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.

15 responses to “How the Claypool Hotel Began”

  1. D MIKELS SHEA says:

    The Claypool was my “beat”, my home away from home from ’43 to and even past its closing and many of its artifacts and décor now adorn my homes–the unique brass elevator indicator (with a 21/2 floor indicator is now a cocktail table, based on a stairway newel post, the huge shield from over Normandy fireplace in ball room in my foyer and service plates, silver, art work (including artist drawing of its rooms) all among my souvenirs. (I also have hotels of the past items from Harrison, Riley,Severin Atkinson-you name it.) In the era when hotel managers resided onsite, Bryan and Pauline Karr were the city’s premiere hosts and “start up” mentors, (presence of Sir Adrian Conan Doyle, son of Sherlock Holmes creator was the catalyst for creation of 500 Festival, with Claypool providing space pro bono for start up offices (like wise for old Indpls Press Club after its Circle site burned, many other “worthy ” causes. It is sad that historic artifacts have been “lost” –like the balcony from which Lincoln spoke (in recent years re-surfacing on the old Shaw-Brenner mansion l3th off Central, the ornate wrought iron balcony railing, now fence at Slaymaker home 50’s Washington Blvd., artifacts from suite where Carole Lombard spent last night, in Propyleum .—-only Karr offspring Paula Carr (radio name) Wampler kept many items now in homes in Denverand Park City Utah. More on request

  2. Donna Winsted says:

    I loved the Claypool Hotel, even though when I knew it I could only afford to look in the front doors! I was first overwhelmed by it not long after our family moved to Indy in 1949. We had to pass it as we walked to and from W. Washington St. When I was a teenager in the 1950s, one of my goals was to stay in the Claypool, but that never did happen! When they tore it down I was devastated!!!

  3. Tracy says:

    The Claypool was also the sight of the 1954 “Dresser Drawer Murder.” One Dorothy Poore was murdered and stuffed into a dresser drawer by a Texan named Victor Lively. There’s a picture in the newspaper of my Mom, at the time known as Betty Kisner, posed in front of the chest of drawers in which Miss Poore was found (my Mom had been a deputized clerk in the Sheriff’s Department).

  4. Jim McBride says:

    My father was the Bell Captain at the Claypool in the late ’40’s. I loved jumping on the bus, traveling downtown to visit Dad. I was @10 or so. My Dad had MS but sat at an elevated desk and directed the bell boys activities. He was able to do this job despite his disability. I was awed by the beauty of the lobby and the well known guests. Dad introduced me to Tony Zale, the boxer. Quite a thrill for a young fight fan. Thanks to Historic Indy for this trip down memory lane. And others.

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  6. Jim Riddle says:

    Ate breakfast there many weekends with my father. As a kid, I thought that was so cool.

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  8. Julie Powell says:

    My maternal grandparents were married at The Claypool Hotel on 2/17/23. It’s a shame is was destroyed. I would like to have seen it for nostalgia sake.

  9. Tiffany Benedict Browne says:

    Many of us sure wish it was still standing!

  10. Gary says:

    There used to be a plaque on the wall stating that Lincoln’s funeral train stopped there on its way to Springfield, IL

  11. Tiffany Benedict Browne says:

    Yes, we have an article about that also:

  12. Eric Schulz says:

    I have a 20.5 x 13-inch photograph taken on the roof of the Claypool Hotel (its sign stands above the parapet). It captures a group of about 200 men, all dressed in suits and hats, and sporting some sort of badge. It looks to be a group photo from a meeting or convention. My great-grandfather is in the photo. He was a successful building contractor, and stone/brick mason from the St. Louis area. He and his family relocated to Colorado in about 1910, so I expect this photo was taken prior to that. I wonder if there is anyone or any record that might help me identify the group and learn more about its association with the hotel and Indianapolis. I can share the photo.

  13. Tiffany Benedict Browne says:

    Hi Eric, that’s really fun! This was (and is) a major convention city, so without a few more clues, I’m not sure we’ll be able to figure it out. A date? A logo? A closeup of the badge? Anything? I’d love to see the photo. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Richard Windisch says:

    My father, Robert Donald Dewitt, was listed as a bellman at the Claypool in the 1950 Census. I never met him, but I’d like to talk with anyone who remembered him. He may have been there in 1951 before he joined the Marine Corps.

  15. Robert Lucas says:

    In 1950s my father made a business trip to Indy and took me, my 2 sisters and mom along and we stayed at the Claypool. While he was off to his business meeting we were left back at the hotel. A live radio show was broadcast from the hotel so we decided to attend. Our mom won a contest by singing the Woody Woodpecker song. We were SO embarrassed! It was a great memory though.

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