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If these walls could talk: 640 Lake Shore Drive

March 26, 2014

The Bennett’s building at 640 Lake Shore Drive in “uptown” Culver, as pictured in a 1976 Culver Chamber of Commerce-produced promotional brochure. The present structure was built in 1965 and replaced two longtime prior storefronts.

One of the longest-lived contractors in Culver resides at the site of the next stop in our ongoing journey through the historic buildings of Culver. Bennett's Plumbing and Heating, of course, has long resided at 640 Lake Shore Drive -- at the corner of today's Lake Shore Drive and Liberty Street -- though it wasn't always so.

In fact, for around half its commercial life, the space today occupied by Bennett's was home to two separate store fronts.

In the early 20th century, Sanborn Fire Maps show both sites as empty lots. By 1922, an unnamed store occupied the westernmost space, though info in the March 19, 1947 Culver Citizen notes that "Clyde Shively is tearing down his building next to the express office and plans to replace it with a cement block building with a brick front for his Specialty Shop business."

As we explored in our last entry in this series, Shively's building occupied the space which is today home to the Culver Coffee Company, so it's reasonable to assume the building next door -- the site of today's 640 Lake Shore -- was home to the railway express agency.

It's interesting to note that, in the summer of 1967, the Culver Chamber of Commerce opened an office in the building, which by then was owned by Jack and Catherine Kowatch. According to the notice in The Culver Citizen, committee meetings were held and -- in much the same manner as is being proposed for the new Culver visitor's center in downtown Culver this spring -- "tourist information and pamphlets are also available."

Chamber president Dr. Joseph D. Howard said volunteer staffing was planned at the office during the summer months, though it seems likely that paradigm didn't work so well (which could lead us into hope that funding for staffing could be the game-changer with regards to the current project).

Within a few years, the setup we know today -- with Bennett's expanding west into the building in question -- would take over, but more on that later.

Bearing in mind the separate store fronts which once made up today's Bennett's building, the building further east had a different life entirely. While home to an unknown store in the early 1920s, by 1926 the Lake View Bakery, operated by W. Bergmann and J. Andresen of Chicago, was located in what had been the Chas. Schweidler building.

The "Schweidler Building," noted the Culver Citizen in Oct., 1930, was then home to the Culver Clothes Shop, established by Gray Rector.

The Radio Service bulletin of September 20, 1931 -- published by the U.S. Department of Commerce -- listed the WCMA radio station of Culver at 648 Lake Shore Drive Culver, the official street address of the building for a time.

The Culver Citizen in Aug. 1931 noted that the towers of the former Culver Military Academy radio station (which had launched in 1926) had been removed from their former home atop the campus' Recreation Building and moved to the Johnson apartments on Lake Shore Drive, where one apartment was used for the studio and offices, while another was used for transmitting equipment.

Louis Lohr was the manager of the station, which didn’t last long at its Lake Shore Drive home. In November, 1932, WCMA, which had broadcast local news, music, church services, and the like, aired its final broadcast. In 1934, the station’s equipment was donated to the Indiana State Police.

By January, 1934, the Citizen reported that Fred Johnson was finishing work on the former Schweidler building, which he had converted into four-room, first-floor apartments. The space would be associated with the Johnson name for years after, though it was officially dubbed the Indiana Apartment Building, at least for a time. During this period, it was assigned the address of 648 Lake Shore Drive.

The following January, Charles Brandenburg of Argos moved his barber shop fixtures to the Johnson Building, where he opened a shop on the ground floor.

In March, 1938, the Citizen reported Clifford C. Waite had opened his own plumbing shop in the rear of the Schweidler Cafe, which by then had opened in the building. Waite was a longtime plumbing man in Culver who operated a shop in the southern portion of today's Cafe Max, among other endeavors (he had helped construct several of the bungalows of Liberty Street as well).

In November, 1939, The Culver Greenhouse opened a floral shop in the building, managed by Byron Studebaker, likely known as the Uptown Shop (perhaps formalizing the 'unofficial' name for that particular business district of Culver, as opposed to the 'downtown' area several blocks southwest).

Fred Johnson, age 71, died of a heart attack in his own apartment at the building bearing his name, in August, 1944, according to the Culver Citizen, though not surprisingly the space continued to be referred to as the Johnson Building for years after.

In September of the same year, Earl Heller announced the opening of a gift shop in the Johnson Building. He was referred to, in the Citizen, as having "formerly operated the Culver Beach Lodge, and...known for quality merchandise and fair treatment of his customers."

In October, 1945, Howard Doll bought the express business and building of Clyde L. Shively, who announced plans to move his specialty shop to the Johnson apartment building. Seven years later, in October, 1952, Cary and Katie Cummins purchased what by then was known as the Shively apartment building (many will remember longtime businessman and fireman Cary, and Katie, who lived to 101 and was the mother of longtime Culver Citizen correspondent Bobetta Washburn Ruhnow).

In 1961, a long-lived Culver legacy would begin when the Jack Kowatch purchased the building and opened Kowatch Painting and Decorating. Kowatch, a pillar of the Culver community most of his life, built or helped build a host of local structures, from the Lake Shore Clinic building to his daughter Sondra’s first beauty salon.

Sondra Kowatch would marry another business mainstay, Leon Bennett, who of course went on to take the reins of the Kowatch business, for which he had already been working at the time, in 1965, according to his son Trent (who returned in the past few years to Culver to share work at the business with siblings Todd and Cindy (now Carter); Trent, in a 2012 interview, noted the company's work includes carpentry and contracting as well as the plumbing and heating of its name.

The Citizen, in April, 1965, reported that "the former Cummins Apartment building, across from the Town Park, and long a Culver landmark, is being razed to make way for progress in our Town."

The progress in question, of course, was the melding of what had been two structures into the current Bennett's Plumbing and Heating, ending the life of the 648 street number along the way.

Around 1986 and 1987, Cindy Bennett Carter and Jackie Brown operated CJ's Country Clutter in a corner of the shop, and in late 1989, early 1990, Dan Shively's Whirlpool business -- mentioned in our last installment -- was added to the business.

Into its 65th year, Bennett's today is still going strong, one of the "anchors" of the bustling Culver "uptown" of yore.

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