*This is a companion piece for an interview on WISH TV, Channel 8 this morning: March 10, 2012 scheduled for around 8:45am**

The future potential reuse– if any– remains a mystery for the space commonly known as the City Market “Catacombs.”  Equally unclear was the true low-down on what its past uses were. There have been theories and suppositions, but not much hard data. The most commonly held belief was that the cavernous space was used as storage for the vendors of the City Market. Today we share what we recently unearthed on a couple significant short-term uses of the space…

It’s a cold and snowy night, you’re freezing and have nowhere to go–the capacity of all shelter houses in Indianapolis are maxed out. Oh, and it’s 1912–what do you do?

Hard to fathom, but 100 years ago, Indianapolis Mayor Shank ordered that the overflow of homeless men not accommodated by Salvation Army or Volunteers of America (and in danger of freezing to death) be allowed to lodge in a portion of the 20,000 square foot basement of Tomlinson Hall. From the perspective of 2012, first thought that springs to mind:  “Liability issue!!” Second thought: “Well, of course…it was a simpler time.”

The eastern edge of Tomlinson hall is shown on the left; the street level of that edge is now where the lone arch stands.

From the Indianapolis Star’s report on this rare occasion:

“Negroes and whites slept side by side, seemingly undisturbed in their common comfort. Race prejudices were checked at the door by the inmates of the shelter house under the orders of Partrolman Hostetler, who has been detailed to watch the vagrants sleep. During the night the officer sat in the circle of snoring men and guarded them. Occasionally a muffled grunt from one of the vagrants would break the monotony of the somnolent melodies. Coats, hats and shirts were used as covers…Several of the men who were sheltered from the cold Wednesday night worked on the streets yesterday. Many of them expressed intentions of working today if the opportunity presents itself. A few of the vagrants openly ventured the opinion that they were not made to work and said they do not intend to expose themselves to the rigors of the wintry breezes.”

This illustrates that old adage: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” In the end, in times of trial and strife–people tend to band together, to help one another, and differences that might have mattered on a regular day are of little consequence.

Some of Mayor Shank's Tomlinson Hall Basement "Slumber Party" guests.

Seems the mayor did have concerns about the danger of contagious disease spreading–and as a precaution, had the space fumigated each morning. Food was also offered to those in need and the mayor, the mayor’s secretary, Annis Burk, Board of Safety member, W. L. Resoner and the mayor’s brother, Carlin H. Shank all served between 250-400 people from bread donated by The Taggart Baking Company (just east of City Market),  National Baking Company and Bryce Baking Company. Meat was donated by City Market butchers, “and a grocer in the market donated pepper and salt.”

On distributing clothing and shoes donated for the homeless: “It really did me more good than it did them. One fellow came to work this morning without a coat. We took him in and gave him a coat and a pair of shoes and I’ll bet you he would not have changed places with President Taft,” Shank relayed.

In April 1913, the Great Flood again prompted the use of the basement of Tomlinson, playing a part in aiding others: “…Tomlinson Hall…became a supply depot, with basement overrun with all sorts of supplies and with a tremendous accumulation of clothing on hand in the auditorium and galleries.”

One wonders what evidence of this occasion an excavation of the space might turn up? And also: because the city has become so spread out: where would we all gather if such a disastrous event were again to befall the Circle City? There’s something to be said for a time when the population knew that there was a respite place open to every race, creed, age, sex, religion, status.

If you had a relative who lived in Indianapolis before 1940, there is little doubt they would have had occasion to visit Tomlinson Hall. Perhaps not the basement, but a piece of everyone’s history went up in flames with that building.

In 1915, as with many other years through its lengthy history, there were suggestions and debates over how the basement of Tomlinson could best be used on a permanent basis: one such idea was to have vegetables and produce offered for sale “thus bringing the consumer and the producer in closer touch with the buying public.” Doesn’t this sound remarkably familiar as the whole raison d’être of Farmer’s Markets so prevalent today? The elaborate plan called for the interurban tracks to be run behind Tomlinson hall and City Market, on Wabash Street so that interurban cars could get nearer the building, maximizing the convenience of delivering said goods.  This rationale is a paradigm we are returning to in the food ‘market’: “It would be possible for farmers residing along the interurban lines that lead to Indianapolis to ship their products directly into the building, where they would be brought into close contact not only with wholesale dealers, but with the consumer as well…” During the tour of the old basement, interim Executive Director of City Market, Stevi Stoesz said that the current purveyors of produce convey their goods by entering on Wabash.

Old or new, a good idea is a good idea.

If you have any suggestions for future uses of the former Tomlinson Hall Basement, please post them here, and we will be sure they get passed along…

To revisit some background on what is still standing– our beloved City Market, check out Libby Cierzniak’s recent feature “To Market, To Market.”


3 responses to “City Market Catacombs aka Tomlinson Hall Basement”

  1. Steve Smith says:

    My father told me that the basement of Tomlinson Hall was used a an indoor firing range for the Marine Corp Reserves. Not sure about the time frame but it would have been from the late 1930’s to 1940’s. I believe Tomlinson Hall was used a drilling location for the reserve unit.

  2. Aaron Abelard says:

    How can we get on the list for tours this summer?

  3. Tiffany Benedict Berkson says:

    Historic Indianapolis will actually be doing a Scavenger Hunt in City Market in June, and they will be open during that and other special events. Stay tuned. We will also be starting a newsletter soon, so keep your eyes peeled for that and you can always check in on our calendar as well! Thanks for your interest!

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