Columbus loses a treasured historical building in Fifth Street fire

Dec. 7 update

Because of a Republic error, a story in the Dec. 6 edition of The Republic misstated Jayne Hege’s relationship to Fred Suhre. Hege is Suhre’s granddaughter.

Original story

The fire that destroyed a commercial building in the 400 block of Fifth Street in downtown Columbus over the weekend has raised concerns that the city will lose an iconic building that the county historian says dates back to the “original era of downtown growth.”

The fire, which broke out Saturday night, ravaged a commercial building at 422 Fifth St. that has been known for generations of Columbus residents as the “Irwin Block” building, resulting in a large portion of the building’s third story façade collapsing onto the sidewalk and street.

The building is currently believed to be at risk of collapse and Columbus firefighters said Monday it is likely the building will need to be demolished, with charred debris falling into the first floor and spilling out onto the sidewalk.

The “Irwin Block” building is a nearly 130-year-old relic of the past, said Bartholomew County Historian Tami Stone Iorio.

The building earned the name “Irwin Block” because it was built by Joseph I. Irwin, the great-grandfather of J. Irwin Miller, Stone Iorio said.

When workers broke ground on the building in 1892, Columbus, as well as the rest of the world, was a very different place.

At the time of construction, Indiana native Benjamin Harrison was in the final year of his term in the White House, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was starting to publish the first of many Sherlock Holmes stories and the United States was comprised of just 44 states — as Utah, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii had yet to be admitted as states.

Then, Columbus was just over 70 years old. A U.S. Census taken just a few years later at the turn of the century found that there were 8,130 people living in the city.

Work on the building was likely completed sometime in 1893, Stone Iorio said. Two years later, the old Columbus City Hall and Columbus Fire Station 1 opened across the street.

“(The building) was a significant tie to the past and the early commercial success of Columbus,” Stone Iorio said. “…It’s a tie to that original time, when some of our early city leaders were building the city and making it a commercial success. It was one of the major sites on Fifth Street, which I think a lot of people consider that our most significant streets in terms of architecture and buildings.”

The building was initially known by local residents as “Castle Hall” due to “the way that the towers in the window jutted out,” Stone Iorio said.

Records filed with the National Park Service’s Register of Historic Places described the Irwin Block building as a “Queen Anne masterpiece” and possibly the “best example of Queen Anne commercial (architecture) in Indiana.”

The Queen Anne style of architecture was popular in the United States from 1880 to 1910 and was characterized by “playful use of different building materials,” according to the National Park Service. The records state that the Irwin Block building was a brick building with a six-bay façade, four oriel towers with a slate shingle roof and belt coursing.

Over the years, the Irwin Block building has lived many lives. The first mention of the 422 Fifth St. address in The Republic was in the paper’s Feb. 19, 1903, edition, in an advertisement for “W.E. McLeod, dental surgeon.”

But other tenants have occupied the building since then.

“There were some funeral homes and a furniture store,” Stone Iorio said. “I mean, just everything — doctor’s office, flower shop, beauty salons, almost anything you can imagine. Fraternal organizations met there.”

In 1918, a fire “gutted the upper part of the east side” of the building and left it roofless according to The Republic’s coverage at the time.

“The fire was confined to the upper part of the building and to the east side,” according to news coverage of the fire. “…Flames and smoke were pouring out of the third-floor windows and the roof of the building and was so dense was the smoke that it was a hard matter to distinguish just how much of the building was burning. In a short time, the flames appeared to be burning through the entire upper part of the building.”

However, the building was repaired.

Just days before the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II, in February 1945, the building was sold to Fred Suhre, according to The Republic’s coverage at the time.

At the time of the sale, the businesses that occupied the building included Cook Furniture, Cummins Engine Co. school, Thomas Electric Co. and Twin Beauty.

Suhre had an appliance and Firestone store in the building and converted other areas of the building into office space, “and it’s been that ever since,” said Jayne Hege, Suhre’s daughter, who currently co-owns the building with her sisters.

At one point, Weber Supply Company operated on the first floor of the building. The company ran numerous ads in The Republic, offering a wide range of items, including table and floor model radios, TV consoles, radio phonographs, basketballs, ironing boards, among other things.

“There was a big neon sign that said Weber Supply Company, and unfortunately, it was still on the third floor (during Saturday’s fire),” Hege said.

“It’s sad. …It was such a beautiful building,” Hege added later in the interview, when talking about a building that has been owned by herself and her sisters or other members of her family for nearly 75 years.

Over the years, the building had been renovated or restored multiple times, including in the 1980s and 1990s.

But if the building ends up coming down, so too will a piece of Columbus history, Stone Iorio said.

“If you think about that part of the block, that north side between Fifth Street between Washington and Franklin (Streets), it’s the last of the original buildings,” Stone Iorio said. “…It’s like things come and go, but that building, it stood the longest. So, it just adds to the sadness when that bit of history is lost.”