The location we now call the Indianapolis Propylaeum, located at 1410 North Delaware Street in the Old Northside District, began as a private home built by a 19th Century beer baron named John Schmidt. Mr. Schmidt bought the property in 1890 and completed the house in 1892 at the pretty price of $125,000.
John Schmidt was the second-generation owner of Schmidt Brewing Company, located on the east side of S. Alabama Street where the family also lived, until Mrs. Schmidt aspired to reside in this more highly-regarded area of town, nicknamed the “Gold Coast.”
This beautiful Victorian home would eventually feature at least six bedrooms and bathrooms (not counting servants’ quarters), hand-painted or ornately-plastered ceilings, four lower-level fireplaces decorated with Rookwood art pottery tiles, a stairway with unusually-carved newel posts, and a third floor ballroom. The quarter-of-a-city-block property also boasted a two-story carriage house which, incidentally, was once the first home of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.
George McCulloch, founder of the Indianapolis Star, briefly took ownership of the home. Then, in 1902, Joseph C. Schaf, president of the American Brewing Company, and his family moved in. That brewery was located at Market and Missouri Streets. It met an “unfortunate” end with the advent of Prohibition Era.
The property remained in the Schaf Family until 1921 when it was purchased by the College of Music and Fine Arts. After only two years, the organization found the financial burden and upkeep of the property to be too difficult and it was sold to the Propylaeum organization for $65,000 in Liberty Bonds.
This building was not the first home of the Proplyaeum in Indianapolis. The organization was founded in 1888 and originally located at 17 E. North Street (on the site of the present day World War Memorial Plaza). This literary and cultural organization, exclusively for women, was born into the “club movement” of the late 19th Century when women had few opportunities outside the home, and even fewer ways to broaden their vision of the world. The association provided educational opportunities and a meeting place for several ladies’ civic clubs and initiatives. It was the first in the U.S. financed entirely by women stockholders.
The organization’s most lauded founder and first president, May (Mary Eliza) Wright Sewall, deserves an article unto herself! Educator, suffragist, feminist, and peace advocate, she was a contemporary and acquaintance of both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Sewell envisioned the Propylaeum would exist “to emphasize a sense of civic responsibility and community services; to foster the love of literature, music, science and the fine arts; to provide women a social and cultural center.” Since 1923, the Delaware property has been the stronghold of that vision.
Today, the Indianapolis Propylaeum welcomes visitors daily for dining, special events, etiquette classes, and cultural activities. A Foundation was formed in 1981 and tasked with the preservation and maintenance of the main building and carriage house. The group works to increase the awareness of the organization’s historic significance, and its educational and charitable initiatives. Annually they sponsor an Easter Egg Hunt, the May Wright Sewall Leadership Award, and nursing scholarships to Indiana nursing students.
Visits to the Propylaeum are free. Ask the hostess downstairs for a tour guide and enjoy respectfully exploring the surprising nooks and crannies, displays and treasures on your own. The building houses few, if any, of the Schmidt’s original furnishings, however it is decorated in the home’s original style with antique furnishings of the late-19th and early-20th Centuries. Original murals have been carefully restored.
Treasure hunt challenge: Find the following…
- A painting by famed Indiana artist T.C. Steele
- William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and Percy Bysshe Shelley
- A rare 1885 Criterion Music Box
While on your treasure hunt, you’ll discover the “Carole Lombard Room” that holds three pieces of furniture from the old downtown Claypool Hotel. You may remember that actress Carole Lombard (Clark Gable’s wife) stayed at the former Claypool the night before she boarded the fateful flight that resulted in her death in 1942. These furnishings are the very ones that resided in her hotel room.
On the tour, some guests might reminisce about walking up the back stairway for Fox Trot or Tango lessons under the tutelage of Mrs. Gates or Mrs. Kinnear in the third-floor ballroom in the 1930′s-1960′s…
Tell us, what are YOUR memories of the Propylaeum?
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