What’s in a Name: Vajen Exchange Block

Written by on February 3, 2014 in What’s in a Name? - 4 Comments
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Vajen Exchange Block
Location: Wholesale District, Meridian Street- relocated from Pennsylvania Street, between Wabash and Market Streets
John H. Vajen, Indianapolis businessman & Indiana’s Quartermaster General

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John Henry Vajen was born in Hanover, Germany in 1828 to a university professor and his wife. His family came to America in 1836, settling in Baltimore and Cincinnati before moving to Jackson County, Indiana where he helped organize a large German Lutheran settlement. When John’s father died, he returned to Cincinnati to work as a clerk for a family friend and later earned interest in the company. In 1851, Vajen moved to Indianapolis and started a wholesale and retail hardware business, which had tremendous success.

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In 1861, as the Civil War began, Governor Morton appointed Vajen as Quartermaster General of Indiana, the position charged with equipping Indiana soldiers. Vajen was reported to have been unenthusiastic about the position, but he ensured that Indiana troops had the comfort and equipment they needed for success. In 1864, he helped organize the bank of Fletcher, Vajen & Company. He also began investing in real estate around the city and built more than twenty commercial and residential buildings. In 1871, he sold his interest in the hardware store to his partners and retired. He came out of retirement six years later when he purchased the Story, New and Company Hardware Store.

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1887 Sanborn Map

He died in 1917. At the time of his death, he was the last surviving incorporator of Crown Hill Cemetery and the last survng member of Governor Oliver Morton’s Civil War military staff. Honorary pallbearers included Charles W. Fairbanks, John H. Holliday, Volney T. Malott, Thomas Spann and Charles E. Coffin. He was married to Alice Fugate and had seven children.

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 Photos courtesy of Ryan Hamlett.

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About the Author

Steve Campbell is the former Deputy Mayor of Indiianapolis, owns a communications strategy consulting firm, and teaches journalism and mass communications at the IUPUI School of Journalism.

4 Comments on "What’s in a Name: Vajen Exchange Block"

  1. d m shea February 3, 2014 at 2:03 pm · Reply

    The unusual name Vajen evoked a memory of one of the most remarkable philanthropic couples who I was assigned to do a feature story about in the mid-late 40’s–Mr and Mrs. William Henry Coleman–the grieving parents of a daughter who died (in child birth perhaps?) long before my time but who they memorialized by funding the Coleman Hospital on IU Medical campus, as well as the Suemma Vajen Coleman home (is it still in existence?) That middle name Vajen suggests a relationship–and Mrs. Coleman in particular is worth HI writing about. She was what Readers Digest used to feature as the “most memorable person” in my own journalistic career–every year for half a century she “remembers” me and the newspaper feature I wrote about her in an unusual way. Wanna hear it?

    First, I was a low level reporter just breaking into doing features including court house/probate etc. And one of the strangest and longest-running contested wills on the docket for years was that which followed the death of her husband William Henry Coleman. In his generous lifetime he had donated hospitals etc. and at death he left numerous charitable bequests–one to an “old peoples home” (name began with A but forgotten.” But there were 2 such homes at the time, both beginning with an A, and a careless lawyer creating the will accidentally named one as a recipient but accidentally put in the address of the other! So both tied up the will claiming the bequests for a forgotten number of years.

    That was enough to make his widow, Sally, determined that her own bequests would be done as much as possible in her lifetime (a very long one!) —and her own feisty views made her newsworthy so that there came a day my City Editor sent me to her imposing mansion (around l0th,llth on Meridian, to interview her.
    I went note book in hand expecting a wheel chair imposing citizen–and got the surprise of my life. In her 90;s this petite beauty of another era still had a full dance card! She wore custom made gowns (slippers dyed to match) and loved to dance ’til dawn at the fashionable social events that filled her social calendar. Her home was almost a museum of fine porcelains, French furniture, including the ornate gilded desk that in hind sight I now know was a priceless antique.

    That desk made it into my story–it was a point of honor for her that , upon coming home from any party or social event in the wee hours–she never would go to bed without first going to the desk to write her “thank you” to be posted immediately to her host or hostess. Only then would her live-in couple assist her to bed after dispatching the note for the next day’s mail.

