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The Allen Building

July 28, 2011

I lived there as a student and again as a young adult, each time inhabiting one of the top floor bay-window apartments that offer such a grand view over Kirkwood Avenue. In those days it was affordable; the first apartment cost me about $90 a month back in 1980-’81, while the second apartment set me back about $150 a month in 1983. In those days of chronic underemployment, that was actually a lot of money. For a time when I was unemployed, I was living on about a buck-fifty a day. In order to do this, my diet consisted largely of pasta and bread. On some days I’d skip lunch and would instead buy a huge chocolate milkshake in the midafternoon, which would provide the caloric equivalent of lunch and dinner while simultaneously supplying me with sufficient protein, carbs and fat to maintain life.

The building was old and shabby but had an impressive skylight above the top of the staircase. Ceilings were high; windows were large; and floors were uneven. Two bathrooms were down the hall to serve the needs of about eight or nine residents. The building was unlocked in those days and the bathrooms were often utilized by young people who were either temporarily homeless or lived in dwellings with even fewer amenities. A block away, on the South Side of the Courthouse Square, there were decrepit rentals that possessed no shower facilities at all (one or two of the rooms there had no windows). Many of the young people who rented squalid studios there would walk one block to the Allen Building to shower and wash their hair.

The Allen Building was turning into a youthful Bohemia Central in those days, even though there were still a handful of old-timers in ’81 who had been renting there for decades. I used to run occasional errands for my neighbor Maude, a tiny old woman who never left her apartment and who always wore a housecoat and curlers; she would send me down to the Book Corner to buy a pack of cigs for her and then she would treat me to a cup of tea. On the other side lived the ancient Mr. Monkhaus, whose brother had caroused with Hoagy Carmichael back in the 1920s. But they were both gone by ’83 and the building had been taken over by musicians, artists, restaurant workers and writers. The sound of electric guitars being practiced floated down the hallways and the smell of Chinese carry-out lingered on the landing.

The apartments were cold-water flats with one tap above ancient 1920s-era sinks. The refrigerators were lingerers from the 1960s. There was a dumpster in the center of the hallway for our garbage and the apartments were all infested with cockroaches. Each apartment had a narrow brick flue with a circular plate covering the opening where a wood stove had originally fed into it. Floors were scarred wood planks, probably pine or cedar much darkened by decades of wear. I painted mine in cream with a center medallion of light brown in order to brighten my living space. I had three rooms inadequately heated by hissing radiators. In the winter the wind blew straight through the windows, because the sashes were rotting and the glass had settled, leaving an open gap above each pane. The gaps could be stuffed with paper towel or old rags, but most of us ran our gas stoves for hours with the doors open in order to heat our living spaces, unconscious of the danger.

Although the Allen Building was down-at-heel, it was not squalid like the apartments on the South Side of the Square. The front apartments that I lived in were spacious and had a faded elegance. To live in the Allen Building was not to experience filth and misery but to share youthful adventuring with peers. It was wonderful to live downtown in those days, close to restaurants and the nightclubs where our musician friends performed. On the Courthouse Square in those days you could buy anything: a brassiere, a lawnmower, a football, a frying pan or a wedding ring, thanks to the rich variety of shops that included ladies’ apparel, hardware, thrift stores, sporting goods, shoe shops, and greeting cards. There was an India-import boutique where we bought wraparound skirts with woodblock patterns of little elephants for only nine dollars, and the obligatory black Chinese slippers. I washed dishes and baked pies and cookies at the nearby Uptown Cafe, which in those days was located near the Bluebird on North Walnut. If I leaned out my bay window I could read the time-and-temperature sign on the bank halfway along Kirkwood, and I could see the clock tower on the Indiana University campus. Sitting on a plastic milk crate in front of the window, chin cupped in my hands, was a favorite way to watch the day go by. I would hail friends from above, and invite them in, and impromptu mini-parties would begin. Every now and then something unexpected would fly in through the unscreened window: a pigeon, a gigantic mantis, a stray bat.

I had no idea that the Allen Building had been built around 1907 by Bloomington’s great early 20th-century architect, John Nichols. All I knew was that it suited my purposes perfectly, and I liked it enough to return for a second rental term a few years later. The Allen Building experienced structural problems in the late ’80s after the Uptown Cafe had relocated into its ground floor. Conventional wisdom at the time believed that the weight of the massive record collection of WQAX Radio, located upstairs just above the Uptown, was slowly collapsing the building. The Uptown was closed temporarily while steel girders were slipped into place and then covered up again with a drop ceiling disguised to look like the original stamped tin ceiling panels. Take a look at that ceiling, folks, and you’ll see that it gets complicated next to the side windows. Nichols, the architect, might have been unhappy to see the uses to which his building was put during decades to come. Or then again, he might not have. After all, an architect designs for his client, not for himself.

The Allen Building has been rehabbed and is now a student rental with a lock on the brass front door. It appears very upscale from the street; I have not seen the apartments but apparently they all now have their own bathrooms (and hot water). I have many reasons to think fondly of the Allen Building, and it taught me one important lesson. Every winter of my adult life I have been grateful whenever I washed dishes because I have warm water to wash with instead of the freezing water from the Allen Building’s tap, which numbed my fingers and chapped my hands until they bled. Small mercies, but I am deeply and sincerely grateful.

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From → Houses

2 Comments
  1. Steve Miller permalink

    Leon Varjean coined the appellation “Youth Ghetto South” for the student rentals surrounding (approximately) the optometry building; I suppose the Allen Building and the south side of the square could have been “Youth Ghetto Downtown.” I always felt those downtown rentals had a “Blade Runner” vibe.

    • Did you live there, Steve? just curious. Someone should hold a reunion of all the people who ever lived or crashed there! Heck, we’ve become old-timers by this point.

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