Madison: A tale of two cities

(Photos by Nice Shots!)

My hometown is Madison, Indiana. You could say that my city has a kind of split personality, as Midwest towns go. Make that split personality, squared.

No, I’m not dumping on Madison when I say that; I’m just stating a fact. You see, we’re a city in the valley of the Ohio River. And on the bluffs above the Ohio River. We have people who have lived here all their lives and who always thought they knew their hometown pretty well. And we have people who just moved here a few years ago, and who believe that they arrived just in time to save a beautiful rivertown full of vintage 19th Century buildings from the local yokels who would have torn all of them down by now, but for the timely arrival of these well-educated, “well-qualified,” preservationists.

To which most of us who have lived here for many years would say, “Bull sugar!”

Old Madison is down in the river valley, and still bears more than a passing resemblance to a 19th Century rivertown. New Madison (well, nobody here ever calls it that; it’s “up on the hill” to us) is the suburbs, spreading north from the top of our various hill roads, to and beyond the hilltop’s main drag, Clifty Drive, which has become the busiest business thoroughfare in town since it was decided that everything important in Madison needed to be moved “up on the hill,” starting back in the late 1950s.

Yes, “downtown,” or the older, original part of town, is now sort of a plaything for the “preservationists” from afar, who have managed to get its entire 133 square blocks placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Touch a single building in that area without the permission of the Historic Board of Review, and the full wrath of the well-qualified carpetbaggers will come down on your head — BOOM!!! They move to town one year, and often are appointed to the Historic Board the next. Well, OK, maybe two years later. Max.

I used to work with one of those Historic Board members from out of town. He loved to sit and pontificate during the meetings, condescending to homeowners who had applied to be allowed to, for instance, replace their old, air-leaking wooden window frames, with new, tighter, vinyl ones. Vinyl windows, or siding, or anything else vinyl, is the chief bugaboo of the board. I have heard members of the board — including that individual — answer the protests of homeowners, who pointed out that you can’t tell the difference between vinyl and wood, from any distance at all, with smug assurances of, “Oh, yes, you can. Well, maybe YOU can’t, but WE can.” Take that, you ignorant Hoosier peasant!

The board member I was talking about, and his wife, bought a building downtown. The building was situated in a well-traveled business district, and it was a dump, needing a paint job, repairs, you name it. The building never got those things while this member was on the board. But he passed judgment on plenty of other downtown building owners who DID want to improve their properties. Don’t do as I do; do as I say.

Our new mayor, Damon Welch, made an appointment to the board recently, of a well-respected, lifelong Madisonian who was a local banker for 40 years, has been a member of the local volunteer fire company near his home for even longer, and a city councilman for 16 years before retiring last year. He is also a long-time owner of rental property, who has done much of his own carpentry, painting, etc., on that property and so should know quite a bit about architecture — especially that of the unique town where he has spent his entire life.

But wait — his appointment did not please the carpetbagging preservationists! Two hopped up at the city council meeting where his appointment was announced, to insist that he was “not qualified” to serve on the board. Two city council members (the council must confirm such appointments by the mayor before they are valid), who are both intelligent but who showed poor judgment this time, seconded the motions of the preservationists. The appointment was tabled until the next meeting.

At that meeting two weeks later the council chamber was packed. The retired banker and still active volunteer firefighter was there to defend himself (quite ably I thought), and several others spoke out on his behalf as well. But a preservationist from elsewhere arose to announce that the appointee was “not qualified” for the appointment, that she had also applied, and that neither was she.

Questioning by other audience members revealed that someone locally had taken suggestions in a state of Indiana set of guidelines for appointees to historic boards, that members “MAY hold degrees in architectural engineering,” and such, and run with them. All of a sudden, anyone without that sheepskin on the wall was “not qualified.”

But the transplants to Madison had shown by their actions that they were unaware of some facts that any native or long-time resident could have told them. One is, that locals accepted the Historic Ordinance which established the board, 30-odd years ago, very reluctantly and grudgingly. The board always has been unpopular with the people who have lived here all, or most of, their lives. We tend to view it as a collection of non-elected busybodies, telling people what they can do with their own property. The ordinance is sort of Madison’s version of Prohibition. It was passed — but it’s been resented ever since, and some people have evaded what they regard as its “clutches” by just doing what they want to their property, without coming hat-in-hand to the board first; or, in one case, defying the board after it had already told one homeowner he couldn’t replace his wooden (and disintegrating) window frames with vinyl ones.

The other Madison fact that the preservationist settlers overlooked, was that in Madison, Indiana, you don’t “dis” a volunteer firefighter, or you’ll have every member of all six fire companies breathing down your neck. In addition to this, when that volunteer firefighter is a respected, life-long member of the community who has served for 16 years in an elected position, you’re likely to have ALL the locals coming down on you like a (historic) house. That’s what happened in this case.

By the way, the council approved the Madison native’s appointment to the board, 5-2, with only the two council members who had opposed it at the previous meeting voting “no.”

Now, before I get accused of condemning all those who have moved to Madison from somewhere else, let me say that many of them are very nice people. A number are good friends of mine. The ones who have this “preservationist fever” are distinctly a minority.

And I will acknowledge that, within my memory, Madison residents did demolish two public buildings which should have been preserved. One was our old post office, which had a sharply sloping roof of red tile, and graceful proportions. The other was a Greek Revival facade of a long-time local bank. Both dated to the 19th Century. They should have been saved; they weren’t. People in charge in those days goofed, by today’s standards.

But what’s done is done. There are many, many old historic buildings here, which would still be here even if the Historic Board of Review had never been established. You see, preservationist folk, we’re not all dunderheads here, even though some of you act as if you think we are. If we were, we would have demolished many, many more of the downtown buildings which really deserve to be maintained. But we have a sense of what our city means, too. We know its proud history, which includes a newspaper publisher who was one of the founders of the Republican Party (Michael C. Garber Sr.); a major league baseball player named Tommy Thevenow who was chosen Most Valuable Player of the 1926 World Series; and a Hollywood actress who was nominated five times for Academy Awards (Irene Dunne).

And we know that a city has to be lived in, as well as admired. You want to move to Madison? Fine! We welcome you here. You want to be a part of the discussion about local affairs? Join in!

But keep in mind: We locals remember Madison before there was a historic board, and before there was a Historic Madison, Inc. Cities evolve, just like presidential opinions on controversial subjects do in election years. Madison has evolved, preserving most of what needs to be preserved, but realizing that a city can’t be frozen in amber, to be admired by the cultured and the qualified like it was a display in a museum. A city is a living, breathing thing as long as there are people living IN it.

And we’ve lived here a lot longer than you have. We’ve paid our dues. You haven’t, most of you. Not yet. Many of us resent the attitude that many of you have adopted toward us when you’ve served on the Historic Board. We feel that you’ve overstepped your bounds. You don’t join the church one week, and expect to be the choir director the next.

You’ve welcome here, folks. But don’t try to run a city you didn’t build, where you’re still newcomers.






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