Vacant: Old City Hall

Written by on May 4, 2013 in Vintage Flats - 14 Comments
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Eagle statue, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

Eagle statue, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

How many great memories do you have at the old City Hall building? The event coordinators of Vacant, a one night art gala on May 3rd, approached me to put a presentation together on the old City Hall building. Last night’s successful event was thrown by three graduating seniors from the Herron School of Art & Design – it was part a senior painting thesis show and part a juried art competition open to Herron students and artists in the community. Considering the last two usages of the structure have been for well-publicized art exhibits, do you have any ideas for repurposing City Hall?

Marble floor, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

Marble floor, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

Construction began in 1909, with architects Rubush & Hunter selected as the best plan. The firm also designed other Indianapolis buildings, such as the CircleTower Building (1929-1930), the Coca-Cola Bottling Company Plant (1931), and the Columbia Club (1925). On July 27, 1909, Mayor Bookwalter laid the cornerstone of the new City Hall during a humble ceremony. Thousands of citizens joined the mayor along with Governor Marshall, city officials, and other municipal workers to celebrate the event 7/28/1909). A copper box with copies of city reports, the Indianapolis charter, and copies of the newspaper was placed inside the corner stone. Mayor Bookwalter’s speech included thanking the citizens of the Indianapolis: “No citizen of Indianapolis will step his foot within the portals of this structure with more of a personal pride than I that this great city has at last constructed for itself a home commensurate with the dignity of its people… And I believe that in all the years to come no citizen, man, woman, or child, will pass this corner and read that motto without feeling responsibility for good citizenship in this city of ours.” (“Lays Corner Stone of New City Hall,” IndyStar, 7/28/1909)

Floor plan, first floor, IndyStar, 2/14/1909

Floor plan, first floor, IndyStar, 2/14/1909

Floor plan, second floor, IndyStar, 2/15/1909

Floor plan, second floor, IndyStar, 2/15/1909

A construction rush started that October, when there was a great deal of concern about getting the walls and roof secure before winter. As of October 3, 1909, walls were almost up to the top of the second floor – contractors believed they would have the roof on a “short time after January 1st.” (“Weather Man Aids on New Buildings,” IndyStar, 10/3/1909) Twenty-two days later, the walls were nearly up to the third floor around the entire building. Large, thirty-ton stones to set on top of the cap and pillars were to be delivered to Indianapolis soon – these were some of the largest building materials to be utilized in the construction (“Surprises are Due in Realty Circles,” IndyStar, 10/25/1909). A third of the cornice was completed the following month (“Building Record Made at Colonial,” IndyStar, 11/22/1909). The contract did specify that the walls and roof were to be completed by January 1st, but the construction was behind schedule. At this time, some interior walls were finished, as well as the steel support system for the rotunda (IndyStar, 11/22/1909). By December, about half of the stone courses needed to be set before the roof work could begin (“Contractors Hope for Fair Weather,” IndyStar, 12/6/1909). Heavy rains in mid-December pushed back construction; the hope was that roofing would be completed by January 15th (“Nine Story Home Opens to Public,”IndyStar, 12/13/1909). Mayor Bookwalter was also disappointed with the stone cutting work and decided to have the carvings on the cornerstone recreated. Apparently, the spacing between words was hastily completed (IndyStar, 12/13/1909). The inscription, “I am, myself, a citizen of no mean city,” was taken from a City Hall funding speech by Mayor Bookwalter prior to construction (“The IndianaState Museum…Biography of a Building,” Pamphlet, n.d.)

Columns and ceiling details on first floor, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

Columns and ceiling details on first floor, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

The Board of Public Works awarded the interior contract to W.F. Behrens, for $23,700, to do a number of mural paintings; Behren’s firm, of New York and Cincinnati, was not the lowest bid, but the board believed the designs were “of superior merit and more in harmony with the structure.” (“Buys Art for City Hall,” IndyStar, 12/30/1909) The Board’s statement on the decision: “One of the most artistic pieces of work included in the decorations planned by Mr. Behrens is for the ceiling and walls of the rotunda. The circular design running entirely around the ceiling of the rotunda contains the signs of the zodiac, below which there is a border of heavy relief. The walls of the rotunda are in delicate shades, white predominating. The drawing submitted for the office of the mayor was of particular beauty. This room will be done in green with a paneled wall. The panels will be adorned with a design of foliage at the top with bands of blue running downward to the bottom of the panels. The woodwork will be of mahogany.” (IndyStar, 12/30/1909) Mural themes included pioneer days, Alice of old Vincennes, and the battle of Falling Timber. These interiors exemplify the height of decorative art.