    She was a writer’s dream interview. At first (knowing she was a formidable figure and a friend of my editor) I timidly tip-toed with tepid cushioned questions–but Mrs. Coleman was nothing if not out-spoken, especially on her opinions about how and to whom she wanted her fortune to go (and her opinion of wills and probate!) As it went on, and it did go on!, she stressed that her experience with her husband’s will had resulted in her person philosophy of “writing a check while I am alive to any worthy person or project.”
    Chief among these was an organization she had been a part of founding, the MUTUAL SERVICE ASSOCIATION, with a mission that reflected the era when young single women were entering the work place, in a time when no respectable unmarried woman leaving their parent’s roof could find independent housing–no landlord would think of renting a house/apartment to a single , especially a young single female. Hence, these good society women created a “home” (buying a large house in the Butler area) where proper chaperones were installed to rent a safe home to women. And, after that era had passed, the MSA altered its mission by creating a fund which would lend (at no interest and not mandatory to repay) small sums to “working women” for deserving reasons–illness, etc. (FEW KNOW IT still exists today!)

    It was Mrs. Coleman’s intention to leave a major bequest, including her mansion, to this favorite charity.

    Anyway, I wrote the story, accompanied by a wonderful photo (year, date uncertain and I wish I had kept the clip but I did not) And, an honor indeed, it qualified for the front page! An achievement indeed for a young reporter.) And, as later events revealed, Mrs. Coleman was pleased indeed. The socially prominent members of the Mutual Service Association were pleased. My editor was pleased which pleased me indeed! But, then came the next day’s mail–in it one of the easily-identified engraved note paper of Mrs. Coleman to me–and one to the editor (not just my City Editor but the real high up Editor who probably didn’t know my name, so far down the totem pole was I then.)

    And, here starts the story-within-a-story that has gone on more than a half century:

    Remember I mentioned Mrs. Coleman’s modus operandi–writing thank you notes before bed time and writing checks just as promptly for people, causes, similarly? So, as I opened my letter, one in which she thanked me and praised the story, especially the part about her favorite “cause-“–there was a hand-written neatly folded check. (I don’t remember how many zeros but I do remember it was more than I made in a month!)

    But, to those not familiar with journalistic ethics–it was also a rigid No No. Accepting gifts in return for favorable stories ranked right up with committing journalistic treason. So, I immediately took both the letter and the check up to the desk of my (much-feared) City Editor–the man I feared more than a root canal and quaked as he read the note murmuring “nice job Mikels)–but then handing the check back to me saying “Of course you can’t keep it–mail it back to her and explain.,”

    But what I couldn’t explain to him was how hard it was to explain Mrs. Coleman’s ferocity when anyone, financial adviser, lawyer tried to rein her in especially her checks-on-demand philosophy. So, I called her instead, thanked her profusely for her comments and then explained that I must, of course, decline the check and mail it back to her. That’s where the real feisty Sally sallied forth. “Who is that Editor, ” she demanded, “I want to report him to Mr.——- (her friend the Editor himself.) “I don’t let anyone tell me who I can write checks to.”

    Explaining the finer points of journalism ethics got me no where—she was insistent that I was being wronged and she was NOT going to let it happen. Until I got a sudden inspiration–remember my mention of her disparaging remarks about another well-known social leader? Well, now I mentioned her name and said “But Mrs. Coleman–do you remember mentioning Mrs.—- —-? The one who likes to get her name in the paper so much” and then , using that as a lead-in, I explained that IF someone could get a nice story in the paper by buying the paying the writer, then undeserving people like Mrs. SO and So could be featured–would that be a good thing? “Oh, no indeed, she’s a terrible person….” and with that she was placated…she understood…all was well and I mailed the check back without further discussion.

    BUT then, came the next day’s mail. Again, Mrs. Coleman’s engraved note paper. This time, no check. But instead, folded inside her note paper, a somewhat formal and official looking letter on Mutual Service Association Letter Head to Miss Donna Mikels .

