Whiting’s Skyscraper 

John Hmurovic
April 2019

A deposit book for a Central State Bank savings account.

When it was built in 1928, it was called “The Pride of Whiting.” Less than fifty years later, it was called “A Dangerous Eyesore.” For 58 years, the Central State Bank Building stood on the southwest corner of 119th Street and Indianapolis Boulevard, where Peoples Bank is located today. It was then, and remains today, the tallest building ever constructed within the city of Whiting. It was, as people also called it in 1928: “Whiting’s Skyscraper.” 

Central State Bank was Whiting’s fourth bank when it was established in 1917. Its president was Whiting City Judge John H. Fetterhoff. The bank was initially located in the Buczkowski Building, which was at the corner of 119th and Cleveland Avenue, where the Clipper Tavern is located today. But for many years, Fetterhoff had his eyes on a lot diagonally across the street, where just a one-story frame building stood. The lot was owned by J.J. Kelly, who bought it in 1903 for $1,400.

When Kelly purchased the lot, the heart of Whiting was further east on 119th Street toward Front Street, and automobiles were rarely seen in the city. By 1926, downtown Whiting had expanded westward, and automobiles were taking over America. Both 119th Street and Indianapolis Boulevard were part of the Hoosier Highway, the road which bore almost all the cross-country traffic into Chicago from the east. That intersection had the reputation of being the busiest in Indiana, and one of the busiest in the United States.

In this 1926 newspaper ad, Whiting Real Estate Agent Henry S. Davidson encouraged others to follow the lead of J.J. Kelly, who turned a $1,400 investment in a lot at the corner of 119th Street and Indianapolis Boulevard into $40,000. Kelly did it by selling the lot to the Central State Bank for the site of the bank’s new building.

Kelly knew his $1,400 investment was a choice piece of real estate. He accepted Fetterhoff’s offer of $40,000 for the property. At the time, that was the most money ever paid for a single piece of land in Whiting. The deal was announced in early July 1926. Before the end of the month, Fetterhoff announced that the Central State Bank would erect a new building on the lot, and it would be a building befitting the most expensive lot, on the busiest intersection, in a booming city.

The Central State Bank Building was six stories, 72 feet, tall. That may not sound tall compared to today’s skyscrapers, such as Chicago’s tallest: Willis Tower at 1,450 feet. But in 1928, the year that Central State Bank was built, Chicago’s tallest building was the 568-foot tall Chicago Temple at 77 W. Washington Street. The Central State Bank Building was, according to the Lake County Times, a “skyscraper.”

The architectural firm of Peterson and Johnson, from Rockford, Illinois, was hired to design the structure. The upper floors contained 63 office spaces. On the ground level was space for five shops, and over the years they housed retail businesses like drug stores and barber shops. The banking facility itself was on the ground floor. The main entrance to the bank and the offices was between two stone columns, each two stories tall, positioned right at the corner of 119th Street and Indianapolis Boulevard.  

 “The entire structure is of steel, concrete and marble, and absolutely fireproof,” Whiting’s Ben Franklin Press newspaper said. “The upper floors are accessible through Otis elevators which will be controlled by lady operators.” The upstairs offices were all equipped with hot and cold water, the newspaper reported, and each office was provided a double cabinet. At a cost of $425,000, the completed building was “a splendid piece of architecture.” The Ben Franklin Press dubbed it as, “The Pride of Whiting.”

The lobby of the Central State Bank in its building at 119th Street and Indianapolis Boulevard.

The most impressive part of the building was the bank’s main lobby. The floor was made of imported travertine marble. The ceiling was made of ivory and gold leaf. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling to add to the lighting provided by windows which faced the alley. The lobby was 40 feet wide by 60 feet long, and the ceiling was 22 feet high. There were floor to ceiling columns inside the bank’s main lobby, and pilasters (flattened columns) along the walls.

A grand opening was held on Saturday, October 27, 1928. Invitations were distributed to every home in Whiting and Robertsdale. Everyone who showed up was led by an escort, who showed them the building’s features, from the bank lobby to the sixth floor, where visitors were treated to a new view of their city. Everyone was given a souvenir and was invited to inscribe their name in a registration book. Over 12,000 attended.

During its prime, the Central State Bank was Whiting’s most impressive building, shown here in a painting by Whiting artist Al Odlivak.