Floor through rotunda hole, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

Floor through rotunda hole, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

Top of rotunda, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

Top of rotunda, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

During this time, a new mayor was elected for the city, Mayor Samuel L. Shank. He was inaugurated the first week of January in a section of the building that was partially complete. Interior work started picking up in mid-January. Mayor Shank was not pleased with the murals in his office. The Board of Public Works ignored his pleas to award the contract to F.J. Mack & Co., a local company, who had planned angels on the ceiling of his office (“Loses Fight for Angels,” IndyStar, 12/1/1910). Part of the reason the board chose Behren’s firm was because P.C. Rubush of Rubush & Hunter had advised them to. The mayor’s concerns grew about beginning murals and other decorations as plaster fell from the ceilings – supposedly – but others, including a representative of the Westlake Construction Company said it was only molding that fell from the ceiling (“Acts as Plaster Falls,” IndyStar, 12/8/1910). City Hall construction costs were as follows: Westlake Construction Company, $511,029.86; Kirkhoff Bros.’ Company, $25,356.00; Indianapolis Plumbing and Heating Company, $8,861.17; Hatfield Electric Company, $8,199.06; Otis Elevator Company, $9,500.00; Lilly & Stalnaker, $9,825.00; Cutler Manufacturing Company, $1,236.00; American Air Cleaning Company, $1,442.75; Sanborn Electric Company, $17,234.00; Rubush & Hunter, $29,635.59; George M. Brill, $12,609.00; incidentals, $247.93; sidewalks and curbs, $613.89; permanent fixtures, $14,152.00 (IndyStar, 11/6/1910).

Detail of door, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

Detail of door, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

Exterior detailing, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

Exterior detailing, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

The City Hall dedication was planned near the end of November. The committee approved only $500 of public funds to be utilized for the event (“Treasury to Foot Bill,” IndyStar, 11/24/1910). The dedication was planned for Wednesday, December 21st – it included speeches from six mayors, as well as an open house of the structure for the public. 13 years later, discussions of purchasing the seven structures north of the building for an addition took place. By the 1940’s, there was talk of adding three more stories to the building. Ultimately, the city outgrew the building. After offices moved into the newly completed City-County building at 200 East Washington Street, the Indiana State Museum inhabited City Hall. The only major alteration to the exterior of the building during this time was sealing the windows; the interior work included dropping the ceilings and removing office walls to create larger gallery spaces (“America’s City Halls,” Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission, James A. Glass and Mary Ellen Gadski, September 1981). The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. When the Indiana State Museum moved to its’ current location at White River State Park in 2002, the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library moved in so the central library expansion could begin at 40 East St. Clair Street. The IMCPL moved out in 2007 when construction was completed. At that point, the city tried to find a private developer for the vacant structure (“’Turf’ Pavilion Ready for a Super Kickoff,” Neal Taflinger, IndyStar, 12/15/2011). Five years later, the building was used for an art exhibit, “Turf,” during the 2012 Super Bowl. What’s your million dollar idea for the building?

Tile in entry ceiling, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

Tile in entry ceiling, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

Rotunda, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

Rotunda, 2013, (c) photo by Kurt Lee Nettleton

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About the Author

Jordan Ryan is a 2010 graduate of Herron School of Art & Design's Art History program. This fall, she will continue her studies with the Public History master's program at IUPUI. She is currently employed at the Herron Art Library, where her work focuses on circulation and reference services as well as research for the library's historic architecture & neighborhood digital collections. She is also an intern at Indiana Landmarks and is a TA at Herron for an art history course. She is currently a resident of Fountain Square.

