I’m interested in knowing what the building used to be that is located on the northwest corner of Illinois and 34th Streets. I look forward to seeing what you discover. Thank you. ~ Mark M., Indianapolis
The seemingly single structure on the northwest corner of North Illinois and West 34th Streets actually consists of four separate buildings. Roofing and siding materials added to three of the original buildings conceal their original identities. The buildings that are closest to the intersection were constructed a decade earlier than the building that is the farthest away from it. Some details on each of the properties will be provided below.
The first three lots north of the corner were unimproved tracts of land at the time of the 1916 Baist Atlas map (see below). A frame single-family home stood on the fourth lot north of the corner. All of the lots were owned by a widow named Lena Bergdall Weghorst (1859-1954). Lena also owned the first four lots in the 3400 block of Kenwood Avenue, immediately west of the subject properties. After selling her home at 3432 N. Illinois Street, Mrs. Weghorst moved to a new home at 3437 N. Kenwood Avenue. She lived to the age of 95.
An interesting original feature of the neighborhood was the existence of esplanades down the middle of West 34th Street, from Illinois Street on the east to Boulevard Place on the west. When traveling west of Meridian Street on 34th Street, the esplanades were straight ahead at the intersection of 34th with Illinois Street. The existence of the esplanades necessitated a little jog at the corner, in order to drive around them. West 34th Street led to one of the lovely gated entrances to Crown Hill Cemetery.
It may be of note that the legal description of the land on which the subject buildings on Illinois Street were erected is called “Crown Hill Addition.” If the cemetery at one time owned this land, they may have installed the green spaces to enhance the approach to the cemetery’s entrance. The green spaces down the middle of the street must have been a lovely addition to the area for residents, shoppers, workers, and visitors. The esplanades are long gone, and the oddly configured, irregular corner and wide street look a little off-kilter now.
The first building to be constructed on the northwest corner of 34th and Illinois was the one-story building that is the furthest south. At the time the building at 3402 North Illinois Street was built, it was literally on the corner of the block, just a few steps from the curb and the street. The reason the building is a number of feet north of what is now the corner of that intersection is that the parking lot south of the building was originally the westbound lane of West 34th Street, on the north side of the now-extinct esplanades. When the esplanades were taken out, the lane on the north sides of the esplanades became additional land for the lots north of the former street.
I could not find an official record of the building’s construction. However, an ad in which a drugstore was listed at 3404 N. Illinois Street appeared in The Indianapolis Star in November of 1917, so the building had to have existed by 1917.
The first Indianapolis City Directory in which there were any business listings in the 3400 block of North Illinois Street was not until 1918, so the commercial corner must have been completed late in 1917, after the 1917 city directory had already been completed. The three businesses that were open by the tme of the 1918 directory included a dry goods store at 3402, a drugstore at 3404, and a garage at 3408.
One of the first businesses to operate in the new building was a drugstore operated by Lloyd C. Weiss. In August of 1918, Weiss suffered serious injuries when a soda tank exploded while he was recharging it. Although the article said that his injuries were probably fatal, it appears Weiss survived the explosion. Crown Hill Cemetery records indicate he wasn’t buried there until 1944.
The third business to open late in 1917 or early in 1918 was a garage operated by L. Burnside Smith. The building in which the auto repair shop operated is a two-story edifice.
The final building to be erected in the string of storefronts at 34th and Illinois was the Ritz Theatre. It opened on the evening of February 22, 1927, amidst great hoopla. The Ritz Theatre was the subject of a more in-depth 2012 “Indianapolis Then and Now” article by Joan Hostetler, which you can read by clicking here.
The 1927 Baist Atlas map shows the buildings in the 3400 block that existed by that year. All are still standing today, although the condition of the structures is questionable.
Until the late 1950’s, the corner of 34th and Illinois was a thriving commercial node. Over the years, the first storefront operated as a dress shop, a beauty salon, and a restaurant. The second storefront housed a drugstore in its early years, an A & P Grocery Store in the ’30s, a barber shop, and the Topper Tavern in later years. The second entrance north of the corner was a garage in its early years and became the body shop for Ogle Buick in later years.
The northernmost building in the row of businesses — and the most interesting of the three edifices architecturally — was a popular movie house for three decades. When the building began to age and attendance dropped off in the late Fifties, the theatre ceased to show first-run movies. The Ritz briefly became a burlesque club and closed its doors early in 1962, after which time it was vacant for the next several years.
In the summer of 1970, four enterprising young men — John Connely, Jim McSweeney, Timothy Quinn, and Al Cerulli — reopened the Ritz as a live rock concert venue. The name they gave it, Middlearth, was supposedly a nod to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. However, if it was meant to refer to Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the young entrepreneurs’ spelling was not true to Tolkien’s.
