Owner Charlie Sullivan outside Victory Cycle Co. in the 1980s, when the shop was in the Learner Building. (Herald photo courtesy of victorytrikeshop.com)
Owner Charlie Sullivan outside Victory Cycle Co. in the 1980s, when the shop was in the Learner Building. (Herald photo courtesy of victorytrikeshop.com)
Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series about the history of downtown Kokomo through its architecture.

A meat market, a jewelry shop, a hotel, a bicycle shop … and now a toy store.

The Learner Building’s place in Kokomo’s history is just as remarkable as the man who built it, yet, curiously, he himself never had a business that occupied it. 

John Wesley Learner, from all accounts, lived his entire life in Howard County. Born on February 7, 1848, on Sycamore pike east of Kokomo, when he died on May 15, 1940, his obituary in the Kokomo Tribune said he was the only person left from the first census of the county, taken in 1850. 

“His parents moved into the area before the county was a county,” said Dave Broman, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society. “They were squatters on what was still a large Miami Indian reservation, as were a lot of other Europeans at that time.

“J.W. was from pioneering stock. They were the people who laid the foundation for the county and the town of Kokomo. They worked at various different jobs to find a way to get the work done to establish the community.”

The obituary mentions that Learner was vice president of Kokomo Opalescent Glass for many years, so he was a prominent businessman.

As for the Learner Building, located at 107-111 E. Sycamore St., there are different versions regarding when it was built. The timeline on the west wall of Kokomo Toys & Collectibles, its main occupant today, says it was constructed in 1881. 

Even so, there is some doubt about the date, because other accounts say it was built in 1895, and the application to add the building to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places in 1984 (which was successful) lists the construction date as “circa 1904.”

“According to the best information we have, it was after the turn of the century,” Broman said. “But I don’t want to say anything to discredit any other research that may have been done.”

The historical context is that Kokomo was a town of about 4,000 people when a finding of natural gas in 1886 changed it from a rural town into a major industrial center. The 1890 census shows Kokomo’s population then doubled to 8,261. It is against that background that the Learner Building came to be. 

John Russell, a local architectural historian and restoration consultant, says the style of the building is Italianate, which was developed in Britain in the 19th century.

“They wanted to mimic the style of the Italian villas, trying to reproduce those features – almost a neo-Renaissance look,” he said. “It grew in popularity during the reign of Queen Victoria and spread to the United States, first on the East Coast and then westward. That was about the 1870s.”

That accounts for the façade and windows on the Learner Building that are still evident today.

One article implies that Learner had the building constructed so that the Williams Brothers – John and William – could move their meat market into it. Even if that isn’t the reason, they moved in shortly afterward. “There was a meat-packing plant just around the corner on Main Street, where Beckley’s Printing is now,” Russell said. 

The Williams brothers eventually converted their meat market, which they had originally opened elsewhere in 1881, to a full-range grocery store. They then sold it in 1934 to John Mitchel of Windfall, who ran it as Chew’s Regal Store for a few years.

The timeline on the toy store wall says there were two other occupants of the Learner Building in 1894 – a bakery owned by John Zwissler and a dressmaking shop owned by Lucy Swartz (surely one of Kokomo’s first businesswomen).

Another longtime resident of the building was Karl Kern’s jewelry store, which arrived in or before 1907 and stayed in business for about 30 years. The timeline indicates it was no longer in the building in 1936. 

One of the other prominent occupants of the building was the Oliver Hotel, which also appears on the timeline in 1907. It closed for a while at some point, then reopened as the New Oliver Hotel and stayed in operation until 1943 or ’44, according to the timeline. During that time, the look inside the building was apparently quite striking.

“The second floor was once quite beautiful, having two large apartments, eight-foot ‘pocket’ [solid French] doors, ornamental woodwork and a central staircase with a large skylight,” an audio clip by the Howard County Historical Society says.

Two other prominent businesses in the Learner Building over the years were the Boston Store, which was a major department store in Kokomo from just before World War II until the 1950s, and Victory Cycle Co., which came in during the mid-’50s and stayed until 2006.

When Todd and Amber Jordan were looking for a building to house Kokomo Toys & Collectibles, they came across the Learner Building at the end of 2013.

Asked what made them choose the Learner Building, Amber Jordan didn’t hesitate. “The upstairs,” she said, referring to the old hotel. “The downstairs was neat, but what really caught my imagination was the second floor.

“There are numbers still painted on some of the room doors.”

The Jordans bought the building. Fortune Management CEO Scott Pitcher said his company owned the building as part of the Franklin D. Miller estate, then sold it to the Area 5 Agency on Aging and Community Services. The Jordans acquired it from Area 5, and Pitcher said he worked with them on renovating it inside and out when they first acquired it.

Despite its age, “It’s a solid building,” Pitcher said. “Todd and Amber are great people. The building is in good hands.”

Amber Jordan says she and Todd love the building and its heritage. “We have no desire to change anything,” she said. “We like the character of it just the way it is.”

One of the things the new owners did to take advantage of the vintage character of the second floor was to convert it temporarily into a kind of “haunted house” for the public to walk through in October 2014. They invited Indiana’s favorite ghoul – WTTV’s Sammy Terry, who hosted a weekend lineup of horror movies in the 1960s and ‘70s – to appear as part of the Halloween season festivities.

For now, though, the development of the second floor is wide open. “There are always ideas that we’ve been considering, but it all comes down to what you can do and what you can afford,” Amber Jordan said. “The second floor is a long-term project. Our main focus right now is the toy store.”

So, the next time you walk past 107 E. Sycamore St., look at the features. Look up and notice the structure of the windows and the building’s crown. That’s architecture from the Victorian era, when Kokomo was still young.