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The discussion was as heated as the weather when a group of five men gathered around a small wooden table in June 1820 to select the site for the new state capital.  Three potential locations were on the table: William Conner’s farm in present-day Hamilton County, the Bluffs of the White River in future Morgan County, and a small pioneer settlement near the mouth of Fall Creek in Marion County.

In a decision that likely haunts the dreams of Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard, the group rejected Hamilton County outright as the location for Indiana’s new capital. Instead, Fall Creek prevailed over the Bluffs on a narrow 3-2 vote. Although it would be another six months before the legislature made the selection official, for many years thereafter June 7 was widely celebrated as the birthday of Indianapolis.

Table1

Amos McCormick, a descendant of Indianapolis’ original settler John McCormick, is shown above seated at the table used by the commissioners when they met at McCormick’s cabin on June 7, 1820 to select the site for a new capital. The table was stored in the basement of the Statehouse for some years, but has since disappeared.

By the time the city’s 100th birthday rolled around in June of 1920, civic leaders were not content with a simple one-day celebration. Instead, a mammoth five-day extravaganza was planned to honor the city’s past, celebrate its progress, and speculate about the promise of the next 100 years.

The centennial celebration got underway on Saturday, June 5, with speeches and music at Tomlinson Hall.  The party moved to the fairgrounds the following day for performances by the Cincinnati Orchestra. On the night of the city’s official birthday, an estimated crowd of 150,000 people – more than half of the local population – thronged the downtown area for a massive parade with 122 electrically lit floats representing every phase of the city’s development.

But the real drama occurred on Tuesday, June 8, with debut of the Centennial Pageant. Featuring dancing, music and a cast of nearly 2,000 residents, the Pageant showcased major events of the city’s first century.  Local amateur actors portrayed real-life historical figures, including Kurt Vonnegut, Sr., who was cast in the key role of Hervey Bates, the city’s first sheriff and the proprietor of the Bates House hotel.  The grand finale literally brought down the house when the entire cast rose and started singing “Glory, glory, Hallelujah! In-di-an-ap-o-lis!” to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The sold-out performance was repeated the following night by popular demand.

Indycentennial

I’m familiar with the state’s Centennial in 1916, but I didn’t realize that Indianapolis held its own Centennial bash until I found a tattered copy of the souvenir program at a local antique mall. In addition to details of the celebration and a brief local history, the booklet also featured several pages of illustrations comparing Washington Street scenes of 1854 with the same view in the early 20th century. Although the streets scenes were crudely sketched, it appears that only a handful of commercial buildings from the pioneer heyday survived to see the Centennial.

According to an editorial in The Indianapolis Star published on June 7, 1920, the reason for this dramatic change was because the city’s earliest residents could not have foreseen such wonders as railroad trains, horseless carriages, telephones, telegraphs, and flying machines.  And even if they had an inkling of these miraculous inventions, the pioneer residents were too busy struggling to survive to plan for 100 years in the future.

The next century would be different, the Star opined. Indianapolis of 1920 was planning for the future, planting trees to replace those cut down by the pioneers and building a park system that, if properly carried out, would be “a dream of beauty” in 2020. Further, city planners and developers were giving thought to architecture and the placement of buildings, so “that in the normal order of things will look 100 years from now as they do today.”

Meridian to Pennsylvania

Did the Star’s 1920 prediction come true? While the changes wrought to Washington Street by the past 100 years are dramatic, nearly every block has at least one building that dates back to 1920 and one stretch (the north side of Washington Street from Meridian to Pennsylvania) is close to a mirror image of its early 20th century self.

The Centennial of 1920 was an opportune time for city leaders to take stock of the changes to the streetscape. Although Indianapolis had spent the past century evolving from a remote pioneer settlement to a densely populated hub of commerce, some of the most significant changes occurred during the first two decades of the 20th century with the advent of the automobile.  And much as we mourn the loss of historic buildings today, the city’s residents of 100 years ago also grieved when familiar landmarks were felled in the name of progress.

“One by one, the landmarks that for years have made the center of Indiana’s capital city picturesque are disappearing, and in their places great business blocks of the modern time are rising, monuments to the historical spots which they cover,” the Star reported in March 1906. “The destruction of old buildings, which has been so marked during the past few months, carries with it a certain feeling of regret and pity…But as though doomed by fate, the old buildings must disappear to accommodate the growing city.”

The construction of the federal building in 1903 required the demolition of numerous private homes and commercial buildings, some of which were viewed as important landmarks. A smattering of old houses were left in place during construction, with residents permitted to remain in their homes as the new federal courthouse and post office rose in the background. When the site was finally cleared in January 1904, the Star observed that “Indianapolis will be given a genuine surprise, as the new Federal Building will show up in a manner very imposing.”  In celebration of its centennial, the federal building was recently renovated at the cost of $70 million.

