Until a few decades ago, all major cities had independent department stores in their downtowns, commonly named for whichever enterprising man had started it. In Indianapolis, most people still recognize the names L.S. Ayres and William H. Block. Their business’s buildings still stand, even if their companies are long gone. Wasson’s also resonates, though you don’t see the name on its former retails space at Washington and Meridian Streets. You wouldn’t have to go far to find residents who recall shopping at all of these establishments. Though smaller retailers than the aforementioned, Marott and Rink are names that may still ring a bell, but not likely due to having shopped at their prominent stores, which have been out of business for decades, but rather, for other adventures in real estate.
In Marott’s case, pretty much everyone knows the large brick hotel apartment building (at Meridian and Fall Creek) with the cool neon red sign or has noticed the name on the front of the former department store on Mass Ave.
The name Rink was restored a few years ago to a former apartment (now condo) building on the northeast corner of Vermont and Illinois Streets, but the big “R” medallions atop the former Rink Cloak House are a bit more obscure.
As one might imagine, the local department store barons, like the rest of the most successful Indianapolis business people, lived in large, elaborate homes; Indianapolis once overflowed with them. You can imagine the average citizen, out for the evening constitutional, pointing to a companion: “Did you know that The Ayres live here…as in L.S. Ayres, my dear?” And while it may not have been quite so “gilded” an age here as on the east coast, Indianapolis mansions proliferated in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, notably on Delaware, Pennsylvania and Meridian Streets, among others. Large families and house staff kept thousands of square feet of living space bustling with activity. But as the city evolved and expanded, most especially after the advent of the automobile, ‘progress’ started to take its toll: the well-to-do pushed ever northward, discarding one large estate for the next, in a pattern that continues today. Later still, the grand old dames of architecture that had been left standing, were often leveled for reasons no more complex than an empty lot was easier to care for than an aging home. The castle that used to stand at 13th and Delaware was reportedly demolished due to high heat bills(!). 1960-70 is undoubtedly the single greatest decade when it comes to loss of public and private buildings, brought into being by the earliest and most enterprising of Indianapolis inhabitants.
Where L.S. Ayres’ home stood is now the (vacant) southernmost lot on the President Harrison Home property, razed when I-65 was installed, though demolition wasn’t necessary to that goal. William H. Block’s three- story mansion, in the 1900 block of Delaware was razed in 1966 after being donated to a local not-for-profit that sold it, to be quickly demolished and replaced with something that remains an insult to what came before.
The home of Joseph Rink, proprietor of Rink’s Cloak House, was purchased by an insurance company in the 1920’s, who expanded into a large commercial addition on the back side of the building. Consider this a win: at least one was spared, though altered. While many of us bemoan the destruction of the elaborate early mansions that lined the streets of Indianapolis 100 years ago, we must bear in mind that the buildings had to find a new life or use in order to survive.
Indianapolis seemed to have a particular zeal for wastefulness, often replacing ornate structures that could have been repurposed with a plain box design lacking the craftsmanship of what preceded it. The battle of retaining older building stock continues today, though awareness grows with the help of organizations like the National Trust and locally, Indiana Landmarks, and preservation minded individuals who invest in aged building stock. As philanthropist Bill Cook once said, a building must have a purpose.
One such example exists at the northeast corner of 21st and Meridian. The Joseph Rink family lived at 2105 North Delaware from 1904- 1923, after the home had been considered and dismissed as the Indiana governor’s mansion. Upon the evacuation of the Rink family, rather than the typical fate of being leveling for a new building, the home become office space for an insurance agency. After 80+ years, and a 1930’s (mismatched) addition on the back, the building would have to find a new raison d’être again.
Having the house turned back into a home appealed to Axia Urban, who acquired the property in 2005. The home’s original details were restored where possible, allocating the first floor for commercial interests and living quarters on the second and third floors. There are two flats on the second floor and the former third floor ballroom has been updated and made into a sleek uptown penthouse space, like something you’d expect to find in the best of one of Chicago’s historic neighborhoods. If you ever wanted to live in a mansion on Indy’s ‘Main Stem,’ the ballroom is available for rent as of this posting; the space has 3300 square feet, 2 bedrooms, 3.5 baths and shares a rooftop terrace with the other condo neighbors. Check out a few interior shots of the former ballroom turned penthouse:
The commercial addition at the back was also re-purposed into spacious condominiums on the upper floors and office space below. Next time you are cruising Meridian Street, try counting how many original single family mansions remain south of 22nd Street, and realize that 100 years ago, the area had as few commercial offerings as there are expansive homes now. The Rink mansion is one of a very few remaining gems from the city’s most successful era. So far.
Next week: Rink’s Store on Illinois
This article and a portion of this website is generously sponsored by Axia Urban
Thank you to Leah Orr for letting me pilfer her Rink files!