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City of Bloomington, Indiana

Neighborhood History

Considered an exclusive residential community, Elm Heights contains residences comparable in scale and prestige only to those developed by the Showers family on North Washington Street. Its period of construction, however, is significantly later. Prior to its development with housing, the area of Bloomington just south of Indiana University consisted of spreading fields, orchards and pastures, rising southward to the crest of Vinegar Hill, where East First Street now stretches.

Although Elm Heights is Bloomington's best example of an urban gridded business class neighborhood of the 1920s, it also reflects the substantially different ways that Americans lived together at that time. Interspersed among grand single family homes are smaller residences of less than a 1200 square feet, duplexes, rooming houses, and several apartment buildings in the areas beyond the district boundaries. This neighborhood does not reflect the relative income segregation associated with suburban development occurring in the latter half of the twentieth century. Among the early residents of Elm Heights, there were immigrant stone carvers and Indiana University assistants, as well as mill and quarry owners and Nobel Laureates.

Elm Heights Historic District also represents the greatest concentration of architect-designed homes in the city. Houses in the district feature quality building materials such as limestone, brick, tile and slate. The environment itself is heavily designed with large overarching shade trees in front yards, unique steps, porches and yard furnishings. The north-south streets contain larger homes with deeper setbacks than the more modest east-west streets, but both include houses that are studies in matchless craft and imagination. The early street lamps along Hawthorne are protected by local ordinance.

What results from this new-found expertise is an eclectic mix of international architecture locally reinterpreted with consummate skill in its limestone detailing. It was an era when revival styles were popular across the country. Because of this, features like windows, doors and entryways have more diverse forms and ornament than in other neighborhoods. But in Elm Heights and particularly Vinegar Hill the details are intimate, humorous or transcendent. Downspouts are interpreted with delicately carved gargoyles. Portraits of actual children, now grown and absent, bracket a front entrance. In short, there is no place that better conveys the spectacle of Bloomington's history in the limestone industry and trades. All of this irreplaceable detail and diverse architecture creates an energetic and compelling sense of place that has been honored by inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places and was notable enough to be the subject of a major American novel by Carol Shields.

Elm Heights Historic District Design Guidelines

Elm Heights Design Guidelines (PDF 2.56 MB)

In order to preserve the architectural integrity, historic atmosphere and livability of the Elm Heights neighborhood, a permit is required for certain exterior changes within the historic district. 

Use the Design Guidelines produced especially for Elm Heights by neighborhood residents and the Historic Commission. They are intended to guide the Historic Commission in their decisonmaking; they are not intended to be inflexible regulations. A neighborhood design subcommittee will also recommend requests to the Commission. On page 9 of the Guidelines, there is a list of things that DO NOT require a COA. The goal of this process is to preserve the features, architecture, and ambiance of the Elm Heights Historic District.