Federal building 1909

The Enterprise Hotel was another landmark felled by the growth of commerce during the first decade of the 20th century.  In 1906, George J. Marott demolished the hotel to build a modern department store. Although the Enterprise was less than 30 years old, it had amassed a unique history during its brief run as a site where several show troupes were stranded while awaiting money from their Eastern backers. Most notably, however, the Enterprise would be remembered as a favorite spot for suicides, where according to the Star, “in the quiet of its old fashioned rooms a number of people have forgotten the cares of the world through the ever ready carbolic acid bottle.”  Marott’s five-story building still stands today in the heart of the vibrant Mass Avenue Arts District.

Enterprise - Marott

In 1909, the home of Indiana’s Civil War governor Oliver P. Morton also fell to the wrecking ball after efforts to preserve the home as a museum were unsuccessful. A new office building called The Pennway was constructed on the southeast corner of Pennsylvania and New York streets, an area that only a few years earlier had been largely residential.

When the Pennway celebrated its centennial in 2009, the building was dilapidated and had been vacant for nearly a decade. In 2010, Summit Realty Group purchased the Pennway, and following a $3.3 million overhaul, the building received Double Gold LEED certification for sustainability.

Although the Pennway remains an office building, the entire block to the north on Pennsylvania Street will soon return to its residential roots after more than a century of commercial use. The Whitsett Group recently purchased The Indianapolis Star complex at 307 N. Pennsylvania and plans to convert the buildings into 500 apartments. Dubbed “Pulliam Square,” the mixed use development will be adjacent to the 1912 American Building, which is also being converted into 72 apartments.

Morton Pennway

The relentless march of progress up Meridian Street during the 1910s was especially painful for local residents, many of whom felt deep personal connections with the fine old homes that once housed the city’s leading families.  The stately home of the late Indianapolis Journal publisher E. B. Martindale at 420 N. Meridian Street as the first of the grand dames to fall when it was demolished in May 1910 and replaced by a garage. The following week, the Kimball home at 726 N. Meridian was razed to make way for an automobile showroom.  In the ensuing years, the once grand houses that lined Meridian Street fell one by one like a row of dominoes.

Lost landmarks

When Frederick Fahnley’s home at the southwest corner of New York and Vermont Streets was razed in 1921, the imposing limestone mansion was the sole survivor of a once-stately row of homes that faced University Park.  A few years earlier, it would have seemed improbable that commercial interests would encroach upon this quiet park-like setting. However, the area started turning when Gen. Lew Wallace demolished an old-fashioned homestead in the 400 block of north Meridian and built the now-landmark Blacherne apartments.

Fahnley’s Italian Renaissance mansion was completely surrounded by gasoline stations and commercial buildings when it was demolished to make way for construction of the Indianapolis Athletic Club. After 70 years of service as a private club, the 9-story building that replaced Fahnley’s home was recently converted back to residential use as condominiums.

Fahnley - IAC

The year after Fahnley’s home was razed, dozens of other nearby homes, churches, and commercial buildings were slated for demolition by the Indiana War Memorial Commission.  Under the commission’s plans, only two historic structures would be retained following construction of the World War Memorial — the Second Presbyterian Church on the corner of Pennsylvania and Vermont, and the First Baptist Church on the opposite Meridian Street corner.

“Standing as a gateway from University Park into this memorial site, the churches on either corner in years to come will raise their spires proudly as the last reminder, on these two city squares, of the interesting past,” the Star reported in 1922.  However, when I snapped this photo of the World War Memorial from my office window late yesterday afternoon, the churches were nowhere to be found.

War memorialAll of this brings to mind the transitory concept of “lost Indianapolis.” The places that we consider “lost” are different from the places our forebears viewed as lost, even if they’re located at exactly the same place. 100 years ago, Indianapolis residents mourned the demolition of pioneer and Civil War-era buildings to pave the way for the construction of the federal building, the World War memorial and the Indianapolis Athletic Club.  Imagine the outrage today if these landmarks were razed.

It’s impossible to know what Indianapolis will look like when its tricentennial rolls around in 2120. But as the cast of thousands sang in the final scene of the Centennial pageant on June 8, 1920 (to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic):

“Our hundred years are but a breath in His vast Century,

And yet the wonder they have wrought enraptures us who see.

What tongue can tell or fancy paint thy splendors yet to be,

In-di-an-ap-o-lis”

12 responses to “Indianapolis Collected: The Centennial Celebration of 1920”

  1. Louis Mahern says:

    When I first visited the World War Memorial in 1948 with my dad and my younger brother, Timmy, the two churches were still there.

