(photo by Dawn Olsen)
The intersection of South and Delaware streets wasn’t exactly paradise … but it was paved and made into a parking lot. Several parking lots, in fact. Though the lots are used (mostly by Eli Lilly employees, I assume, and also for downtown events), their necessity has transformed the area’s architectural landscape. Quite literally, entire blocks have been leveled in order to make room for the modern day vehicle.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the area was one of industry. There were coal yards, tinsmiths, warehouses, liveries. I’m sure the area was full of commotion and noise and dust, too. Of course, with the number of cars that drive through this area during rush hour, commotion might still be prevalent. Generally, we think little of the past when making our way to work. We pay attention to the road and shake our fists at other drivers’ actions. We sip coffee or quickly inhale a napkin-wrapped bagel. We sing to the radio, laugh at Bob & Tom, or listen to NPR. We’re each in our own world in our own cars, and we don’t pause to think of the historical world that was demolished in order to create “the perfect parking spot.”
The southern part of the intersection, for the most part, comprised smaller businesses and shops. The northern part, however, had much larger operations. In the 1880s, both the E.H. Elderidge & Co. Lumberyard and the A.B. Meyer & Co. Coal Yard were housed between Delaware and Alabama streets. The Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Chicago Railroad Depot was just north of the yards. In later years, the depot expanded, encompassing more than one block. It was called the Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Chicago Railroad Depot, or the C.C.C. & St. L. R.R. It had two freight houses, and room for both in-bound and out-bound wares. The depot continued to be used for nearly a century, though, in later years, it was adapted for use by semi trailers. But, by the 1980s, the depot was gone; it was leveled, paved, and painted with straight yellow lines.
Across the street, between Delaware and Pennsylvania, was the Indianapolis Gaslight and Coke Company. According to “Hyman’s Handbook of Indianapolis” (a history of the city that was published by the Max R. Hyman Company in 1907), the Indianapolis Gaslight and Coke Company was started in 1851, and supplied natural gas to the city from 1888 to 1903. (Prior to 1888, artificial gas was used.) In 1902, the Indianapolis Gas Company (which had been incorporated in 1890 as a successor to the Indianapolis Gaslight and Coke Company and the Indianapolis National Gas Company) began erecting a new plant near Langsdale Avenue. The new plant eventually had a daily capacity of 7,000,000 cubic feet. As the handbook says, “The policy of the company is liberal and progressive, and it has had marked success in promoting the sales of gas for domestic and industrial uses. The company is giving excellent service and is using every endeavor to educate its consumers in the economical use of gas … The company now has over 30,000 consumers and over 300 miles of mains.”
The Indianapolis Gaslight & Coke Company fell to disrepair; the 1898 Sanborn Map (updated to 1915) labels the company as “not in operation, Oct. 12, 1909” and adds “BUILDINGS ALL VACANT & IN BAD REPAIR.” Creatively, however, one of the company’s gas holders was converted into a swimming pool—Indianapolis’ first, in fact. The swimming pool appears on both the 1915 Sanborn and the 1916 Baist maps, and was even photographed by the W. H. Bass Photo Company. The Indiana Historical Society guards the Aug. 8, 1912, photo of the city’s first swimming pool.
Nestled on the other half of that same block were several smaller establishments. The Pintch Gas Company had a few buildings just north of the swimming pool, and remained there for a few years. By 1920, it was known as the Citizens Gas Company, which became the Million Population Wrecking Company. The swimming pool became a parking lot.
With so many of its former neighbors flattened, I’m outright surprised as to how 336 S. Delaware has survived. The building is more than a century old, and has been practically everything—a livery, a garage for Harris Motor Transportation Company, a garage for Keeshin Motors Express Co., a warehouse for Tanner Brothers, and a home base for Martin’s Wrecker Service, among other things. Caudle Transfer Co. was another business that held fort in the area; an Indianapolis Star advertisement from Nov. 23, 1917, offers for sale two Ford trucks at Caudle’s South Delaware address. An even earlier advertisement—one that appeared in The Indianapolis Star on Nov. 21, 1912—was run by M. Gregory Co. and recalls the building’s use as a livery. “Horses are Cheaper,” the ad says. “We have a few useful business and draft horses that must be sold, regardless of cost.”
The 1887 Sanborn shows that 336 S. Delaware was surrounded by two residential homes and a large carriage house. But, within forty years, the carriage house and homes were erased from existence. The commercial buildings immediately south of the building, however, remained for many years. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the corner evolved; a sheet metal store was created, and a new warehouse (which still stands) was put up. By the 1980s—after being used for various carloading, distributing, and trucking companies—the buildings were vacant, and they were subsequently removed in 1993. And, until 2011, when construction for contemporary apartments started, the area changed little.
Perhaps this building is safe from the wrecking ball, but, given the parked cars that practically swallow it, I fear its demise. True, 336 S. Delaware isn’t a fancy hotel or the former residence of an Indianapolis celebrity. It’s a humble, more-than-one-hundred-year-old structure with an industrial history. A history that began with horses and carriages. A history that survived the construction of nearby railroad tracks and witnessed increasing dependency on the modern car. A history that shouldn’t have to end, not yet. Because, when it comes to South and Delaware, it is the only remaining original structure. Why pave this history and put up a parking lot?