A postcard showing the grandeur of the downtown Howard Johnson’s. (Image: Amazon)
We often look towards chain businesses with a bit of disdain. Large corporations sending profits out of state while serving up conveniences with little to no sense of place. It’s easy to think of theses behemoths as being too big to fail. That said, we have seen our share of these restaurants, hotels, and stores storm into the Circle City only to pull up roots years later. Howard Johnson’s once had a large presence across Indianapolis with its recognizable orange roofs offering accommodations along with a whopping twenty eight flavors of ice cream. Although the company is still around, there is hardly any trace of this American icon’s existence in Indianapolis.
Howard Johnson’s can trace its roots all of the way back to 1925, when the company’s namesake purchased a small soda fountain in Quincy, Massachusetts. Unable to expand during the depression, Johnson essentially created the idea of franchising by allowing other restaurant owners to use his name and products in exchange for a fee. The concept proved successful, and restaurants sprang up across the country. In 1954, the company entered the lodging business, establishing a motel in Savannah, Georgia.
1954 was also the year Howard Johnson’s first came to Indianapolis. Located in the 7700 block of East Washington Street, the single-story structure looked similar to many of the motels lining the National Road at the time. Two years later, a restaurant opened in booming post-war development, The Meadows. 1963 saw a lodge and restaurant race into Speedway along Crawfordsville Road. The most prominent location opened downtown two years later, featuring 240 hotel rooms in an eight story tower. A restaurant and hotel opened on Harding Street in 1975 and a new location on the east side opened in 1979. Indy was well represented in a chain totaling over 1,000 restaurants and 500 hotels.
So, what happened? Howard B. Johnson, the son of the founder, Howard D. Johnson, cashed in, selling to a British group for some 630 million dollars in 1980. The chain went through several ownerships throughout the next decade, while franchises and consumer confidence eroded. The once-famous restaurants were essentially killed off during an ownership stint by Marriott, who converted most of the locations to their own brands. In Indianapolis, most properties declined severely. The first Indy location ceased being a “HoJo” in 1971. Today, an Applebee’s stands at the site. Speedway became a Super 8 circa 2002, and later, became the Budget Inn. After numerous police runs and a particularly gruesome murder by a hotel employee in 2007, the town stepped in, buying the property for demolition.
The south location ended its life as the Best Inn during March of 2014, when a judge ordered it closed due to drug trafficking. Being located next to the Indiana Convention Center saved the downtown location. The property was picked up by Whiteco Industries in 1989. After an extensive renovation, it became a Ramada, then a Courtyard by Marriott. In 2009 the property was largely demolished to make way for Marriott Place. Although completely unrecognizable, the Fairfield Inn portion of the complex utilizes part of the former “HoJo” structure and is one of the few reminders of what was once a dominant national name in hospitality. What former chains, if any, do you miss having in Indy?
Polks Indianapolis City Directory 1954, 1963, 1975, 1990, 2001
A History of Howard Johnson’s, American Palate, 2013
The Indianapolis Star, May 15 2014
The Indianapolis Star, October 27 2005
The El Rodeo currently at the Speedway location initially kept the burnt orange furnishings remaining from Howard Johnson’s last remodel of the location. They also tried to use the ice cream bar at the front as their drinks bar, but it’s public location there didn’t work well, so the bar is now in the back. Before El Rodeo, Charlie Brown’s was located there.
Thank you for the correction Jack! The Hospitality Motor Inn chain has a bit before my time. Regarding the Speedway location, we attended church at St. Christopher and Charlie Brown’s was always a post mass destination. I can remember when they were located where the Hardee’s now sits and the HoJo still had a restaurant. The last time I was in El Rodeo they still had the original booths.
Perhaps, it is worth noting that unlike the other locations, the Post Road and I-70 east side location was not originally built as a Howard Johnson’s. Instead, it was first part of the Cleveland, Ohio based Standard Oil of Ohio subsidiary Hospitality Motor Inn chain and reflagged as Ho Jo after the Hospitality chain failed.
This was a bit of nostalgia. I double-dated as a high school student with Norm McClain and his date to a Howe High School dance in 1967. It was Howe’s “Turnabout Twirl,” a Sadie Hawkins-type affair. The girl who asked me was Kathy Garrett, whose father owned Garrett Hardware in Indianapolis. Norm’s dad, late Indy realtor Gene McClain, drove us all to the dance, and for dinner we went to Howard Johnson’s on East Washington. Mr. McClain waited in the car as Kathy and I, along with Norm and his date Pam Evans, ate inside. The night was notable for me as it was the night of my first kiss, as Kathy and I nervously kissed goodnight at the front door of her parents’ house on Arlington at Pleasant Run Parkway, which looked east toward the clubhouse at the Pleasant Run Golf Course. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about the restaurant. Has that really been 48 years ago?