    “We are pleased to inform you that you have been honored
    to be accepted as a LIFE TIME member of the Mutual Service
    Association with the generous sponsoring gift of
    Mrs. William Henry Coleman.” (Or something like that.)

    That “generous” sponsorship, incidentally multiplied many times the sum in the rejected check!!

    Memory fails–but I do remember the trip by me, the City Editor to the sacrosanct office of the real Editor–I remember his solemn listening to the saga of the sent back check –and the resulting donation–and his mild smile saying “oh well, that’s Sally–let’s just leave it be.”

    And so, each year I receive notices of meetings, and a declining roster listing me as I think the last surviving Life Member of a club whose meetings I have Never Attended!

    So how was the Vajen family related via Suemma Vajen Coleman?

    So,

    I saw a wonderful story emerging about this remarkable woman. And, as it evolved her candor (especially about another well known society woman) included some disparaging remarks I was even then wise enough not to commit to print.

    And, so, the story ran. I wish I had kept it, the photo but I didn’t. And, promptly in the next day’s mail there came the little embossed thank you note–complimenting me, my story and passing on her compliments to my editor. Oh, and one thing more, included was a hand-written check–one for a sum more than several weeks’ salary.

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland February 5, 2014 at 5:53 pm · Reply

      I can provide you with the answer to your question about how Suemma Vajen Coleman was related to the Vajen family. My relative, Edna Alice Frank, married Edward Claypool Vajen. Edna (Frank) Vajen’s mother was Ida (Butsch) Frank. Ida was the daughter of my great-great-grandfather’s brother, Joseph Butsch, which is the reason I have done some genealogical research on the Vajen family.
      .
      Suemma Vajen (1883-1924) was the daughter of John Henry Vajen III (1855-1884) and Sallie E. (Downing) Vajen (1858-1947). The John Henry Vajen who is the subject of this post was her grandfather. Steve’s article didn’t mention it, but he was John Henry Vajen Jr.
      .
      Suemma’s father died when she was only six months old. When Suemma was five years old, Sallie married William Henry Coleman (1848-1946). William was a successful lumber dealer.
      .
      William and Sallie Coleman never had any children together. After her mother’s second marriage, however, Suemma Vajen was subsequently known as Suemma Coleman.
      .
      The Suemma Coleman Home for Unwed Mothers opened in 1894, when Suemma was only 10 years old. Why they decided to name the home after Suemma is unclear, as she was not an unwed mother herself.
      .
      In 1907, at the age of 24, Suemma married William Avery Atkins (1879-1958). He was the nephew of E. C. Atkins and was an officer in his uncle’s company. E. C. Atkins & Co. was the world’s largest manufacturer of saws and other cutting tools. Its plant occupied the block that is now the Main US Post Office downtown.
      .
      In 1911, when Suemma was 27 years old, she gave birth to a son, William Coleman Atkins (1911-1937). He would be their only child. In 1924, at the age of 40, Suemma died while attempting to give birth to a second child.
      .
      The Suemma Coleman Home for Unwed Mothers had been in existence for thirty years when she died, so the home (now an adoption agency) was not founded poshumously, as some references say. However, Coleman Hospital was built after her death with a donation from Suemma’s stepfather, William Henry Coleman, so it was built in her memory.
      .
      Five years after Suemma’s death, William Avery Atkins married Eunice P. DuPuy of New Haven, Connecticut. They purchased the David McLean Parry Mansion in Golden Hill. I wrote a Mailbag article about it in March of 2013, which you can read here: http://historicindianapolis.com/hi-mailbag-parry-mansion-in-golden-hill/.
      .
      William and Sallie Coleman’s home was at 1006 N. Meridian Street, which is today the lawn of the WTHR Channel 13 TV building. The former site of the Colemans’ home was also across the street from Valentine Butsch’s former home, which was at 1035 N. Meridian Street.

  2. Angie laraway July 10, 2015 at 10:17 am · Reply

    Can you tell me the status of the building! As I walk by it, it appeared to be vacant. Is it for sale?

    Thank you!

    • Tiffany Benedict Berkson July 12, 2015 at 9:30 am · Reply

      It’s part of Circle Center Mall and I think there may be a new restaurant there in the near future…

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