Groups that appeared at Middlearth included Flock, Savoy Brown, Rotary Connection, Gideon’s Bible, Black Magic Band, Jinx Dawson and Coven, Bloomsbury People, Zephyr, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Richie Havens, Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, Mountain, John Sebastian, Santana, Blues Image, and Rare Bird. Unfortunately, Middlearth folded within a year of its debut, reportedly due to mismanagement.
In January of 1972, two new promoters named Chris Hilt and James Greeley attempted to revive the building yet again, taking back the building’s original name of the Ritz Thedatre. Once more, the venue’s run was short-lived, and it closed by year’s end. The only groups I’ve been able to confirm as having played the Ritz are Joy of Cooking and Leo Kottke on January 14, 1972, and John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra on April 25th and on July 22nd of 1972.
The address of the Ritz Theatre is often listed as 3422 North Illinois Street in histories of the building, but that was not actually its address. The error may have been the result of a mistake in an Indianapolis City Directory just after the theatre was built or the mislabeling of a W. H. Bass Photo Company image of the Ritz, shortly after the movie house opened. The building that housed the theatre actually had three addresses, due to there being two small shops with their own separate entries, one on either side of the theatre’s entrance. The address of the Ritz Theatre was 3430 North Illinois Street. The small storefront to the south of the theatre’s lobby had the address of 3428; over the years, the space to the south housed a confectionary, a jeweler, and an ice cream parlor. The small storefront to the north of the theatre’s lobby had the address of 3432; over the years, the space to the north of the theatre lobby contained a florist, a dentist, and a dry cleaner.
Sadly, all of the buildings on the northwest corner of 34th and Illinois have stood vacant for many years. The brickwork is deteriorating. The windows are boarded up or bricked in. Several exterior walls have been graffitied. The marquee that once loomed over the entrance to the theatre’s lobby has been removed. The enclosed area behind the former garage structure is full of junk cars and vehicle parts. An aerial view of the site suggests that the roofs may not be sound.
The owner of record for 3404 North Illinois Street is I & M Building Corp. Property tax bills go to a residential address, most likely the home of I & M Building Corp’s owner. The owner of record for 3430 North Illinois Street is Blues Pit & Co. Its property tax bills go to the property’s actual street address, even though the building is clearly vacant.
With all the great things that are happening in Midtown Indianapolis these days, it’s a shame that these formerly popular buildings have not been maintained. Located within the boundaries of the United Northwest Area (UNWA), the northwest corner of 34th and Illinois is within a few blocks of many historic Indianapolis treasures, including the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Shortridge High School, Butler University, and Crown Hill Cemetery. One can only hope that these properties’ owners will decide to repair the buildings and put them back in use or turn them over to others who will.
If Historic Indianapolis readers have memories of the businesses that formerly operated in these now vacant structures, they are encouraged to leave comments below.
I have a strong association with that corner. In the late 1950’s, after my family moved to the north side, there was a barber shop in one of the storefronts south of the Ritz. They gave the best flat tops. There was also a bar there that specialized in live jazz. I did quite a bit of underage drinking there 1959-60 before joining the Marines. Dave Baker played there often.
Thanks for sharing your memories, Louis. I looked in the 1959 city directory, and the place where you got your flat top crew cut was called Bill’s Barber Shop. The owner was named William Hall. He and his wife resided in Ravenswood. The bar in which you apparently looked old enough to order an adult beverage was called the Topper Tavern. It was owned by Ernest J. Lowy and Eugene Lob. Lowy also owned a bar on Indiana Avenue called the Paradise Inn.
On the southwest corner of 34th and Illinois was my great uncle’s appliance store. His name was Berch Simmons, and he operated the store until the late 1950s, I believe. We have some photos from inside the store. He passed away in 1962.
Thanks for providing information about another business at the corner of 34th and Illinois Streets. Obviously, the varied stores at this corner provided many of the products and services that people in the neighborhood at one time wanted and needed. I would encourage you to share the photos of your uncle’s appliance store with Joan Hostetler of Heritage Photo & Research Services, for inclusion in the Indiana Album: http://www.heritagephotoresearch.com/Current_Projects.html.
My parents and I moved to the 3200 block of Capitol in 1941, and I recall seeing the Douglas Fairbanks Jr. movie The Corsican Brothers at the Ritz Theater, with Fairbanks as both brothers. What you call an esplanade was primarily used as a streetcar right-of-way. Two named lines came north on Illinois St., then one turned right on 34th St. to go to the Fairgrounds and the Coliseum. Every other streetcar turned left down the esplanade, then right on Boulevard Place toward Butler University (or at least that general area).
Later, after moving to 40th and Capitol and living there from 1942 to 1949, I made regular pilgrimages to the Ritz, where regular Saturday offerings were the 15-episode serials featuring second-tier and third-tier actors. One serial was a particularly egregious series featuring Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, the world-class quarterback for the Washington pro football team. His job was to fend off the Nazis by taking a break from football and leading a team of heavies to victory. Even then I knew it was poor drama, and I had grisly taste.
