Homeowner Krsana Henry was devastated when she first walked through 619 E. New York St. Only weeks before, she had inherited the Italianate-style home from her mother, Emma Jean (Gina) Rotstein. Rotstein, as it were, had inherited the property from her mother, Lou Venna Lester. Lester had owned the home—which is located on the south side of Lockerbie Square—for nearly 50 years. After Lester’s death, however, the home was caught in probate, which was rumored to be the longest-running probate in the state of Indiana. During those years, 619 E. New York sat empty and unused. Squatters moved in. They stripped the home of copper. They did drugs. They vandalized it, broke windows and doors. There was even a fire that damaged the roof. And, oh, the things that filled the house: vagrants and garbage and the refuse of human presence. It was difficult for Henry during her walk-through; sad, to the least. But amid the devastation, small treasures found their way to Henry’s hands. First, a railroad ticket costing just five cents. And then, in the middle of the floor, a black and white photograph.
“It was of my mother and her sister,” Henry said. “And I had never seen [my mother] as a child.”
Lester—Henry’s grandmother—was in her early twenties when she first moved to Indianapolis. Lester had lost her first husband around 1937, when she was just 19 years old. Her two daughters—Gina and Ann Eureka—were three and one, respectively. While the girls stayed with their grandparents, Lester moved from Kentucky to Cincinnati to find work. According to Henry, Lester was “sharp and a hard worker. She had several different types of jobs and always put aside a good portion of whatever she earned.” Eventually, she remarried and moved to Indianapolis in 1940. Lester slowly accrued property. From her mother (Henry’s great-grandmother), Lester inherited 613 E. New York St., which neighbors the Italianate. Lester later purchased the Italianate, as well as several other homes. She owned as many as 10 properties, and used most of them as rentals. Henry also informed me that her grandmother would sit on the porch of 613 E. New York and watch passerby. Henry recalls visiting Grandma Lester when she was a teenager. “I would help her work in the fried chicken store and then we would sit [outside],” she said. “She was known as the lady keeping an eye on the neighborhood.”
Lester was one to help others as well. “Grandma used [619 E. New York] as a rooming house,” Henry said. “And she was very resourceful.” Whether an individual needed a place to stay for a month or for a week, Lester made a space. “Upstairs,” Henry elaborated, “you’ll find that it is sort of chopped up into little areas. You’ll find a sink under a window, or even a toilet in a closet. And the way it’s designed—going in the front door, if you walk down a particular hall, you can get lost trying to find the other side of the house.” And over the phone and across the airwaves—from Indiana to Massachusetts—I could sense Henry’s amused smile. I pictured long hallways and wooden floors. Tall, open doorways and a maze of plaster walls.
“I would love to see someone make it beautiful again,” Henry said, on cue.
Indeed, Lockerbie Square is known for its Italianate homes. Indianapolis Architecture, published in 1975 by the Indiana Architectural Foundation, states that Lockerbie “languishes in Victorian charm. Sturdy brick homes, quaint wooden cottages, tiny meandering streets, brick walkways, large overgrown shrubbery and shade trees evoke a feeling that time is standing still, and at any moment a horse-drawn carriage will pass, and the woman passenger with her lace parasol will nod your acquaintance.” The poster home of Lockerbie is, of course, the James Whitcomb Riley Home, which was built in 1872. 619 E. New York was, most likely, constructed just a few years later. (The parcel and listing information for the property states that it was built circa 1900. However, the Sanborn Maps and city directories show the existence of the home before the turn of the century, which suggests that it was most likely built in the late 1870s or early 1880s.)
The exact ownership and construction of 619 E. New York is a little difficult to track, as the home has undergone several address changes. According to the Sanborn Maps, it was known as 323 E. New York in 1887, but was labeled as 621 E. New York on the 1898 Map. By the time the 1915 Sanborn was created, the house was finally labeled with its current address. Each of the Sanborn Maps shows that the footprint of 619 E. New York has remained very much the same over the years. The only significant changes visible on the Maps are those to the front porch: it was elongated in the 1898 Map, for instance.
613 E. New York (the neighboring house upon whose porch Lester used to sit) experienced several address changes as well. The building is constructed as a double, but goes by one street address today. In the past, however, the structure had dual addresses—613 and 615 E. New York St., for example. What’s more, this particular double is not as old as the surrounding homes. On the 1887 Sanborn Map, the double is not yet in existence; in its place is a single-family residence. That particular residence is, unfortunately, unlabeled. All that is known is that home—which was razed at some point to construct the double that stands today—stood between 323 and 311 E. New York St.
There is one thing, however, that ties the properties and their various address changes together: Andrew Kramer.
Kramer, according to a snippet on Ancestry.com, was born in 1841 in Prussia. (The 1880 census, however, states that he was born in Ohio.) Kramer was employed at Ebner, Aldag & Co., which was founded in 1870 and succeeded by the Indianapolis Varnish Company in 1893. In 1870, however, Kramer was living on North Liberty Street. In the mid-1870s, he resided on both Noble (later renamed College Avenue) and Lockerbie streets. In 1879, Kramer called 315 E. New York home. The Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection actually includes a 1979 image of the gray-colored double (now 613 E. New York St.) and labels the image as the “Andrew Kramer Double House.” Finally, in 1887, Kramer resided at 323 E. New York—the same Italianate house passed on to Henry nearly 130 years later.
The Italianate—which is divided into a triplex—has been home to many individuals over the years. The city directories list many a person; sometimes, the same name appears for several years. (Floyd Williams, for example, lived in the Italianate for at least 10 years in the mid-1900s.) Other names, however, appear only once. And, of course, vacancies appear every so often: across the street, down the street, the house itself. In 1970, for example, 619 E. New York was empty. Some of the neighboring homes were razed in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but both the double and the Italianate survived. They’ve withstood neighborhood demolitions, vacancies, and vagrancies.
And from mother to daughter to granddaughter and—in the case of the double—to great-granddaughter, the homes have passed.
“I didn’t want them to sit,” said Henry. “A lot of bad things have happened to [619 E. New York] over the years, and I didn’t want to see what happened happen again.” She was determined. “My number one reason for accepting [the properties] is to see them rehabbed.”
Henry assured me that there has been interest in the property (which is currently listed) and that it had been “much worse” before she, her husband, and a family friend cleaned up what they could. The three of them drove—from Massachusetts to Indianapolis—to board up dangerous areas, to shutter entry points, to replace missing steps. They removed several huge dumpsters of debris from the home, and did their best to make the home safe for visits from potential buyers. They worked—the three of them and a handful of hired workers—for seven days. Every day, for 12 hours, they cleaned and scraped and tossed. “It was all we were able to do,” said Henry. “However, we were careful when cleaning out each room to preserve any original features that we could. We found pieces to mantles and doorknobs and banisters and door frames and many other small details, and we put them all back wherever they belonged.”
Currently, both homes—the gray double and the Italianate—are for sale. “Historic Preservationist/Renovator needed for Italianate Lockerbie home for complete rehab,” the listing description states. “Be a part of history and return this property to its former glory.”
Henry elaborates. “I’m not being greedy. I would’ve loved to have kept the Italianate for myself, but I don’t have the money. It doesn’t need to be mine. I’m more interested in it being fixed up than waiting it out. It needs to be rehabbed.”
And how grandeur would it be—to have gleaming floors, a slick and reflective stair-rail, warm-colored walls and a glowing fireplace and a family room. And, of course, photos. Not fallen and forgotten and buried in debris, but hung on the wall, the beginnings of another family legacy.
Many thanks to Krsana Henry and Sharon Butsch Freeland. Without their insight, this article would not have been possible.