Downtown South Bend

Downtown South Bend, listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a “multiple resource neighborhood,” is a mixture of significant commercial, religious, civic, and residential buildings constructed over the past 160 years. Prior to the city’s development, the area consisted of prairies and hardwood forests intersected by the St. Joseph River, once an important transportation route for Native Americans and European explorers.

Settlement began on the west bank of the St. Joseph River in 1823 with the establishment of the first trading post, located at the site of the present-day LaSalle Annex or St. Joseph’s Station. In 1831 the town was formally laid out as the county seat for St. Joseph County. There were three principal north-south streets: Michigan, Main, and Lafayette and three principal east-west streets: Washington, Market (now Colfax), and Water (now LaSalle). These streets form the nucleus of the Downtown South Bend Multiple Resource Area. The town was incorporated in 1865 and formed a city government. Through the 19th century manufacturing and industry flourished.

In the early twentieth century there was little open space downtown. Religious, civic, mixed-use, and cultural buildings filled the bustling city. Grand hotels welcomed visitors and posh residences spread out from the commercial center. Industry thrived - led primarily by the Oliver Chilled Plow Company, the Singer Sewing Company, and the Studebaker Brother’s Manufacturing Company - and the city grew.

South Bend’s former urban density, uniform façade lines, and contiguous rows of buildings has drastically changed since the 1920s. By the late 1960s, the downtown area was viewed as old and undesirable. The city experienced a major economic setback when the Studebaker Corporation closed in 1964. Soon after, urban renewal projects led to the demolition of  much of the city’s historic fabric and form. Over four entire blocks of buildings were lost as streets were re-routed and residents relocated.

Downtown South Bend remained an urban area despite the large open spaces that currently exist as a result of urban renewal. Many of the open spaces were converted to parking lots and business and residential opportunities were few and far between. New construction created after urban renewal does not conform to older patterns and they often sit isolated as monuments to their designers.

In 2012, revitalization of downtown South Bend began in earnest with the campaign of Mayor Pete Buttigeig. His tenure has led to a renewed interest in business and residential development downtown. Streets that were changed to one-way during the urban renewal period have been returned to two-way and long abandoned buildings are being renovated to house new business, dining, and residential opportunities. Once again, business and industry are calling South Bend home.