Sometimes circumstances make strange bedfellows. That seems to be the case for Dusty Davis. Davis has spent the past several years acquiring and improving buildings in downtown Washington, repairing ground floors for businesses and upper floors for apartments.
About two years ago he was converting the top floor of the old JC Penney building on the corner of Third and Main into a wedding venue when the project abruptly came to a halt.
“COVID hit,” Davis said. “We couldn’t have gatherings and people weren’t allowed to gather. That ended it. We were in the state licensing process at the time and canceled it. We were using an engineering company from Vincennes and they were still in the investigation phase of what might benefit from a grandfather clause to meet state permitting guidelines. At that time, I canceled it.
Without the wedding venue project, Davis turned his attention to other downtown projects. This included redesigning the old Robert’s Furniture building and the Indiana Theater lobby.
Now Davis has taken a bite out of one of the toughest possible projects on Main Street, the former Oddfellows Hall.
“Now I’m trying to go through the paperwork for the old Oddfellows building to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Homes,” Davis said. “We are looking to make this eligible for grants to restore it.”
Davis says many East Main houses were the homes of prominent community and business leaders in the early to mid-1800s. The old Oddfellows Lodge was no exception.
“This house was built by Matthew Brett in 1850. He later served as Indiana’s state treasurer,” Davis said. “He owned Seventh Street up the highway and was friends with Van Trees across the road who had Abe Lincoln and Henry Clay staying there. There was a lot going on in this area of the East Main in the mid-1800s.”
When Brett built the house, he was 21 years old. Later he helped found and served as president of the National Bank of Washington. He lived there for 20 years before selling the house to a local judge and moving to a house now on the golf course.
Now Davis wants to step back into what was once one of the community’s first homes.
“I don’t think we know exactly what we’re going to do with it yet. It may depend on the grants that will be available,” he said. “Right now the plan is to get historic status and then apply for grants and hopefully restore it to the grand house it once was.”
Davis is used to working with older buildings, but nothing like the Brett House. This forced him to change his approach.
“I’ve never experienced this before,” he said. “I have always done privately funded projects. You go to the bank, get a loan and make sure the cash flow. This is new territory for me. It would be difficult to do it myself. The amount of work it needs would be hard to fund unless you have someone willing to throw a lot of money at it.
He says historic designation and grants will be key to restoring a property he describes as solid but in need of a lot of work.
“It takes a lot of work,” Davis said. “There are a lot of bricks. There isn’t much sag or rot. They kept a good roof there. It’s a solid well built place it just needs all the mechanics, electrics, plumbing and all the surfaces inside need to be redone, joints, windows, facade outside.
Davis thinks if all goes well, he could go from paperwork to actually building the house in a year. He still does not know what will happen to it once the improvements are made.
“We have ideas,” he said. “We want it to be open to the public. We do not intend to turn it into apartments. It could be a restaurant or a banquet hall, a reception hall. There are many good opportunities for this. It has a good layout where it could be used for several things.
Davis says the house has quite a history and a restoration seems to be in order.
“There was money and power tied to this Main Street house in the 1800s,” he said. “There are a lot of interesting stories there dating back to some of the first settlers in our area.”
And he hopes the old Oddfellows building won’t be the only one to return to its glory days on Main Street.
“It’s our plan to keep improving downtown one or two buildings at a time,” Davis said. “I hope one day to see all of Main Street from one end to the other.”
And that could one day include a wedding venue atop the old JC Penney building.
“I had a lot of things that kept me from researching the wedding venue that probably would have left me broke if we had tried to do it and open it for the past two years,” Davis said. “I would like this to be operational for a while.”