Early vintage luggage label from Claypool Hotel

(Don’t forget–May is preservation month! Which is why we are revisiting some of the best of what we’ve lost. Let’s not do that again. Mmmmmk? )

Of all the hotels in Indianapolis, the Claypool Hotel was our superstar for decades. It was the place to go for club or company banquets, pre-wedding dinners or anniversary parties, and after the 1903 debut, it was the only place to stay if you were a visiting celebrity. A whole book could easily be written about the Claypool, but let’s look at its inception.

Henry Lawrence began a 10-year contract managing the famed Bates House on May 1, 1897, while he still had three years left to fulfill at the Spencer House as manager. The very name “Bates House” was synonymous with Indianapolis, soon after it first opened on the northwest corner of Illinois and Washington streets in 1853. Ads for other companies would use the hotel as a reference point in directing people. Any noteworthy person stopping through town who did not stay with friends stayed at the Bates. Despite being the one place in the city that could claim “Lincoln slept here,” the place could not meet the increasing needs of the burgeoning city as the 19th century came to a close.

Bates House Hotel, 1890. Image: Bass Photo Collection, Indiana Historical Society

Henry Lawrence had only been managing the Bates for a couple of years when murmurs about a revamped or new hotel on the site began surfacing in local papers. Edward F. Claypool owned the famed hotel by that time, and multiple people were interested in the next chapter for this particular piece of real estate. Mayor Thomas Taggart was briefly in negotiations with Claypool to lease the land upon which he proposed to redevelop the site with a new hotel, but insisted on carte blanche to do what he saw fit with any new hotel. The owner was not amenable to that approach–he wanted to make sure  the “New Bates” would bring the best of modern hostelry to Indianapolis and insisted various properties be toured and evaluated. This dispute allowed Henry Lawrence the opportunity he’d been waiting for– to take part of a grand new vision, from the ground up, not repurposing an existing hotel, as he had done in the past.

Henry W. Lawrence

Edward Fay Claypool

In April 1900, Edward F. Claypool, Henry W. Lawrence and a couple other local businessmen planned to tour of a number of top U.S. hotels. Alongside Frank M. Andrews, a Dayton, Ohio-based architect, (who also designed the Columbia Club building preceding the current one), the entourage determined to evaluate the best of the industry to help shape the direction of their new hotel in the works. Chicago hotels and the new Oliver Hotel of South Bend, Indiana were first on the list to check out. The Oliver, opened in 1899, was considered one of the finest in the United States. And when you compare images–both exterior and interior–of the Oliver and the Claypool Hotels, you will see some similarities.

Construction was set to begin June 1901, and originally, the plan was that the Bates would continue operating during construction. When it was announced the George B. Swift Company of Chicago won the contracting bid, however, a change in plans was also announced: the Bates would be vacated within 30 days so that wholesale demolition could begin.

In July 1901, (future Mayor) Shank auctioned off the furnishings and fixtures of the Bates Hotel, as the site readied for the wrecking ball. Only one piece of the Bates remained: its safe was deemed too big to be moved and so was built around and integrated into the plans for the hotel’s office.

Henry Lawrence threw himself wholeheartedly into the development of the new hotel “for over a year he has given his closest attention to every step of the work. He planned the building in every detail of the arrangements, animated by a desire to give Indianapolis a hotel perfect in all its appointments, the finest product of modern thought and architecture.” The long and arduous task of building a heretofore unparalleled hotel, with every conceivable convenience began in earnest with a target opening date of December 1902.

This photograph from 1904 shows the hotel under construction (courtesy Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

Claypool Hotel under construction, 1902. (Image: Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

As with many of the best laid plans, especially where architecture is concerned, that isn’t what happened. The date of the grand opening kept getting pushed back–it would not be finished by the end of 1902; it would be “no later than March 1;” then April 15; then May 1. In mid-March, workers were still laying carpet, cleaning up, hanging drapery, and completing the grand stairway, installing elevator cages, and adding finishing touches in the basement.

David R. Williams, formerly of the Planters’ Hotel in St. Louis, the new chief engineer of the Claypool was first to assume his duties for the hotel in mid-February, prior to the opening. He had 18 mechanics under his direction running the various mechanical systems, readying the vast nervous system of the building.

In March, crates of furniture for the guest suites still filled the billiard room, first floor storage room, and four freight carloads off-site, waiting to be unpacked and placed in their rightful future positions. The Indianapolis firm, Sander & Recker Furniture Company fulfilled the “largest contract of its kind in the state’s history,” with many pieces of furniture designed especially for the hotel, and in some cases, fabricated locally as well. Bedroom suites were mostly mahogany, though the majority of the beds were brass–there were only a few wooden beds. Draperies imported from Switzerland awaited installation, and in general the place was a constant hub of preparatory activity until it was a hub of typical hotel activity.

Sketch from a 1903 Sander & Recker advert, featuring furniture designs for the Claypool.

