Exploring Old and New in Rensselaer

Using preservation to revitalize communities and save meaningful places creates destinations where a blend of old and new sets the stage for an enjoyable exploration of architectural heritage. A day spent in Rensselaer shows how old and new can coexist.


Signs of the Times

James Van Rensselaer migrated from upstate New York after the financial Panic of 1837 and found his way to northwest Indiana, where in 1839 he platted along the falls of the Iroquois River what would become the seat of Jasper County. At first glance, downtown Rensselaer has many of the usual features of a community that blossomed before the turn of the century: a towering courthouse, antiques displayed behind multi-paned storefronts, and that single movie theater marquee that would have been the talk of the town when it first arrived.

Like any city, Rensselaer has evolved and changed, witnessing the loss of significant structures and construction of new buildings adapted to new times. Victorian details faded as more functional commercial buildings tailored to automobiles entered the scene. Signs of the era remain visible. Along West Washington Street at the edge of downtown, you can see where a façade was literally cut short to make room for a twentieth-century gas station. Today, the gas station houses a restaurant, and a colorful mural by San Francisco artists Cameron Moberg and small park further transformed the space.

The Rezner Bridge, another example, serves as a whimsical pedestrian connector between downtown and Potawatomi Park and the grand historic homes flanking Milroy Park. A rare example of a tubular bowstring design by William Rezner, built in Cleveland in 1871, the span was moved to the site and rehabilitated for modern use in 2013 after laying neglected in the nearby town of Remington for decades.

Rensselear bridge

Some historic features never age. Rensselaer’s beautiful courthouse square remains the site of many community events including a Saturday Farmers Market and the annual Oktoberfest, which raises funds for Main Street Rensselaer, the local preservation organization. German food, locally brewed beer, and live music celebrate the area’s original settlers.

On the south side of town, another Rensselear landmark needs a solution that will give it new use. St. Joseph’s College, recently named to Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list, has been off-limits since the college closed 2017. A drive around the campus’s perimeter reveals the evolution of architectural styles characteristic of the town as a whole. Buildings from the early twentieth century stand side-by-side with a unique collection of Mid-Century Modern landmarks designed by local architect Frank Fischer, including Schwieterman Hall and the Halleck Student Center.

Indiana Landmarks hopes the 10 Most status will bring attention to the campus’s many historic structures and their potential for reuse in the next chapter. We are advocating development of a maintenance plan for the campus, including mothballing buildings that would not be included in any short-term reuse of the property.

Sign up for our e-newsletter.

Stay up to date on the latest news, stories, and events from Indiana Landmarks, around the state or in your area.