Indianapolis Collected: The Fall and Rise of the Old Northside

Written by on September 7, 2013 in Indianapolis Collected - 18 Comments
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“In my opinion the way to beautify Indianapolis is to make its people happier,” Mrs. Albert Metzger told The Indianapolis Star in 1911 when asked for her ideas on city beautification.

If you lived in Indianapolis at the time and didn’t know Frances Metzger, you might have read these words and dismissed her as a clueless socialite.  After all, her husband was a prominent banker who had built up considerable wealth through real estate investments. And the name “Mrs. Albert Metzger” was a fixture on the society pages as the Star chronicled her trips abroad, her summers in Michigan, and her beautiful home at 1508 Broadway Street.

But Frances’ name was mentioned just as frequently in connection with her tireless charity work on behalf of poor immigrant families. A member of the board of the Free Kindergarten Society and a long-time director of the Ladies Aid Society, Frances was not afraid to venture into the poorest neighborhoods of Indianapolis to provide both comfort and material assistance to those with the greatest need.

Still, had Frances been alive in 1975, even the fearless German matron might have been hesitant to step into the urine-soaked, bullet-riddled entryway of the once-grand house where she and Albert had raised their four children.

1508 beforeAt the end of the 19th century, the area from 10th to 16th Street along Delaware, Broadway and Park Avenue was home to some of the city’s wealthiest and most prominent businessmen, merchants and politicians. Their majestic Victorian homes featured 14-foot ceilings, walnut woodwork, polished parquet floors and meticulously coiffured grounds.  The Metzgers moved to this neighborhood in 1900 and lived in their home at 1508 Broadway for the next 20 years.

1508But by 1920, the area was starting to change.  Two apartment buildings had gone up in the six-block stretch of Broadway from 10th to 16th Street, and a handful of homes had been converted to apartments and boarding houses in response to a housing shortage during WWI.  Industry was also booming in the post-war years, and as a result the once-gracious homes near downtown were rendered gray and dingy from thick, black coal smoke.  As automobile travel improved, families fled to the “countryside” north of Fall Creek to escape the grime of the city.

Booth Tarkington lamented these changes in his 1918 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Magnificent Ambersons.”  Tarkington grew up in the area known today as the Old Northside historic district, in a large brick home at 1100 Pennsylvania Street.  He returned to the home after his parents died and was living there when he penned the following lines which described George Amberson’s Sunday morning walks through a bustling city that no longer resembled the quiet place where he spent his childhood.

“He explored the new city, and found it hideous…..Everything was damply streaked with the soot: the walls of the houses, inside and out, the gray curtains at the windows, the windows themselves, the dirty cement and unswept asphalt underfoot, the very sky overhead.”

In 1921, Albert Metzger and his family moved to a newly built home at 3120 N. Meridian.  Booth Tarkington moved north a few years later.

Weddings

In 1908, the Metzger’s house on Broadway was the scene of a “beautiful reception” for Frances’ soon-to-be-married sister. But by 1922, the party had moved to the Metzger’s new home at 3120 North Meridian, where Albert and Frances hosted 150 guests for their daughter’s wedding.

Shortly after the Metzgers moved to North Meridian, the Broadway house was converted into four apartments.  By 1928, the once-spacious Metzger home had been carved up into eight small apartments.  Other homes on the street were also modified to accomodate renters, including our house, which was built as a single family home in 1894 but turned into a duplex two decades later. In 1929, The Indianapolis Star wrote that while the area then known as College Corner had retained its characteristic quiet for many years,  the neighborhood was now beginning to change.

The pace of change accelerated after WWII, as returning veterans and their young families moved to new homes in the suburbs.  By 1960, 15 of the Victorian-era homes in the 1500 block of Broadway had been chopped up into apartments, with some of the larger houses holding eight or nine units. Most were owned by absentee landlords who put little if any effort into maintenance. Fires had become so common in the Old Northside that in the late 1960s, the city launched an aggressive effort to condemn homes under the Unsafe Building Act.