In the months which followed, the offices on the upper floors filled. Doctors, dentists and lawyers were the main occupants. But looking back, the day of the grand opening was probably the high point for Whiting’s skyscraper. Everything changed almost exactly a year after the opening.

On October 24, 1929, the stock market suffered severe losses, and by October 29 it had collapsed. It was the start of what became known as the Depression. Nationally, there was hope of an economic rebound in the early part of 1930. But late in the year, bank failures in Tennessee started to raise concerns. When newspaper headlines reported that the Bank of the United States, the fourth largest bank in New York City, failed on December 11, panic spread across the country.

People lined up at banks to withdraw their money, afraid that a bank failure would leave them with nothing. Depositors of the Central State Bank in Whiting were withdrawing money throughout 1930, and by December the bank was in a dangerous position. The news from New York started a new wave of withdrawals. Hundreds of banks collapsed in the final weeks of 1930, including Whiting’s Central State Bank, which closed its doors for good on December 19, 1930.

The Central State Bank Building offered birds eye views of Indianapolis Boulevard and 119th Street. This is how 119th Street looked from the top floor of the bank building, probably in the early 1930s.

Bank President Fetterhoff said the withdrawals by depositors depleted the bank’s cash reserves. In other words, the bank ran out of money. Just over two years in their new building, Central State Bank was out of business. It never reopened.

Although the bank was gone, the building survived, thanks to money coming in from the rent of its street-level storefronts and upper-floor offices. By the end of the 1930s, there were nine doctors in the building, four dentists, a chiropractor, and three lawyers. There were also two insurance agents, two beauty shops, and it housed the engineering department for American Smelting and Refining. The Ben Franklin Press and the Whiting Times also had offices there. Dr. Frank Doll started the Whiting Clinic in the Central State Bank Building, and it continued there through the 1940s even after his death. Liberty Savings and Loan moved into the ground floor banking part of the building in the 1940s.

The Standard Drug Company was a long-time occupant of the Central State Bank Building. This is a pill box from the pharmacy from 1941.

But as the 1950s wound down, there were serious signs of problems in Whiting’s skyscraper. Liberty Savings and Loan moved to its own building, next door to the Central State Bank Building. It was not alone in moving out. By 1962, about two-thirds of the building’s offices were vacant, even with some of them converted to apartments. By the end of the 1960s, there were six tenants left in the building. Two of those were apartment dwellers, and one was the office for the Central State Bank Building. Dr. Peter Stecy was the only doctor, Edward Kosior the only dentist, and the Gainer Insurance Agency the only other business.

A Christmas tree sat on top of the Central State Bank Building in this nighttime photo from around 1939. Notice the illuminated sign for the Illiana Hotel, located beyond the bank building, on 119th Street at the corner of Atchison Avenue.

The building was old, doctors and dentists moved to better locations, and some of the tenants were not happy with the building’s maintenance. The beginning of the end was in 1974, when one of the owners sued the other. Dominic and Mariann Sevald and Clement and Alice Knapp co-owned the building since 1941. The Sevalds moved to Florida in 1969, and the Knapps became responsible for the management of the building. But in 1974, the Sevalds sued. They claimed the Knapps allowed $200,000 in damages to occur to the building and were not paying their share of taxes. They said the building was no longer fit for occupancy and blamed the Knapps.

Lake Superior Court Judge James J. Richards ordered that the building be closed and placed in receivership. Attorney Walter Keckich was appointed as receiver and was told to have the remaining six tenants vacate the building, drain the plumbing, winterize the building, and sell it. Dr. Stecy was the last to leave.

From that point on, “The Pride of Whiting,” was more commonly referred to as “A Dangerous Eyesore.” Wind-blown seeds took root in the cracks on the façade, and there was a real fear that portions of the building could break off and fall on the sidewalk and streets below. The glass windows shattered, and every window frame on all six floors had to be boarded up. The building was even a danger to vandals, who had to navigate floors covered with broken glass and avoid an open elevator shaft, after they broke through heavy locks to steal brass pipes, ceramic fixtures in the bathrooms, and anything else of value they could cart off.    

Dr. Peter Stecy was just one of several physicians who had his office in the Central State Bank Building. He was the last to leave when the building was shut down.

