Vonnegut, Ayres, Fletcher, Blocks, Lieber…Prosser? Quite often I find myself researching the unknown families of Indianapolis. These are the everyday people who aren’t in the history books. With a bit of patience, they can be found in directories, census records, and the occasional newspaper clipping. With even more perseverance, and a lot of luck, I can sometimes track down descendants who might have a photo or some family stories. The Prosser family only lived in Indianapolis for about two decades, but their gem of a house still survives on East Tenth Street and I hope to one day find grandchildren or great-grandchildren to help fill in the blanks of their lives. Here is a history of their house and snippets of their story.
When I first moved into the area in 1984 I was enchanted with the unusual house and got up the nerve to knock on the door to meet the owner, F. Max Howard. The elderly gentleman graciously invited me in for a tour and shared his background. Back in his youth, his Saturday art class at Herron School of Art went to Woodruff Place to draw the homes and fountains. On the way there he fell in love with the little stucco house on East Tenth and Arsenal Streets and vowed to buy it one day. Years later, after returning from service in World War II, he drove a friend to see the house and saw a “for sale” sign in the yard. He felt it was fate and bought the home with his partner John P. Seiberling, a music teacher. The home was in very poor condition, but they worked to restore and maintain it for about 50 years, repairing the exterior and remolding some of the missing interior trim.
Max Howard told me that this charming little house was built by a decorative plaster craftsman in 1886. Englishman William Prosser (b. 1834) immigrated to America with his three young children, Jennie, Percy J., and William, Jr., in 1870. William’s wife died about this time and he remarried and settled in Indianapolis by 1880. He is consistently listed in directories as a plaster worker or molder and in 1888 he, along with his son Percy J., a plasterer and sculptor, worked at the Indianapolis Terra Cotta Company. It’s not surprising that when he built his house at 1454 E. Tenth Street he applied his trade and made it much more ornate than the average small home of the era. Luckily, the Historic American Buildings Survey “HABS” documented the house in 1958. The HABS report (online at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/IN0063/ ) includes measured drawings, photographs, and a brief history. (Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Photo by E. Roger Frey, November 1958)
These details were drawn by John W. Carmack and E. Roger Frey in 1958 and 1959 for the Historic American Buildings Survey.
The HABS report states that the front room of the house, which was Prosser’s studio, was a later addition made of plaster block. The original, central part of the house was constructed with wood framing. The whole house is covered with stucco scored to look like stone blocks. Prosser applied decorative elements such as corner quoins, dentils, and ornate gable vents. (Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Photo by E. Roger Frey, November 1958)
Decorative gable vent, dentils, and brackets on the east side of the house. (Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Photo by E. Roger Frey, November 1958)
The living room ceiling features a center medallion and a geometric pattern. (Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Photo by E. Roger Frey, November 1958)
A grapevine pattern is featured in the decorative plaster ceiling cornice in the living room. (Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, Photo by E. Roger Frey, November 1958)
Plaster workers did not get a lot of credit for their work, so we know few of the Prosser family’s projects. The son Percy J. Prosser lived in the 900 block of Oriental Street and his stucco house survived into the 1980s, but was razed due to its poor condition. Max told me that he went into the Oriental Street house once and it had crudely-carved plaster lions on either side of a fireplace. Another former neighbor recalled that an octagonal-shaped stucco outhouse stood in the back yard and it was unusual since it was a three-holer.
Curious about the history of the Prosser family, Max said that in the 1950s he visited the studio of an old plasterer on East 11th Street (later removed by the interstate) and talked to a Mrs. Dante Gaspari who knew of the Prossers. She recalled that one of their last jobs was the interior of the Claypool Hotel, begun in 1903. These large plaster columns in the lobby were faux finished to look like marble.
The Louis XIV room in the Claypool Hotel might be an example of the Prossers’ work. Mrs. Gaspari said that William Prosser lost much of his fortune because of union troubles while finishing the interior of the Claypool Hotel in Indianapolis. He and his family then moved to New Orleans and Florida where they continued in the plaster business. (Indiana State Library)
After the Prosser family left Indianapolis around 1904, their home was occupied by only a few people, including John and Fanny Pritchard (1910s), William O. and Marjorie Wood (1920s-40s), and Max Howard and John Seiberling (1940s-about 1990s). Today the house is owned by a former Herron student, and the surrounding Windsor Park Neighborhood and East Tenth Street area is in the midst of a revival.
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