An unfortunate truth about downtown Indianapolis streetscapes is the “missing teeth” in what was once a picture-perfect urban smile. Suburbanization took its toll, particularly in the once-bustling retail districts. One stretch that remained noticeably neglected, even after the renaissance brought on by the opening of Circle Centre Mall, is the first block of East Washington Street.
Just over a decade ago, the block consisted primarily of empty storefronts, unused upper floors, and a sidewalk strewn with glass from window panes falling from the McQuat building. During those dark days, a demolition occurred that brought down a location which had been feeding hungry downtowners for more than a century.
The building located at 6 East Washington Street had a unique street presence. Standing five stories tall, but only two bays wide, the Victorian Italianate structure could be described as a bit underweight. In 1898, a business moved in that proved popular for nearly 70 years. Craig’s Confectioner began doing business in 1873, in a four-story building at 20 East Washington Street, before moving down the block. Offering the finest products available, Craig’s gained a following that crossed state lines, on a par with famous candy makers of the day. The move further west down the block was precipitated by the construction of the Marrott’s Shoe Building (now part of Victoria Centre). The candy maker added “dainty lunches” to the board of fare, along with a soda fountain. Craig’s remained a popular destination for downtown shoppers and matinee attendees through the 1950’s, eventually adding locations at Glendale and Eastgate.
By the mid-1960s, downtown retail and entertainment were losing steam. Craig’s sold its building to another Indy dining institution.
Burger Chef came about in 1957, as a way for brothers Frank and Donald Thomas to showcase their patented flame broiling mechanism. The experimental restaurant, located in front of Glendale, proved so successful that they soon franchised the restaurant, and Burger Chef became a national brand. In 1965, Burger Chef opened its 450th store in the former Craig’s location, hoping to capture the downtown lunch crowd. The building, now stripped of its ornamentation, was clad in bright, cartoonish porcelain panels. The restaurant was distinguished from others in the chain with the long and narrow expanse. Customers put their trays on a conveyor belt and were served cafeteria style. Those with take-out orders were whisked out the back door into the alley. The concept proved successful over the next fifteen years.
Change again came in 1982. Burger Chef was sold off by then parent company, General Foods, to a Canadian firm which owned the rights to Hardee’s. Slowly but surely, every remaining Burger Chef was re-branded or closed; the last holdout shuttered in 1996. Indy’s “go-to” fast food outlet became a memory.
The downtown location survived the Hardee’s conversion, expanding to the east. However, the building’s colorful paneling was removed, exposing the blocked-in windows to the world. Hardee’s began to struggle in the mid-90s and was eventually sold to Carl’s Jr. in 1997. That is when the downtown store closed for good. The building stood vacant and deteriorating until 2002, when it met the wrecking ball. After more than a decade, the vacant lot was filled in with a new mixed use building. Keeping true to its earlier retail story, you can grab a quick bite on this Washington Street parcel now featuring another brand of fast food.
Hyman’s Indianapolis Handbook, Max Hyman, 1915
Lost Indianapolis, John McDonald, Avery Press, 2002
Polk’s City Directory, 1898, 1963, 1994
After Craig’s closed, Wm. H. Block acquired their recipes and for years made my favorite candy of all time, Grain Caramels. Caramels where they let the caramel go to sugar grains. Bad for your teeth, I’m sure. After Block’s became Lazarus, they were no more. I should get Abbott’s up on 82nd St to look into that recipe. Abbott’s make the best caramels now.
During the 1940s and 50s, my family shopped downtown often, but we must never have enjoyed Craig’s confections, for I don’t remember it. What triggers my comment is another very popular eatery that I believe was in the same city block into the 1960s, the Weiss Delicatessen, serving the lunchtime crowd. I did a search of your website but found nothing on it. Future article?
Hi Mick. I believe Weiss was originally at the southwest corner of Market and Penn. Either in the late seventies or early eighties they moved to the Washington Hotel at 32 East Washington. They closed after the namesake owner was killed by a wrong way driver on I 70. Could be a great topic and I’ll try to do some more research. King David’s on Penn now serves their legendary ham at lunch but come early as they run out. It’s become a once a week habit for me.
Ironic that just recently we had a discussion re: Craig’s at a gathering–so here are excerpts of memories: When I was an underpaid reporter at the old TIMES, many times I splurged to lunch at Craig’s–and do take home of the famous Madame Modjeska soft caramels. (Those are what a friend was remembering at our gathering.) The luncheon memo was absolutely wonderful–it was not until many years later, when I was in the UK, London, other foreign spots, that I came to realize Craig’s then measured up to famous spots like Betty’s in England, Fortnum-Mason, London and the dainties served at various Ritz, Browns, 5-star hotels…so looking back I realize even more how special Craig’s was and what a loss. And then, fast forward from then in the ’40’s to maybe 30 years later, when my husband and I were guests at an open house a friend had purchased on E. 56th St., an old mansion which then was east of the Unitarian Church-no idea of address or if it was still there. But the affair was elegant–Rollses, Jags lined the drive at the afternoon open house of late John Schaler II-our host. The home had a 2-story living room balcony, and there had been a huge pipe organ in that balcony area–and in the discussion we were told that it was originally the home of the Craig family—wealthy, cultured–and that in the glory days, they had as their guest the famous Madame Modjeska, who performed from that balcony–when, why I have no idea and no idea if it was fact or fiction…but the story was that her local appearance gave birth to naming those unforgettable candy confectionaries in her honor. Anybody know more ? (Also, when I did a column once about the Block’s candies (which in their day outshone Ayres made candies and cakes), I did an interview with an elderly woman who was the woman who made all Block’s specialcandies–which were famous during holidays and sold out months in advance. After my column appeared, at her retirement, she gave me several handwritten pages of her recipes–lost somewhere in my recent moves, which I hope to turn up. So that’s my addition to the Craig Legend.
What a wonderful first hand account! The reader below indicates that the Block’s recipes were in fact those used at Craig’s. It’s too bad these local institutions have gone by the wayside. I am old enough to remember the twilight years of Block’s and Ayres downtown. These were Indy institutions and no suburban Macy’s can match the experience.
I am the grandson of the last Craig’s to occupy the house on 56th Street…. It was my first residence as a baby till we moved to a new home in Brendenwood across the street.. It was not sold by the family till the early 1950s
My name. Craig Mogg born 1952
I remember going to Craig’s and Blocks for candy. It was the best! My cousin and I were just talking about our grandmother getting us grained caramels. That was the best candy! If you ever find the lost recipe could you share it?Thanks, Nancy Main. (I enjoyed reading all your nostalgic information about Indianapolis!)
To continue the recipes of the Craig Candy recipes were not legally acquired by Blocks.. They were taken by the head chef of the candy kitchen… I have the recipes in my possession…