Athenaeum roof sitter returns

by and

  • Photo courtesy of by puroticorico via Flickr Creative Commons
  • The Athenaeum

Twenty years ago, David Willkie set foot on the roof of the Athenaeum and lived there for two months as a publicity stunt to raise repair funds. The building was in dire need of help and faced impending destruction. Known as the roof sitter, Willkie gained enough publicity in order to raise $157,000. Because of the success of the stunt, the Lilly Foundation stepped in and donated $645,600.

In order to commemorate this event, The Athenaeum Foundation will be honoring important donors at a recognition reception today at 5 p.m. Willkie is scheduled to speak at the event. Later in October, the Athenaeum Foundation will be putting on its fourth annual GermanFest. In addition to this event, President and Executive Director Cassie Stockamp will commemorate the 1992 Willkie stunt by living on the roof of the building for a week. Her recreation of the event is scheduled to start Oct. 7 and will lead up to GermanFest on Oct. 13.

Back in 1992, Willkie's stunt garnered a significant amount of publicity and came at the right moment. Spencer Valentine, Development Coordinator for the Athenaeum Foundation, said the building needed a quick solution. "The Building most likely would have been taken under a wrecking ball. If it rained, there would have been water coming through the holes (on the roof). Birds even lived there," he said.

Then and now, the Athenaeum serves as a cultural center for the body and mind. Today, the building houses The Rathskeller restaurant, Biergarten, a fitness center and theater.

"It continues to be a place for the arts and for physical fitness. It continues to be a cultural icon. I can't even tell you how many weddings have been held there," Valentine said. "The extension of the arts district stemmed from saving the Athenaeum."

While Willkie was able to raise enough money necessary back in 1992, not all Indiana landmarks have seen this amount of success. For example, Madame Walker Theatre Center currently faces a $1 million request necessary for building repairs and upkeeping needs. The Walker is being financially hit every month due to a portable AC unit that requires rental and electricity costs. The AC unit is only temporarily replacing the building's outdated HVAC system. If the Walker is unable to raise sufficient funds by the end of the year, the staff may be facing potential layoffs.

According to the Indiana Landmarks, the Taggart Memorial is another endangered site. The memorial was ranked by the non-profit organization on its list of Indiana's 10 Most Endangered landmarks.

Mark Dollase, Vice President of Preservation Services for Indiana Landmarks, plays an integral role in preserving the Taggart Memorial. "We formed a task force of key individuals in the community to approach the problems (facing the memorial) in our own way," he said. "Historical landmarks are a reminder of our local history."

While the Athenaeum received sufficient funds to repair its roof in 1992, it still faces issues today. According to Valentine, the building continues to raise money as an ongoing effort. "This is a working operating buildings that's not in disarray (anymore), but still has need being a 120-year-old building," Valentine said.

Currently, the Athenaeum is looking to upgrade its theater equipment and repair its stained glass windows. The repair of the windows will be the first since the building was constructed. The cost of the repair is a quarter of a million dollars. Valentine said funds from donors are necessary in order to make such costly repairs.

The issues the Athenaeum faced twenty years ago continue to this day with other historic landmarks in Indiana. Sites, such as the Walker and Taggart Memorial, are in dire need of such funds in order to maintain operation. Dollase said, "Each and every building has a story, but the buildings don't have a voice, so it's our job to inform the community about the importance of these sites."


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