Between 1960 and 1980, nearly 50 houses in the six-block area of Broadway from 10th to 16th Street were demolished, including the entire 1100 block, which was buried under the interstate.  The formerly tree-lined 1500 block where the Metzgers raised their family in the early 1900s was beginning to resemble inner-city Detroit.

By the time historic preservation efforts were launched in the mid-1970s, two-thirds of homes on the Metzger’s block already had been torn down by the city.  All that remained was a handful of decrepit houses scattered among weed-choked stretches of vacant lots.

Then now

The house at the top was built in 1885 at 1440 Broadway by noted local architect Oscar Bohlen. By 1960, it had been carved into seven apartments. The house on the bottom was built in 1893 at 1522 Broadway by George Kothe, one of the founders of the Ko-We-Ba grocery company. By 1960, the house was cut into eight apartments.

Rick and Cyndi Patton stumbled upon the neighborhood by accident one afternoon in 1975 when they were looking for an antique shop that was advertised on 13th Street. Finding the shop had closed, they saw a sign for the Morris-Butler house and decided to take a tour.  They were immediately intriqued by this newly restored Victorian gem standing in the midst of urban decay.

By that time, a handful of young couples had moved into the area, restoring old houses along Delaware and Alabama Streets while starting their families.  Cyndi learned of an invitation-only home tour that was scheduled in an effort to introduce other preservation enthusiasts to the neighborhood.  She wrangled an invitation, where their soon-to-be neighbors launched a full-scale effort to convince the Pattons to buy one of the vacant houses on Alabama Street.  But a man named John Buckley who was restoring an Italianate home on Broadway Street convinced them that they needed to look at the rambling old house across the street.

1531 Broadway

In 1975, John Buckley was in the process of restoring this Italianate home at 1531 Broadway. The house had been built 100 years earlier by Samuel Merrill, Jr., whose father led the small wagon train that moved the state capitol from Corydon to Indianapolis in 1824.

It would be an understatement to say that 1508 Broadway lacked curb appeal when the Pattons first saw the house in 1975.  Almost 60 people were crammed into eight squalid apartments.  Squatters were living in another two basement apartments that the Board of Health had condemned for sanitary reasons.  There were bullet-holes in the parquet floor,  a Cadillac repair shop in the carriage house and a Pepsi machine on the front porch.  And some of the young boys who lived in the house found great entertainment by standing on the front staircase and urinating on the radiators below.

Still, the Pattons looked beyond the decay and saw the beauty of the once-grand house.  After two more visits to 1508 Broadway, they become first-time homeowners.   Then the real work started.  For the next few months, they worked at the house on evenings and weekends, filling dumpster after dumpster with the 10 bathtubs, 10 toilets and 10 kitchens that had been installed in a house originally built as a single-family home.  In May 1976 — when the house was celebrating its 100th birthday – the Pattons finally moved in.

1508 then nowAfter about a year, the Pattons had completed enough work on the three downstairs parlors to open their house for the neighborhood’s home tour. It would be another 10 years, however, before they could afford to paint the house.

The demolitions in the Old Northside finally stopped in 1978 when the neighborhood was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Then in 1980, a preservation plan for the area was adopted as part of the comprehensive plan for Marion County.

Still, the Old Northside faced many struggles in the 1980s, including a burgeoning prostitution trade which earned the neighborhood the dubious distinction as the top red-light district in Indianapolis.  In the mid-1980s, 40% of the prostitution activity in the entire county occured in a single square mile stretching from Meridian to Central and 12th to 22nd Streets. The Old Northside Neighborhood Association formed a Prostitution Committee, which worked with volunteers from Herron-Morton to clean the area of prostitution activity and the associated drugs and violence.

HookersOver the next 30 years, the Old Northside was transformed.  New homes were built on vacant lots, and landmarks such as Forest Home (below, right), the house that Butler University founder Ovid Butler built in the 1840s, were restored to their former grandeur.  The opulent mansion at 13th & Park (below, left) was converted back to a private home after serving for decades as a private club.

In January 1989, the residents of the Old Northside knew the neighborhood had finally turned a corner when newly elected Lt. Governor Frank O’Bannon and his wife, Judy, bought a partially restored house at 1226 Broadway.

