Admiring a great building is more than an aesthetic experience. It is only natural to imagine yourself dressed in the clothing of the period going into the building to do business, worship, attend a party or participate in a salon. Or maybe you simply yearn to have been a fly on the wall witnessing the history that happened there.
Lincoln Tower, however, stands as a stylish testament to rising above the events of its times. It’s done it twice. First, Lincoln Bank went ahead with the project despite the stock market crash that happened barely two months after the groundbreaking and began the Great Depression. Second, it’s still a viable and vibrant place of business downtown in today’s economic climate which is, sad to say, less than congenial overall for elderly skyscrapers.
You can love Lincoln Tower for its Art Deco beauty; you can remember its historic role as the tallest building in the state from its completion in November 1930 until 1970, and you can admire its resilience and persistence as a downtown landmark celebrating its 80th anniversary this month.
Two good stories explain Lincoln Tower’s greatness and its resilience.
THE FIRST STORY
The first story is told by Charles H. Buesching, Lincoln Bank president when the building was conceived and built. City historic planner Don Orban has this story in his file on Lincoln Tower.
In Buesching’s words:
“The Tower idea was completely my idea and the design of the building was my idea. In those days we had local architects, Weatherhogg and Mahurin, and my building committee was Arthur F. Hall, Oscar Foellinger, Frank Bond, and A.G. Burry and W.F. Griffin, and they all favored the local architects but I simply couldn’t enthuse over the designs that they were submitting.
“The designs were clumsy and I realized they would cost just as much money as a more ideal design and just before we were to choose one of the local designs a little runty salesman stepped up to me just fifteen minutes before we went into a meeting with my building committee. He represented Walker and Weeks, a famous architectural firm in Cleveland that had won the world competition design of the World War Memorial in Indianapolis and I told this gentleman, I said, ‘Why didn’t you show up here 30 days ago?’
“I told him my problem that I was having a meeting and it looked like we would have to choose a local design. Well he said ‘Give me a week and I’ll give you a design but what kind of design are you thinking about.’ I said I wanted a miniature Tribune Tower, the Chicago Tribune. He said ‘I’ll have it here within a week.’”
Buesching’s pride in the bank’s new home is evident in the brochure prepared for its grand opening in 1930.
“As the Empire State building, now under construction in New York will be the tallest building in the world, so the Lincoln Bank Tower, now completed, is the tallest in Indiana. Built as the new home of the Lincoln National Bank & Trust Company in order that the needs of the banking public may be better served, it also provides an office building of rare beauty, convenience and appointments.
“The building has twenty-two stories with the tip of the flagpole 312 feet above the street. The terra cotta coping topping the 22nd floor is 262 feet above the sidewalk. An appreciation of the relative size of the building is gained when it is noted that the tip of the outstretched hand of the ‘lady on the courthouse’ is passed at the 16th floor. The nearest approach to it in height in Indiana is the Merchants’ Bank building in Indianapolis, seventeen stories high.
“While the architecture is of marked simplicity, the effect is one of pleasing grandeur. Occupying a site of 85 by 150 feet, the building rises in chiseled grace, tower style, modernistic, with vertical lines predominating. The base is in Milford Granite from Massachusetts; the main shaft in Indiana limestone, with a conservative intermingling of terra cotta of vivid and varying hues with the stone crowning the upper portion of the building. A considerable amount of gold is used with the terra cotta, presenting a treatment that is colorful and unique — one of the first adaptations in America of this combination to be used. By day or by night the building is beautiful, reflecting the rays of the sun or the play of floodlights. A revolving beacon from the top of the tower fixes Fort Wayne’s location for miles distant.”
THE SECOND STORY
Times change, of course, and Lincoln Bank finally left the tower, as did many of the tenants on its upper floors. It is in these less than auspicious circumstances that the second story begins.
John Tippman Sr. tells this story:
“A friend of mine, Dave Norton, was a Realtor with Goldstein at the time. He approached me back in 1987-88 a couple of times about taking a look at the Lincoln Tower because it was on the market.
“I had told him two or three different times, ‘Dave, I have no interest in a high-rise office building in downtown Fort Wayne, with the little bit soft market Fort Wayne has had for the past 15 years.’ I was familiar with the bank and had banked with Lincoln before it was acquired by Norwest.”
At this point, the tower’s occupancy was down to 26 percent, and banking had moved to the new facility on the northeast corner of Calhoun and Wayne streets.
“He finally talked me into walking through the building,” Tippman continued. “I got to looking at it from the standpoint of ‘who as an investor could take this thing and make something of it.’ It is such a beautiful building, the icon of Fort Wayne, the center of attraction. It was a shame. It had not really started to fall into disrepair, but not much had been done recently. It had that abandoned look when you walked in the door.
“We’re a company in the real estate and contracting business and we have a property management company, and we had the resources. I felt if anybody would do anything with this building we were the ones who could do it.”
Decision made, the purchase was arranged.
“Almost before we knew, we were the new owner of the Lincoln Tower,” he said.
Tippman’s purchase was just the first good, recent thing that happened to the elderly skyscraper, though. The Tippman company invested in a thorough updating of the building, which included replacing 485 inefficient old windows with new efficient ones while carefully matching the look of the originals along with removing steel siding from one side and replacing it with nicely matching masonry. Just then something else happened.
“In 1989 while we were in the process of remodeling, a group of investors decided they wanted to start a new community bank in Fort Wayne, and they first came to me as a potential investor,” Tippman said. “They very much wanted to be in the Tower. As things worked out, there were enough solid investors, and we worked out a deal to have them put their headquarters in the Tower and name it the Tower Bank.”
Today, “the building occupancy is near 90 percent, and the heating and air-conditioning in the building works 90 percent better because the windows we put in were thermopane tinted windows, much more practical,” Tippman said. In addition, the creation of the Courthouse Green has vastly improved the view of Lincoln Tower, and the combination of the Tower and the Courthouse is architecturally very impressive, Tippman and Orban agree
LIVING HAPPILY EVER AFTER
No one can promise a building — or a person — an infinitely wonderful future, but Lincoln Tower’s prospects are good.
Tippman sees his company’s ownership role as being the building’s latest custodian while doing what is practical and respectful to keep it commercially viable. Both he and Orban recognize that its prestige can help its future though not guarantee it.
“If you were going to put your business in something, depending on your space needs,” Orban said, “Lincoln Tower has some advantages.
“You say you’re in the Lincoln Tower,” he said, throwing up his hands. “You can’t miss your office. That gives you some status.”
Orban sees the people of Fort Wayne as having an enduring love for Lincoln Tower, demonstrated every year on Be a Tourist in Your Hometown Day when people with the tourist passport are allowed up into the Tower.
“The lines to get into that building go all the way down the block,” he said. “People just love that building. It would be easy to get in if they didn’t.” ■