Q&A with former Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard

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Retired Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard. (IL file photo)

In September, Indiana Landmarks — the largest private statewide historic preservation organization in the U.S. — presented Randall T. Shepard with the 2023 Williamson Prize for Outstanding Preservation Leadership.

Before his appointment to the Indiana Supreme Court in 1985, Shepard was executive assistant to Mayor Russell Lloyd Sr. of Evansville, special assistant to the undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation and a Vanderburgh Superior Court judge. He served as chief justice of Indiana from 1987 to 2012.

Shepard joined the board of directors at Indiana Landmarks in the 1980s, served as chair in the 1990s and is currently chairman emeritus. He’s also a trustee emeritus of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Shepard spoke with Inside INdiana Business about his longtime love for history and architecture and his most memorable preservation projects.

How did you get interested in historic preservation?

I have always been interested in history, even in grade school and high school.

When I was a freshman, I went to what people sometimes call Old Central. Central High School had been in downtown Evansville since the 19th century, and they were building Harrison when I was a freshman. We would take a bus or go with a neighbor in his dad’s car straight down Washington Avenue from east of Green River Road down into the heart of Evansville.

In that stretch between Kentucky Avenue and Second Street, roughly where Washington dead-ends, was a classic, early 20th-century, late 19th-century row of wonderful single-family houses. I just got caught up in watching them as I went to school each day. The thing that made me connect architecture and history was that experience as a freshman in high school.

How did you juggle your historic preservation passion with your law career?

There are plenty of things that lawyers can do.

My first position out of law school was in something called the Honors Program for Young Lawyers at the U.S. Department of Transportation. One of the first things I got assigned to do was to work on memos that were called 4(f). This was a section of the Federal Transportation Act that was a serious barrier to building a road or a federally assisted street or highway any place that was a park or a national park, a local park or a historically registered building.

That’s a combination of lawyer and preservation.

When I came to work for Mayor Russell Lloyd Sr. in the mid-’70s, Evansville had just become the second city in Indiana to create a historic preservation commission. And it was a very complicated legal maneuver to get it all put together. So he assigned me to work on that.

As time went on, I ended up living at the end of Second Street near downtown Evansville and got into my first really big project, helping the city acquire what had been called the old post office. It had been vacated when the feds created a new federal building by the Civic Center. There was finally enough interest that Mayor Lloyd and the council decided the feds would transfer it to the city for development purposes. That was my first shoulder-to-the-wheel experience.

What are the challenges of historic preservation?

One of the things that’s happening is there are structures that are valuable from an architectural and historical point of view, but they seem too new to us.

We get used to the idea that historic means the home of Thomas Jefferson. And it does. But just within the last week or two, I came across an article about a building that was modernist in design, and the question was what to do about it. It had just been approved for the National Register of Historic Places, even though … I’m not even sure it was 50 years old.

This is a very good time for historic preservation. The state of Indiana has created a new tax credit for assisting and promoting the rehabilitation of historic buildings. The federal credit is still in place. So there are lots of things going on. Just within the last couple of weeks, I read about an Evansville project that had been pushed ahead because of the tax credits.

What are some of your most memorable historic preservation projects?

Of course, that first big one I worked on. The old post office is a magnificent building and nationally recognized as a part of the history of federal architecture. The great irony is the reason it became available was that the feds were moving out and moving up the street. I’m pretty sure right now one of the biggest tenants in the building is the United States government, which needed more space. But that was the first substantial project I ever really worked on.

The other one is a wonderful sign of modern activity in which I played no role. A building at Chestnut Street and Second Street called the Owen Block had fallen into such disrepair. It was a classic sort of urbanist building, where the first floor is actually a little above the first floor, and there’s a full floor in the basement that you walk to downstairs from the outside. The city had issued a demolition permit. It would have been a real loss.

A local developer stepped up and said he was interested in it. Kelley Coures with the Department of Metropolitan Development persuaded the building commission to postpone demolition while they tried to put together a plan to preserve it. And they did. But it was such a popular project that a group of friends who would go for drinks after work on a Friday night at a bar near the casino hotel got interested in helping save this building.

They’d pass the hat around the bar, they’d put their own money into the hat and then they’d do it the next Friday. Then they started to get some publicity and other people would come forward. They finally came up with a wonderful name for this little circle of advocates. They called themselves the Blockheads.

The building’s been completed now for a few years. It’s a sign of activity and commitment by people who aren’t members of the preservation commission or architects themselves. They wanted to support having an attractive place to live in a thriving city.

How do you think the public feels about historic preservation?

I can remember decades ago, the city created not just the Historic Preservation Commission, but also, inside the DMD, a position for a full-time historic preservation officer. So there’s an actual full-time person helping work on things on North Main Street and the west side and other places. These are good opportunities to improve a neighborhood, make it as interesting as you can and do plain old economic development.

But in the very beginning, I remember somebody called and said, “Why are you interested in this library?” There’s a library, or it used to be a library, about two blocks north of Washington Avenue and west of Kentucky Avenue. There would be times when people would say, “Why are we doing this?” And I don’t think that happens much anymore. So I think good times are ahead.

Do you feel there are cases where it’s better to tear down a historic building than restore it?

It happens. I’m still on the board of Indiana Landmarks, and there’s a representative in Evansville who’s trained in historic preservation. A while back, he said, “Help me decide something. Will you meet me at such and such a corner this afternoon?” I said, “Of course, I will.”

So we arrived, and there was a building that was a combination of where it was and its condition and the possibility that you could get people to invest in it. There are days when even the faithful just have to throw up their hands and say, “Let’s work on something else.” You give it a try, for sure.

You received Indiana Landmarks’ 2023 Williamson Prize for Outstanding Preservation Leadership. What does this award mean to you?

Part of it is the connection to J. Reid Williamson, after whom it is named. He’s the one who really built the foundation, staff-wise. I met him while I was a trial judge in Evansville and active in preservation.

I learned a lot from Reid Williamson about preservation, how it works and how you recruit people. He put together what is now, without a doubt, the largest, most effective state historic preservation organization in America.

When I was a trustee for the National Trust, I got to know about a lot of other places. And an awful lot of places don’t have a statewide organization the way Indiana does. But Indiana Landmarks, with not only a splendid staff in the state capital but staff in just about every corner of our state, is always on the lookout.

What advice do you have for people who want to get involved in historic preservation?

Keep an eye around your own neighborhood. Sometimes, people get used to thinking they live in a place that isn’t historic or doesn’t have any particular interest. And there are organizations that look at it in a very different way. There is now an organization that focuses on what they’re calling midcentury modern. They meet periodically and keep an eye on buildings.

Become a member of Indiana Landmarks. You’ll get regular newsletters and bulletins. For instance, Indiana Landmarks has a 10 most endangered list statewide that it issues once a year, which lists the most important, valuable buildings that are in danger of coming down.

For the second year, the Hulman Building in Evansville is on that list, and that helps generate interest. People who weren’t connected to the effort, if they would sign up, they would get regular notices about that sort of thing, about meetings. Joining with others is probably the best way to get involved.

What are your hopes for future historic preservationists?

The movement now is as good as it’s been. And so telling the story, helping people recognize the value of historic buildings and what they can contribute to building better communities and keeping your eye out for things. There are plenty of county historical societies or county preservation organizations that are engaged now.

The big thing I owe to historic preservation is my marriage to Amy McDonald. She came to Evansville to be the historic preservation officer when I was a trial judge. She came for her job interview at DMD. And here we are, 35 years later.

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