Indianapolis Then and Now: Christ Church Cathedral, 125 Monument Circle

Written by on May 31, 2012 in Then & Now - 7 Comments
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Perhaps because June makes my mouth water for strawberry shortcake from the Christ Church Strawberry Festival, I’m focusing this week on Christ Church Cathedral. Tiffany recently wrote about the lesser known facts about Christ Church, so I’ll not get into the history but will let the photos speak for themselves. These images show how the church once towered over other houses and churches on the Circle, but today “the little church on the circle” is dwarfed by its neighbors.

The Episcopal congregation built this Gothic Revival church (seen in the center of this ca. 1875 photograph) in 1857-59 and it opened in May 1859. During the Civil War era five protestant churches, including Plymouth Church to the left, stood on what was then known as Governor’s Circle. In 1857 the intended governors’  home was demolished and the land became known as Circle Park until the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was constructed. Today, Christ Church is the only church remaining on the Circle and is Indianapolis’s oldest religious structure in continuous use.  (Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Company #298598)

Here Christ Church is viewed from the newly constructed Soldiers and Sailors Monument in about 1897. The Morrison home (on the right) was purchased by the Columbia Club in 1889 and razed in 1899 to make way for a new Columbia Club building. (Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Company #42037)

By 1905 the English Hotel and Opera House stood on the northwest quadrant; the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse had recently been finished; and the Pyle House, a former hotel and boarding house with the Owl Cigars billboard, would soon make way for the Board of Trade building. The lychgate, extending south from the tower entry, was added to the church in 1900. (Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Company #4359)

The Board of Trade building is under construction in this ca. 1906 view. (Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection)


Christ Church was photographed in April 1934 for the Historic American Buildings Survey. Although the church looks the same on the exterior, the congregation expanded underground in 1927 to add educational rooms. (Library of Congress, HABS Collection, W. W. Bonns, photographer)


Through the years the congregation refused offers from businesses and developers clamoring for the desirable real estate. Philanthropist and church member Eli Lilly had much to do with preserving this gem, even writing its centennial history book “The Little Church on the Circle” in 1957. One of my favorite preservation stories, although I can not vouch for its accuracy, is that American Fletcher Bank wanted to expand and even discussed buying air rights above the church. A person who was familiar with the negotiations told me that the normally modest and mild-mannered Eli Lilly quipped “I’ll buy that bank before I let them tear down my church.”  (Wikipedia, 2010)

The 47th-annual Christ Church Cathedral Women’s Strawberry Festival will take place on Thursday, June 14, 2012, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. (or until supplies run out!).

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About the Author

Joan Hostetler and John Harris own Heritage Photo & Research Services. The company specializes in house and building research and historic photograph preservation, interpretation, archiving, and digitization. Since they see so many cool photographs tucked away in attics and basements, they recently created "The Indiana Album" to borrow, scan, and share hidden Indiana images with the public. Like them on facebook or send them an email to share your photographs.

7 Comments on "Indianapolis Then and Now: Christ Church Cathedral, 125 Monument Circle"

  1. Jim May 31, 2012 at 8:52 am · Reply

    Excellent photos of the old church! I love seeing the oldest photos, when this church’s tower rose high above it all. Today, the church seems so small compared to the surrounding buildings.

  2. Kathy Lynch May 31, 2012 at 1:00 pm · Reply

    This was a delightful look back in time, with a glimpse of the English Hotel, where my uncle worked as a teenage stagehand and lighting technician, and the unknown and unnamed but very familiar building which once was at the northwest corner of Ohio and Meridian Streets. I have one slight quibble though, and I may not be right at all. I doubt the usage of “porte-cochere” for the structure added south of the doors of Christ Church. If it were entirely separated from the main structure, it would be a lych-gate, but we always called it “the church porch.” Simple enough!
    One last vignette: Weekday mornings early mass brought out a wildly diverse congregation at Christ Church. It was nearly a certainty, though, that two men would be there, Eli Lilly and his chauffeur. They arrived in the Nash Metropolitan and slipped away during final prayers.

  3. Joan Hostetler May 31, 2012 at 4:23 pm · Reply

    Kathy, You are right and I’ve changed porte cochere (which I copied from an NPR article on the church, but should have known better since a buggy/auto can drive under a porte cochere) to lychgate, a term I frequently get to use. Here is the definition: Thanks for catching my error and enlightening me. I’m curious since you are familiar with the church: have you ever heard the story about Lilly threatening to buy AFNB?

  4. Joan Hostetler May 31, 2012 at 6:20 pm · Reply

    Oops, that should read ” lychgate, a term I DON’T frequently get to use.”

  5. basil berchekas jr May 31, 2012 at 10:40 pm · Reply

    I can conceivably hear Mr Lilly say what the story says he said. Used to shoot pool in the basement of the former Board of Trade Building “back in the day”, and have eaten some of those fine strawberries there.

  6. Kathleen Lynch June 1, 2012 at 7:41 pm · Reply

    I’ve heard lots of Lilly stories — Ruth, JK, Eli… but not the story about AFNB in his sights! It’s one of those stories which “ought” to be true, whether it is or not!

  7. Virginia Mills October 23, 2013 at 9:22 am · Reply

    This is NOT the oldest structure in continuous use as a house of worship in Indy. That distinction goes to Valley Mills Friends Meetinghouse in Decatur Twp. The name was chamged early on but it’s the same building and the same families.

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