14 Comments on "Vacant: Old City Hall"

  1. basil berchekas jr May 4, 2013 at 10:55 am · Reply

    For what its worth, it could be used for municipal courts; no doubt the City County Building is overcrowded in that regard, or maybe a “city” museum focused on the city’s history, along with an emphasis on, say, Center Township and Marion County prior to UniGov…just suggestions…

    • Jordan Ryan May 14, 2013 at 10:42 am · Reply

      I’ve heard relieving the crowded courts was an idea, but to install all of the electrical and the holding cells would cost too much. Maybe it would be easier to move some other departments back into City Hall and the courts can expand in the City-County building?

      • basil berchekas jr May 14, 2013 at 10:47 am · Reply

        your suggestion DOES sound like a viable alternative…

  2. tim hildebrandt May 4, 2013 at 7:54 pm · Reply

    If Indianapolis doesn’t figure out a way to preserve this building, it will mark us forever as amateurs in the big city department. To lose this monumental example from the past would be a serious crime.

    • Jordan Ryan May 14, 2013 at 10:43 am · Reply

      I completely agree!

  3. Randy Handley May 4, 2013 at 9:13 pm · Reply

    I’m not sure how big the building is but it seems to me a portion of it could be set aside as a short term homeless shelter, with the caveat that able bodied would contribute to a few hours of cleaning and maintenance help, in return. The rest could house historical and artistic Indiana artifacts of the unusual and non-multi-million dollar variety. In other words folk art, non-famous sculptors and painters, agricultural and transportation items, which were once part of Hoosier life, but are not in contemporary use. It would not , then, compete directly with other tourist destinations but enhance the city’s stature as a place for people to come and see something unusual.

    • Jordan Ryan May 14, 2013 at 10:43 am · Reply

      That is a really interesting idea!

  4. Todd May 6, 2013 at 9:02 pm · Reply

    I would love to see this space used for rotating exhibits. The space is large and can hold different sizes, shapes and mediums. The large parking space can accomodate parking or food trucks. Use the space to focus attention on local artists and give a great building purpose again.

    • timhildebrandt May 6, 2013 at 11:49 pm · Reply

      Great that I find out about this after its over.

      Next time….

      NOTIFY MEMBERS OF EVENTS PRIOR TO THE EVENT!!!!!!!!!

      I have many ideas for utilizing the building!!!!!!!!

      Thanks
      Tim H

      • Tiffany Benedict Berkson May 7, 2013 at 12:11 am · Reply

        Members of what, Tim? You can certainly share your ideas here. And there may be other opportunities in future. Cheers.

        • timhildebrandt May 7, 2013 at 12:26 am · Reply

          Hi Tiffany, Thamnks for the quick rply. I complain that I didn’t know about the event at the court house before it occured, otherwise I wouls have attended.

          I refer to a membership in a community of citizens concerned for the preservation of all the wonderful old buildings in this town. guess its not an official community with formal membership status…BUT, I am a virtual member in a sense that an unofficial membership exists at all. Anyway. I am up for whatever events come to pass in the future for that great building. In fact, I suggest we use it for all the art events we can think of..

          Thanks again

          Tim H

          • Jordan Ryan May 14, 2013 at 10:49 am ·

            And Tim- I agree. The event was only advertised to art groups and organizations as well as art students. There was little attention given to preservation groups. I made an effort to reach out to Indiana Landmarks to promote the event, but I don’t think any other historic organization promoted the event. Perhaps we should start a message board on here so we can keep updated on events?

            I will be presenting the information again for an Irvington group I believe in the near future and also a conference in October. Please email me if you’d like to see it – jordanblairryan@gmail.com – I can let you know when I’ll more presentations.

            Also, the coordinators of the Vacant art exhibit would like to continue having events there every 6 to 12 months. Hopefully you’ll have another chance to explore the first two floors of the building soon.

    • Jordan Ryan May 14, 2013 at 10:45 am · Reply

      I agree. I feel like the current set up really lends itself to gallery spaces and office spaces. Why not move some of these little art groups and organizations into one space? Maybe they can help each other and share the obvious gallery spaces. And considering the last two successful usages of the building have been for art exhibits… it just makes sense to me!

  5. Nancy Van July 27, 2016 at 7:32 am · Reply

    The inscription on the cornerstone may indeed have been taken from Mayor Brookwalter’s speech, but when the Mayor made that speech he was quoting that line from its original source, the Apostle Paul in Acts 21:39 of the Bible, where he said I am a citizen of no mean City

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