We received a question from one of our loyal readers, Gordon Durnil, about the Indianapolis “comfort stations” that were located in the middle of Kentucky Avenue, at the southwest corner of the Kentucky/Illinois/Washington Street intersection.
Looking northeast at the women’s entrance, 1911 (Bass Photo #24702)
Around the advent of the 20th Century, the development of public sewer systems were placing toilets in every office and business. However, there was still a need for convenient public restrooms in downtown for the multitudes of shoppers and workers who were in the streets everyday.
In order to accommodate their needs, in the summer of 1910, Indianapolis built a “comfort station” in the middle of Kentucky Ave, just outside of the intersection of Illinois and Washington Streets. An unusual design being partially underground, it was a nice example of late Beaux Arts style, costing $17,000. As shown in the Bass photos and the floor plan, the women and men sections each had its own stairway entrance, at opposite ends of the facility.
Looking southwest at the mens’ entrance, 1911 (Bass photo #24723)
Two attendants, one woman and one man, maintained the comfort station. Initially, the open hours were 7:30 am to 11:30 pm, illustrating an apparent need for late-night facilities for patrons of the nearby theaters. Most of the toilets were arranged in the familiar configuration of individual toilet stalls and sink basins in the common space, but there were three women and four men pay stalls that included private sinks with hot and cold water, mirror, towels, liquid soap, and a comb and brush. Quite a package, compared to what a modern pay toilet often provides.
The plan for the comfort station, 1910 (from Municipal Engineering, December, 1910)
The comfort station facility remained in service for many years, though I cannot yet find exactly when it was closed. It was definitely removed by 1956. The entire length of Kentucky Avenue through this block was gone with the construction of what is now the Hyatt Regency Hotel in 1977.
If any you have stories you’d like to share of using the Comfort Station, or can help pinpoint the year when it was closed and demolished, we’d love to hear from you! Either add a comment below, or send us your stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I know for sure that at least one of them remained through the late ’60’s ( maybe all the way til 1970 ), cause I went to them with my grandma & grandpa frequently, as we went for Sunday drives.
Although i can’t really remember this as a child visiting Indy, I did paint a rendition of the comfort station from an image in 1972.
I’ve been digging through old newspaper clippings this morning, and it looks like the sidewalk entrances to this comfort station weren’t actually sealed off until late in 1963.
On August 4, 1960, an Indianapolis Star article (headlined “Comfort Stations Stir Council”) noted that the City Council had recently questioned a $4,000 budget request to pay the salaries of two comfort station attendants, who maintained “the 51-year-old stations which are below Kentucky Avenue near Illinois and Washington streets.” Ellsworth G. Maxwell, executive secretary of the Board of Public Works, claimed at that time that the restrooms were only being visited by an occasional derelict, and that he was in favor of filling the station “with a load of concrete”—but that the Works Board was reluctant to do so, for fear that if people had no access to public facilities, they would instead visit nearby hotels and stores to use their restrooms.
Evidently, Councilman Thomas C. Hasbrook then began repeatedly trying to kill the comfort station, and succeeded on the evening of May 8, 1963—when his resolution calling for closing the rest rooms by the end of the year won Council approval. According to an item in the Indianapolis News’ “Don’t Quote Me” column of May 9, 1963, the closure was expected to save taxpayers $6,000 a year in utility bills, and salaries being paid to two custodians.
In the Indianapolis News of October 10, 1963, an article headlined “Concrete to Cover Comfort” noted that instructions had been issued on that date by the Works Board for the city Street Commissioner’s Department to seal off two entrances to the underground restrooms with slabs of concrete (noting that the slabs would contain manhole covers, to permit access to power and steam lines).
One thing I forgot to mention in my comment above: in late 1916/early 1917, the comfort station was remodeled. Its above-ground portion was removed so that traffic on Kentucky Avenue could move without obstruction. At that time, entrances to the comfort station were built “on the sidewalks at each side of the avenue.”
An item on Page 16 of the Indianapolis Star’s November 18, 1916 edition reported that “George Schauer & Son Co. gained the contract for remodeling the Public Comfort Station at Kentucky avenue and Illinois street for $9,480. The station will be made level with the street and entrances will be made from the sidewalk. New electrical fixtures and fans will be installed. The contract provides that work will be completed within ninety days.”
The Indiana Historical Society has a 1920s photo of Kentucky Avenue that (kind of) shows what the sidewalk entrance looked like. It wasn’t terribly fancy—basically just a staircase in the sidewalk with a handrail. https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll53/id/2083/rec/1