Owners of the historical Southport Masonic home, which has sat empty for decades, discuss its history and potential for its future
By Rick Hinton
Barry Browning, president of the Perry Township/ Southport Historical Society, has one constant question: “What’s going on with that old, red-bricked school at 2415 Southport Road? Why doesn’t someone do something with that place?”
The three-story, red-brick building has been a landmark on Southport Road for 132 years and although it has gone through several incarnations, it has never been a school. Instead, it has spent a large amount of those years sitting empty.
History of Southport’s former masonic lodge
In the late 1800s Union Street, present day Southport Road, was a narrow stretch of residential homes and cemetery, until reaching a small commercial section as it drew closer to Madison Avenue. The Southport Masonic Lodge had its third transformation in the small farming community (having been in Southport since 1860) when the 10,000 square-foot structure was financed and built by Mrs. Worman in 1899. Her stipulation for the construction was to provide her living quarters on the east end of the first floor, provide heat and $5 a week for groceries. The rest of the floors became lodge rooms and storage, with the upper third floor becoming a high ceiling Grand Hall and ballroom. The Masons took over in 1900. A final clause in the contract was at her death, the Masons would take care of her mentally challenged granddaughter and provide $2.50 a week for her maintenance. The Masons agreed on a lease for five years at $1 per year and deeded the property back to her. However, the Masons had a short history in the building.
Due to circumstances (financial is suspected?) the Masons vacated the building in 1908 and moved into the upper floor of a framed building on the northeast corner of Union Street and Madison Avenue (present day Dollar Tree). They eventually purchased the building in 1921. In 1949 they moved yet again, this final time into their lodge at 5678 S. East Street where they remain today. The Odd Fellows took over the Southport building, making the same agreement with Mrs. Worman. After many years they too left.
The history of the Odd Fellow’s residency is sketchy. Some sources say they occupied the space until the Great Depression, or shortly thereafter. Yet, Browning has an undated newspaper article stating the OF became defunct in 1945 due to declining membership and “lack of interest.” He theorizes they may have stopped using the building some time before they officially disbanded.
Harold Collin Gray bought the building – we assume from Mrs. Worman – in 1946 and began remodeling the building into apartments. Gray, a Southport city councilman and mover and shaker in the community, had a vision and put his entrepreneurial skills to work to make it a reality. Gray’s goal was to transform the entire building into apartments – top to bottom – however, throughout his tenure it only became a work in process at best. There is no estimation on how many years the apartments Gray completed were in use, but at some point the building sat empty again; and this time for many years. In 1999 former Southport major, Rob Thoman, and his wife Carole, acquired the property.
A hundred different ideas
Rob and Carole live in the community and are ardent supporters of growth. Rob grew up in Southport, as a boy riding his bicycle and playing in the parks and ball fields. He has witnessed the changes that come to a small town over the years and today believes strongly that the health of Southport’s community depends upon the health of its local business environment. Regarding the building, he estimates Gray owned it for roughly 40 years.
“Harold Gray was one of the best natural storytellers I have ever found,” he declared. “We would talk for hours…he would tell of the history of Southport and the building.”
There were stories of carriages ambling down Union Street, depositing its riders outside the front door of the building for a party or dance on the third floor. Southport High School (then at the corner of Union and Madison Avenue where Chase Bank sits) would hold proms in the early 1930s in the Grand Hall.
“We didn’t have a clear idea when we bought the building. I had a hundred different ideas,” Rob explained. “A bed & breakfast, micro-brewery, apartments, condos, dental office, artist studios, community center, business offices. I also always thought it would be a great place to have a loft house.”
It’s a vision that continues after 20-plus years of ownership; and 20 years of interior work as time and money would allow. During that passage of time there was no clear cut destination in sight. The 10,000 square-foot building is still structurally sound, however the roof needs replaced in addition to interior HVAC, plumbing, electrical, walls and floors.
“No matter who has it [the building], it has to work economically. That’s really where this building suffers. It will not – cannot – ever survive without an economically-viable plan,” he said. “I’ve had offers on it, but those two groups were seriously underfunded. They would not have been able to pull it off. Yeah, I could sell…but what kind of impact are the buyers going to have on the community?”
The Thomans have wrestled with this for years. The building was listed for sale. Then in January of 2021, they pulled the listing.
A plan had formed.
The footprint of the building will go through a change according to the Thomans’ vision of a multi-service building: the Thomans’ dental practice, a small commercial kitchen, apartments, the couple’s private residence, with the building sequentially developed in this order. The aesthetics from the street would not change – their desire to keep the building the same and pushing the additions to the rear. There is, however, a rub in the ambitious plan – current zoning for the property. The building is zoned residential, possibly from the days when it was apartments.
Carole speculates the biggest reservation for rezoning is what will happen in the future?
“If we get zoned business or mixed use, who’s to say down the road it might not become a gas station or a CVS or Walgreens,” Carole explained. “The other part is they don’t want the business district to begin creeping into the residential area. I understand that.”
“No one has put any money into Southport for 25 – 30 years, except for Renaissance Electronic in the old Gerdt Furniture building and Sophia’s Bridal & Tux in the former post office. No one’s going to invest $2 million on Southport Road but us,” Rob continued. “We need a community that will support people who want to do the kind of things we’re proposing.”
There are avenues for the building that the Thomans are considering: facade grants, historic designation and preservation status, historic tax credits. “I’m hoping we can do something…it’s not all in our hands at this point. It depends on what happens at our request for zoning improvement,” Rob said.
Southport Mayor Jim Cooney recognizes the property as a historic building, but wants it to remain in the context of what the neighborhood is – “residents want it to remain residential,” he said.
“We welcome redevelopment in Southport,” Cooney said. “I’d like to see some really nice condos in there. Southport doesn’t do zoning. He would have to go to Indianapolis for that.”
Southport’s Redevelopment Commission has recommended it remain residential.
The future remains uncertain
It’s cold in the building. There’s been no heat for many years. On the lower level there is still framing and plaster from the studio apartments of Gray’s day. The next two levels are where Gray had used the same skeleton to reproduce the lower level apartments. Then it’s up to the Grand Hall. When the Thomans acquired the building, Gray had already demolished a fair amount of the Mason/ Odd Fellow history and begun the process of running plumbing and electrical for apartments that would never be built.
“It would be an absolute tragedy for this to fall apart and be torn down,” Browning observed. “Unfortunately, for many years, that was what was done.”
Carole nodded in agreement. “The thing about restoring this building…it will be here, hopefully long after we’re gone.”
Mayor Cooney shared the same sentiment about tearing it down. “I hope it never comes to that.”