant lot, after all, and do much to preserve the memory of the man who in 1953 became the first local artist honored with an exhibit at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art – a man often forgotten by history but, ironically, still honored by the very people who fear their efforts on his behalf will not succeed.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.