Multiple efforts were made to sell the building, or to find a new use for it. “I just want the building safe and profitable for someone,” said Chamber of Commerce President Gerald Talbot. “We need someone with a sincere interest in the building.” Potential buyers came with numerous ideas: a mini-shopping mall, housing for seniors, a night club, an insurance agency, and a radio station. There was even a discussion about moving city hall to the old bank building. But the cost to repair the building was too high and those who tried to buy it could not arrange the financing for their projects.

While efforts to sell the building were going on, so were efforts to get it torn down. But there were multiple legal issues. The building became the property of the county in November 1979, forfeited because of unpaid taxes. But Lake County did not have the money to repair the building, nor the money needed to tear it down. It was sold to an East Chicago man for $632.30 at a tax sale in December 1981, but that sale was nullified due to an error in the way the sale was handled. Three more tax sales failed to produce any buyers.  

After all the businesses moved out, the once grand Central State Bank Building became an eyesore on the southwest corner of Indianapolis Boulevard and 119th Street, with its windows boarded up.

In 1984, after years of legal delays, Whiting Mayor Joseph Grenchik vowed that the building would come down that year. “We’ve been living with this problem for more than 20 years,” he said in January. “We’ll take it down with Boy Scouts if we have to. Rest assured, it will come down in 1984.” It didn’t. Although it was Whiting’s problem, it was still the county’s building. Whiting wanted the title transferred to the city, but the process moved slowly.

Pieces of the building did break off in 1984 and fall onto the roof of the neighboring Liberty Savings & Loan building. “The façade of the Central State Bank building won’t last the winter,” City Planning Commission President Kenneth Curosh said in October of that year. But as Mayor Grechik pointed out, “lawyers work slowly,” and it wasn’t until August 1985 that the county transferred ownership of the building to the city of Whiting.

An interior staircase inside the Central State Bank Building in 1986, shortly before the building was demolished.

Even then, progress was slow. The city wanted, for instance, to transfer federal revenue sharing money to a demolition fund, but ordinances needed to be passed for that to happen, public hearings had to be held, and the state of Indiana had to give its approval. Finally, in December 1985, the city accepted a bid from Henderson and Son Construction of Gary to tear down the building for $115,151. It was to be done in 120 days.

It should have gone smoothly from there. It didn’t. Henderson and Son had problems obtaining liability insurance for the demolition. But by mid-February 1986, everything was in order and the demolition began. Less than a month later, it ground to a halt.

Everyone knew there was some asbestos in the building. Asbestos was once routinely used as an insulating material. By 1986, it was known to be a health hazard and its removal from old buildings had to be handled carefully. But neither Henderson and Son nor the city, knew that the Central State Bank building had so much asbestos. It was found on the sixth floor, and then on each of the other floors along hot water pipes that were a part of the building’s heating system.

Once it was discovered, the Indiana State Board of Health shut the demolition down until Henderson and Son could get approval for asbestos removal. “We’re just steadily losing money on this project altogether,” Gloria Henderson said. And she added that these “unforeseen costs are not going to come out of our pockets.” The company said it did not have experience removing such a large quantity of asbestos and refused to apply for the permit until the issue was resolved. It wanted more money from the city.

A demolition crane sits on top of the remaining floors of the Central State Bank Building as the building comes down in 1986. This is a view, from 119th Street looking toward Indianapolis Boulevard, of the backside of the building.

The partially demolished building continued to stand on the corner of 119th and the Boulevard through most of March, all of April, and into May, when the city initiated a 24-hour security watch around the building. “We have to take precautions to protect the city’s interests as far as liability,” Mayor Grenchik said. Meanwhile, Henderson and Son removed its equipment from the demolition site. The project was supposed to be completed by June. Instead, in June, the city hired a new contractor for the job: National Wrecking Company of Chicago. By mid-June, work resumed after a delay of 3½ months. By September 1, it was complete. The Central State Bank Building, nearly 58 years old, was gone. The city recouped some of the money it spent on demolition by selling the corner lot to Liberty Savings & Loan, which built a new, but much shorter, building on the site.

To this day, the Central State Bank Building is still the tallest building ever constructed in Whiting, but it only briefly held on to the title of the tallest in Whiting-Robertsdale. St. John the Baptist Church, built two years later in 1930, and still standing, rises 190 feet into the sky.