Transformations

When Rick and Cyndi Patton started restoring 1508 Broadway, the home’s original footprint had been muddled by shoddy additions. So Rick started writing letters to everyone named Metzger in the Indianapolis phone book in an effort to find an early photo of the house before it was converted into apartments. Albert Metzger’s grandson showed up on their doorstep one Saturday morning with an entire album of photos from the home’s early days. The photos served as a blueprint for their restoration efforts.

Metzger carAfter living in the Old Northside for more than a decade, I’m inclined to believe that Frances Metzger may have gotten it turned around when she told The Indianapolis Star that happy people will make a place beautiful.  Because the simple fact is that beautiful places make people happy. Or at least that’s how I feel when I sit on my front porch and see the Patton’s grandchildren play on the lawn of the beautifully restored Victorian home where the Metzger children played 100 years ago.

Doc1

A graduate of Cornell University, Albert Metzger founded several banks in Indianapolis, including the American National Bank and the German American Trust Company. In 1922, the latter bank merged with another bank founded by Metzger to create the new Fletcher Savings & Trust Company. Metzger served as vice president of the new bank, but was also busy with his real estate ventures, including construction of the Lincoln Hotel. When he died in 1931, his estate was valued at $1.1 million – approximately $15 million in today’s dollars. The Fletcher bank and celluoid mirror shown above are from David Yount’s collection.

 

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About the Author

Libby Cierzniak is a partner at Faegre, Baker & Daniels, LLP, practicing primarily in the area of government affairs. A native of Kokomo, she became fascinated with historic preservation and Indianapolis history in the 1990s while working in the newly renovated Statehouse. She's an avid collector of "old Indianapolis"--books, photographs, advertising and other items--and loves to research and share information with others about the city's rich and colorful history. Libby, her husband and their two chronically misbehaving dogs live in an 1894 home in the Old Northside, where she serves on the board of the neighborhood association.

18 Comments on "Indianapolis Collected: The Fall and Rise of the Old Northside"

  1. Esther Shir September 7, 2013 at 11:57 am · Reply

    Terrific article and very heartening to hear about the old neighborhood being spruced up again. I was baptized at First Pres at 16th and Delaware and lived not too far north of that at 32nd and Park.

    Thanks!!

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland September 7, 2013 at 3:22 pm · Reply

      Esther, I spent last evening in the sanctuary of the church in which you were baptized. The occasion was the 5×5 “Connect Your City, Connect Your Neighborhood” competition. You would be thrilled to see how the building has become a neighborhod resource and gathering spot.
      Here’s a link to the Facebook page for the Harrison Center for the Arts: https://www.facebook.com/HarrisonCenterArts.
      Here’s a link to the Facebook page about last night’s event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1407183522836053/ .
      Here’s a link to a photo of one of the beautiful stained glass windows that you may remember from childhood:
      http://tinyurl.com/k4yehma.

  2. Scott Goodwine September 7, 2013 at 1:36 pm · Reply

    Our duplex at 2001/03 N. Pennsylvania may have had a member of the Metzger family living there in the early 1900’s. I have done some research, but not knowing what the original address was before they changed the numbers, I’m not sure. The home was converted to a duplex sometime in the teens. Any information out there on this?

    Scott Goodwine

  3. Ann Stewart September 7, 2013 at 2:13 pm · Reply

    I went to Sunday School and VBS at 1st Pres, have the photo to prove it, also a “script” from the VBS play I was in one year, lived for two years at 231 E. 11th St, a huge rambling yellow frame house. We lived downstairs, rented the upstairs out to fellow students at Lincoln Chiropractic College. Returned to Indy in 2000 for my 50th high school reunion (Howe) and found the old house even larger than I remembered it, and it had been restored as well. I was so pleased.

  4. Neil Rockwell September 7, 2013 at 2:15 pm · Reply

    Yes, this is a wonderful article. Having traveled through the Old North Side whenever possible, I am almost in disbelief at the before restoration photos. The ONS is such a wonderful neighborhood; it gives me encouragement for other neglected areas of our city. Thank you.