  2. d says:

    LIZ–So engrossing I am printing to read and highlight but it evoked a memory that I need to share before this document is again ” lost” forever. FYI, the last time I checked, a double glass framed original land grant for the site which (according to the legend) WAS to be, MIGHT have been, etc selected as site for new state house by these commissioners was donated (at my suggestion by my client) to the newly chartered SkyLine Club (when late Jack Reich, Jerry Semler were actively involved.)

    Later, I heard, it was in the possession of AUL, Jerry Semler—which is where some interested historian like you would have to start….but here is the back story:

    During the time the new AUL building was in progress, under the loving supervision of wonderful Jack Reich, many clients including Main Hurdman CPA were blue-printing and planning their new office space–can’t remember which floor it was but you might want to know because of a secondary historic artifact that may still be there…more later.

    I was regular at estate auctions James A.Marsh and his resident-historian Dean Miller flagged me one day to show me an aged document–urging me to find it an appropriate home lest it be lost to history again. It was the original land grant to McCormick for the site now occupied by AUL—and the back story was that it was one of the options being considered until someone pointed out an underground stream which made the site “unhealthy”—(the same stream AUL uses to heat/cool building!) . I tried to get Jack R. to “bid” on it and failing, encouraged managing partner of Main Hurdman KPG to buy it (he did), and as charter member of SkyLine Club the firm had it double glass framed to show both sides, donating it to Skyline where it was on display for a long time–then passed up to AUL…Jerry would know if still there.

    I do have somewhere a great feature story by wonderful late Hortense Myers UPI columnist which ran all over the state about it…sad that it couldn’t be part of your wonderful story.

  3. Norm Morford says:

    Thanks, Libby. Not sure why I’ve never seen or read much of what you had in this article.

    However, I wonder how many who see these HI e-mails were alive and living in Indy at the time of the Sequecentennial of the City — maybe 1967? We have a double deck of cards that celebrate that event.

  4. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Excellent article. My office was at the top of the American Building for four years just prior to this new renovation. I enjoyed a beautiful view and often wondered about the history of many of the sites mentioned here. Thanks!

  5. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    Libby, thank you. This page was so full of information.

  6. Ross reller says:

    It was William Conner, not his brother John, who served on the site selection panel. And William’s property on the White River in Hamilton County was a site preferred by all on the panel except WC.

  7. Libby Cierzniak says:

    Thanks for the info. John Conner was named as a member of the Commission in every source that I read, including the Centennial program and a 1918 article from the Indiana Magazine of History. But you’re definitely right about which Conner brother owned the property – I’ve corrected it in the story. As to the actual vote, there’s a lot of conflicting information. I got most my information from Holloway’s 1871 history, in which he says the names of those voting were not recorded. In the script for the Centennial pageant (which is admittedly fictional), John Conner is quoted as voting for his brother’s property. And since you raised the question, I’ve found excerpts from Blythe’s journal, which was the official report of the Commission, stating that the vote actually occured on May 27th. Also some sources say that nine commissioners were present when the vote was taken, but four abstained for some inexplicable reason. Anyway, let me know where you found your info on the votes – I certainly don’t want to add to the confusion.

  8. Libby Cierzniak says:

    Thanks, Donna. What a treasure! I’d love to see Hortense Myers’ story – I greatly admired her and had the pleasure of visiting her house once. Papers and books stacked everywhere. But as I recall, it was a wonderful Art Deco house overlooking Eagle Creek.

  9. H. Michael McCormick says:

    In compiling a McCormick family history, we did an oral history from my Aunt, who was born somewhere around1910 to 1920 in Indianapolis. She seems to remember a parade where her father, my grandfather, rode a horse in. I knew he was active in organizing the unions in the printing industry, so I thought it might have been a Labor Day Parade. Or….It could have been the Centennial. My question is, are there any pictures of parades from the Centennial? Or even pictures from Labor Day Parades from that era.
    I am a direct descendant of John McCormick.

    Thank you in advance. H. Michael McCormick

  10. doug pond says:

    Great article Libby….
    .
    My heart aches when I realize the treasure that was torn down for progress…. stained glass windows, old-growth hardwood, et al…. Currently, I wish the city would hire historians to take a quick look at old houses before demolition…. I have seen a lot of jewels disappear in the last couple years….
    .
    Just a side note… when I bought the house next door at 422 Fulton St, I got the abstract for the the Noble farm and outlots for east Lockerbie…. included is a copy of Noble’s original land partition…. very cool read if you’re interested…
    .
    Thanks for the great article and the pictures… We appreciate your work!

  11. Rita Kohn says:

    Just catching up with this fine post and the conversation it started
    thanks for sharing the data from the centennial publication
    is it possible to connect with H. Michael McCormick?
    can you send Mr. McCormick my email with a request to connect?
    best cheer
    rkohn@nuvo.net

  12. Anonymous says:

    4.5

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