During World War II, the Ritz did its part by trading a single entry ticket for any 6 recordings we could bring in. Those old shellac recordings were then taken to Camp Atterbury or Fort Benjamin Harrison for the enjoyment of the soldiers training there. I canvassed the neighborhood and came up with 36 mostly ancient recordings which got me 6 tickets! When you’re 12, that’s like mining for gold and hitting a major seam.
I’m sorry to hear the Ritz has lived its life. But I still have the memories.
Jack, thank you for all the great memories of the neighborhood in general and the Ritz in particular.
I attended many a concert at Middlearth/The Ritz, it was a great place for music. I believe that after the music businesses, the space was used briefly as a production studio for a tv show called Wally’s Workshop.
Thanks for posting your comment, Phil. A couple of other people mentioned this on the HI Facebook page. I had forgotten about “Wally’s Workshop.” Wally Bruner, who grew up in Tell City and started his TV career as a weatherman in Terre Haute, was a news correspondent in the early ’60s and the host of “What’s My Line?” in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Wally and his wife Natalie produced and hosted the DIY home repair show. I could not confirm the exact years the Bruners used the Ritz building, as city directories in the 1970s and 1980s listed the building as vacant.
The roof of the Ritz building is not only not sound, it hasn’t been there at all for ten or more years. Last I looked (while a bobcat was driving around on the bare ground inside), there was nothing but four walls and open sky.
Randy, I am disappointed to read this news, although I am not surprised, considering how long the building has been neglected. However, if the facade could be salvaged, maybe a whole new building could be created inside the historic outer walls?
I have been mildly obsessed with this building for a little over a decade. Such potential to house a dance complex to anchor the moving artists of this city and produce a hub for creativity. Look at Fountain Square. Artists move in and everything gets better. Thank you for posting this article.
What a great idea, Heidi. I wonder if there are any funds available to create such a dance complex?
Lem Winchester, the amazing vibraphone player, accidentally killed himself playing Russian roulette after a gig in 1961, when a jazz club was in the building. It’s a shame that’s the only thing I can offer, sad story.
Thanks for your comment, Casey, even if it is a sad one. I Googled him and learned that Lemuel “Lem” Winchester had been a police officer, as well as a respected musician. Among other venues, he played at the Newport Jazz Festival.
As a child, we lived at 38th and Capitol, and I was allowed to go (along with my older sister) to the Ritz to see movies every Saturday afternoon. Quite an adventure. For 25 cents, we got the movie for a dime, and a soda and popcorn or candy with the remaining 15 cents. You got to see the news reels that always preceded the movie, then cartoons, and generally 2 movies. What a deal!
I worked in the Ritz Theater when it housed the Walnat Studios (the company that produced Wally’s Workshop). Walnat was in the building from 1975 until 1978. The building directly south of the Ritz was a former skating rink, which we used as a warehouse for the TVs and videotape machines that we sold, along with edited copies of Wally’s Workshop, to HWI hardware stores throughout the Midwest. The building south of the warehouse towards the corner was Geno’s bar, I think it had another name but Geno owned it, and finally the corner building was home to Hattie’s Soul Food Restaurant, where we usually went for lunch.
The owner of the Topper Tavern at 3404 N. Illinois Street was named Eugene Lobb, so that must have been the “Geno” whom you knew. It would appear that the business was dissolved in the 1980s.
Hi Sharon – really interesting post; thanks for all the info you dug up! I have some questions about the single-story commerical building that was at Illinois and Fairfield ca. 1952 (usual drill – when built, when demolished, etc.). Have a photo of an Illinois-to-Fairgrounds streetcar and the building (then occupied by “Andersons”, “Reliable Cleaners”, “The Aristocrat Tavern” and “The Fairfield Grille”) was off to the left of the car. I can share the photo if it will help. Look foreward to your reply, Art
I’m confused by your question. Illinois and Fairfield do not intersect. Since you listed businesses with which I am familiar, I think you mean College and Fairfield. I’d love to see the photo. I grew up two blocks west of there, in the 3300 block of Ruckle Street.
I am writing a biography of Lem Winchester, who shot himself in the head at the Topper Bar in Indianapolis. Does anyone know if a photo of the Topper bar exists? Thank you.-Scott davidson
Sharon, loved your story about 34th and Illinois. When I was at Shortridge high school there was a restaurant on that corner “Doyle’s Fine Foods. It was a favorite hangout for a subset of “ridge”
Students. We “owned” the big corner booth for 3 or 4 years M-F from 2:30 to around 5:00 pm. Great memories.
I performed at the Ritz Theater when I was a child. An amateur theater company put on shows there in late 1950s early 1960s. I was in the Wizard of Oz (as a munchkin) and Alice in Wonderland (as the Caterpillar).
It breaks my heart to think it will be totally demolished in 2022 according to an article in the Indianapolis Star. If only the unique facade could be rescued!