Gary doesn't offer a typical architecture tour, which is what makes it interesting. With most of its buildings in varying states of deterioration, there's always something new to see. But don't get too attached to any particular structure--it may be gone by the time you go back.
Venture to Gary during the day. Splurge on the Skyway. Exit at Broadway and head south to see the hulking Gary City Hall and County Courthouse on either side of the street. (Going north off the same exit brings you to the U.S. Steel Gary Works, a must-see for any fan of the industrial age.)
Continuing south on Broadway, check out the Gary state bank building (now Bank One), the monolith at the southwest corner of Fifth and Broadway, then the Genesis Towers (the former Hotel Gary) one block south. Just past those, go right on Sixth. At the end of the block step inside the First United Methodist Church, which raises the question, Who is stealing the great fireplaces of Gary? Professional salvaging equipment was recently discovered in the circa-1920s structure, a gorgeous, eroding pile of ornately carved limestone that was once the biggest house of worship in town. City development officials say they're checking into who's making off with the mantels; only one remains, but this is still a majestic site to wander, though strewn in places with out-of-date clothing and other remnants of rummage sales past. The gymnasium in the attached school has a huge hole in the roof, suffered during the October 1997 arson that took out most of the downtown Gary landmark district and is still being investigated.
Five blocks west, the Ambassador Apartments sit at the intersection of Sixth and Monroe. Trees are growing out of the roof now, but Charles Prewitt, who's worked construction in Gary for three decades, remembers when some of his first jobs took him into the huge neoclassical building. "Gary has seen some rough times," Prewitt says, but back then the seventh-floor penthouse was very clean and very chic. "I used to work for Mr. Lazarus at L & B [the management group that ran the building]," Prewitt says. "When I came here 30 years ago, that was the place. The Ambassador was the best place here."
But it was also at the mercy of urban renewal. Gary was among the worst-razed places in the country despite--or perhaps because of--a huge infusion of HUD funds. By the late 70s the Ambassador was all but abandoned.
Today amid the graffiti there remains some amazingly intricate terra-cotta. Standing outside the entrance on Monroe allows for a view of the ballroom and other swank elements that stand in sharp contrast to the surrounding jungle of overgrowth and moss.
Down Sixth Street just past Frank Lloyd Wright's Wilbur Wynant house, you reach the outskirts of what's known as the Horace Mann neighborhood. Namesake aside, schools were less of a draw here than the building of Mercy Hospital at the end of Sixth Street, which brought doctors and other well-to-do types to the area. The neighborhood remains peppered with a range of architectural styles: Prairie, Victorian, Georgian, Italianate, Tudor. Some houses are boarded up, some say "Gas cut" in spray paint across the front door. Still others would fetch upward of $700,000 were they for sale in certain Chicago hoods. In Gary the top asking price for a single-family home usually isn't more than $60,000.
Also within Horace Mann is the Fifth Avenue Apartment Historic District. When Gary hit its population peak of nearly 200,000 in the 60s, the buildings were filled. The population is now about half that, but most of the Fifth Avenue apartment buildings are beautifully preserved--they're on one of the few stretches in Gary recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The lot at 411 W. Eighth is where the Beverly Apartments used to stand. Though the Beverly was once stately enough for mayors and other political honchos, the lot's in the part of Gary that was hardest hit by the bulldozing urban renewal of the 70s--roughly 50 square blocks of grass and weeds, broken bottles, and neon signs that haven't been lit in years, one of which says Plaza Hotel and couldn't be farther from New York City.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chameyer.