The building was almost like a city unto itself, with a water works plant, electric light plant, telephone system, fire protection system, pumping station, ice making plant, mechanical refrigeration system, steam laundry, Turkish bath, swimming pool, and barber shop. The water was pumped from two 500-foot wells drilled under the hotel, where it was filtered and purified by an air compressor. This, in addition to all the spectacular spaces–meeting rooms, dining rooms, a roof garden, and other unique spaces. The decoration of the interior decoration of those front facing, beautiful spaces was under the direction of William F. Behrens of Cincinnati. The carpets and rugs–Royal Wiltons, Wilton velvets and axminster–used throughout the hotel halls, rooms and other spaces, were purchased from the New York Store. The hotel’s original plastering was done by Glenn Brothers of Anderson.

The retail spaces of the hotel were the usual: shops that served visitors and locals. Louis Deschler, who had run the cigar and newsstand at the Bates House, secured the lease for the new Claypool–reportedly paying$10,000 annual lease–the second highest price for such a business in a hotel in the country.

March 1903 ad for Frank Davey

1904 ad for Brosnan’s at the Claypool, Washington Street side

Frank Davey, a merchant tailor who had been with the well-known house of Nicol the Tailor, struck out on his own, renting one of the storerooms next to the main entrance on Illinois Street to continue offering tailoring for Indianapolis visitors and locals. He opened for business on January 26, 1903. Brosnan’s Cloak House opened a few months later, catering to female clientele. Weber Drug Company, organized in December 1902, opened for business in the hotel by March 1903. The Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton and the Monon railroad lines leased a room on the ground floor of the hotel, for their uptown passenger and ticket office facing Illinois close to Washington.

(Modified) 1898 Sanborn map

Five days before the place was thrown open, a newspaper notice mentioned that Edward F. Claypool and his wife were moving out of their North Meridian Street home to take up residence in their new namesake hotel. In the end, the Claypool debuted to the public with little fanfare on Monday, May 18 with an approximate staff of 200. The doors were simply unlocked at 3:30 in the afternoon and crowds filed in to inspect the long-anticipated new Indianapolis hub. The lobby was reportedly the largest in the country, with a grand marble staircase leading to the mezzanine level.

Colonel W. M. Shaw, “the well-known railroad man” of Cincinnati was allowed the honor of affixing his name to the first line in the first page of the first book of hotel registers for the Claypool. The gold-mounted fountain pen with which he signed his name was then presented to him as a souvenir of the occasion. The Colonel was no stranger to this particular corner of Indianapolis; he and his wife lived at the Bates House for 32 years. In honor of that, he and the Mrs. were assigned to room 332. The second guest was a traveling salesman for a St. Louis firm, named Jack Rohr. The third was Ben Bohn, also of Cincinnati. Seven pages and 225 guests later, it was 7pm and the hotel was off to a running start. Several hundred guests enjoyed the first sitting for dinner in the restaurant, ground floor café and ladies café.

Menu from first dinner at Claypool Hotel

The first big event of the hotel was a music recital of a famous German contralto who frequently performed at the Met in New York. The Schumann-Heink recital was organized by Ona B. Talbot and was attended by hundreds of enthusiastic music lovers of the city, delighted by the event. “The large audience left the assembly room at the end of the concert in such a happy frame of mind that nobody seemed to object in the least to trudging down eight flights of stairs to the ground floor of the hotel–a journey made necessary to the greater part of the audience on account of the fact that only one elevator in the new hostelry was in working order.”

Advertisement for the first performance at the Claypool Hotel

Madame Schumann-Heink

The assembly room was described in the newspaper the day after the concert as “a most noteworthy addition to the city’s amusement places.” Its appearance was described as “grand in its simple elegance. The woodwork is of ivory white and the ceiling and walls of a sage green. The place was beautifully illuminated and everything showed to fine advantage. The ceiling is studded with bright electric lights, while the side lights along the walls, shining through globes of ground glass, produce a soft illumination that is very pleasing to the eye.”

The hotel remained a popular event venue through the rest of its history.

Rare view of original Claypool lobby, before the marble staircase was removed in 1914.

When the building expanded to the west in 1914, it went from 400 to 600 guest rooms and remodeled a few of their public spaces, including removal of the original marble staircase. Otherwise, all effort was made to make the new addition imperceptible to the untrained eye. Another full story could be written about the details of those changes.

The Claypool was one of the city’s most beloved venues through its life and beyond. There are countless stories of the rest of its years–if you had a relative who lived in or visited Indianapolis, chances are high they knew the place or had some connection.

The Claypool’s ads and marketing pieces all noted that it was “absolutely fire proof.” Unfortunately, it was “fire proof” the same way the Titanic was “unsinkable;” a 1967 fire lead to the tragic 1969 demolition.

For anyone old enough to remember it, the grandeur of the place is still sorely missed. Let it not be forgotten.