  5. Norm Morford September 8, 2013 at 12:58 am · Reply

    Is David Metzger, social worker and also I> I. U. School of Social Work faculty member, related to this family. If so, what can you tell the world about his connections to Kirklin, Indiana?

  6. Danielle Abrams September 9, 2013 at 12:38 pm · Reply

    1467 North Alabama is by far my favorite transformation:

    http://indiamond6.ulib.iupui.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/IHAS/id/1039/rec/129

    I walk my dog through the Old Northside multiple times a day. I’ve loved watching the neighborhood improve over the years instead of seeing sidewalk stairs to no-where.

  7. Doug Meagher September 10, 2013 at 1:29 pm · Reply

    Have lived in the ONS since 1986. Interesting to see old issues of The Keyhole from then. It’s almost hard to remember how bad parts of the neighborhood looked 27 years ago.

  8. Pippa Muller September 10, 2013 at 4:46 pm · Reply

    As usual Historic Indianapolis has mesmerized me again! I remember those days in the 1970’s, I was just a teenager when my Dad took me to the Morris Butler home for a tour…and then we drove around to see all the beautiful homes…like my Dad I could see past the decay and imagine them in all their splendor. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy this site!!

  9. Sean Harshey September 12, 2013 at 9:50 pm · Reply

    Libby: Thanks for the great recounting of these beautiful old homes. I grew up in Indy and remember seeing neighborhoods on the Old North Side, Woodruff Place, Fountain Square and other areas in the 1980s when I was a teenager. They were really rough at that time, but I just sat and looked at the houses and wondered about the people who lived there before and how great it would be to live in one of those homes when they were nice. At that time, I had no idea of restoration or neighborhood revitalization. What a service to all the past, present and future Indianapolis residents to restore and document the history of these homes and neighborhoods. My favorite part of your story was where you used the Metztger home & yard to connect Indianapolis children 100 years apart. Outstanding story and excellent writing. Thanks again!

  10. Andrew Potts September 14, 2013 at 12:59 pm · Reply

    Great piece, thanks Libby!

  11. Ron Stone September 17, 2013 at 1:02 am · Reply

    Notation regarding the two medallions at the bottom of the article:
    The Fletcher Savings and Trust beget American Fletcher National Bank (“AFNB”) which was purchased by Bank One…and I’m thinking they along with what had started life as Merchants Bank were both merged under the name of PNC

    • David E September 17, 2013 at 5:49 pm · Reply

      Ron, AFNB’s Routing Number was 07400001 (20-1) Which is now Chase Bank, so Chase is the current incarnation of AFNB. Indiana National was 07400005 (20-5) and Merchants National was 07400006 (20-6) I do not know PNC’s routing number, but it should be one of the above.

  12. Sally F Hogan January 2, 2014 at 6:17 pm · Reply

    My daughter found this article on line about the Metzger family and sent it to me. Louise Metzger, the youngest child in the family , was my grandmother; and I really enjoyed reading it. There are still quite a few Metzger descendants, and some live in Indianapolis.

    • Rick Patton January 17, 2014 at 8:50 am · Reply

      I noticed your comments on Historic Indianapolis. There is a picture that I have placed on Flickr that is you search “1508 Broadway” there is a picture of your grandmother and her brothers and sisters in front of the house and their first car, a Premier made in Indianapolis.

      Rick Patton

    • libby cierzniak February 15, 2014 at 2:41 pm · Reply

      Sally- there is a photo of your grandmother in the February Urban Times. She’s sitting on a sled on Broadway Street.

      • Sally F Hogan February 18, 2014 at 9:33 am · Reply

        Thanks, Libby!

  13. mike_stipher April 19, 2016 at 6:40 pm · Reply

    Hello Libby. Very interested. Keep up the grt work! I’ll be in Indpls on May 22nd-June 3rd. Pls advise if any special historical events take place in this time frame. I grew up on North Delaware Steet in the 1950’s. it was a wonderful time.
    Sincerely,
    Mike

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