Like every family, mine has it share of old stories that are hard to believe but difficult to disprove.  There’s the one about a distant uncle who supposedly froze to death on his married lover’s lawn in December 1924.  And another about a great aunt who may have murdered her husband with a lethal dose of heart medicine.  But one of the more interesting tales I’ve heard in recent years involves my grandfather’s first wife and the roof of the Claypool Hotel.

As the story goes, she became deranged one day, climbed on the roof of the Claypool Hotel, and tossed money to the sidewalk below.

This particular piece of family lore never really made any sense to me. How could a woman – deranged or otherwise – climb to the top of a 9-story building wearing a dress and clutching a purse full of cash?  But then I recently learned that rooftop gardens were all the rage in downtown Indianapolis during the early part of the 20th century.

News storyThe Maennerchor, the German House and the Columbia Club were among the first downtown clubs to offer swanky roof gardens where members could dress in their finery and dance beneath the stars while the rest of the city sweltered. As The Indianapolis Star wrote in August 1909, “Right in the heart of the heated downtown district there are three gardens where …. parties gather to sip cooling beverages, listen to the delightful music of orchestra or bands and court forgetfulness of the fact that outside of the sprinkled and perfumed enclosure there is a hot, stifling and uncomfortable world.”

The following year, the Masons crowned their new temple with a palm-lined rooftop garden. But rooftop gardening reached its pinnacle in 1911, when two widows decided to demolish their long-time family homes on East Ohio Street and build a skyscraper topped by what the Star would later call “the most elaborate and most artistic roof garden between the two oceans.”

Working with architects Rubush & Hunter, Mary Hume and Hannah Mansur originally envisioned a 10-story office building, with six high-speed elevators, three floors outfitted for physicians’ offices, and an elegant restaurant in the basement.  However, their friend Ona Talbot had a different plan. Highly regarded for her work in bringing some of the world’s finest musicians to the English Theater, Talbot convinced the women to spend $55,000 on a partially glass-enclosed eleventh floor that would serve as a year-round venue for music, oratory and other entertainment.

HM plan

The Hume-Mansur Building was constructed in 1911 for a cost of $1 million. In 2011, a dealer at Midland Antique Market offered a group of mounted floorplans which were used during the building’s construction. Shown above is the plan for the second floor. The landmark building was demolished in 1980 to make way for the Chase Tower.

The Hume-Mansur Garden opened to rave reviews on January 8, 1912.  Mrs. Talbot had arranged a series of performances in the 1,000-seat auditorum by Viennese singer Mella Mars and Opera-Comique tenor Albert Fritz. Guests dined from an elegant buffet that included cream of sweetbreads, gelatin of capon, English-style Virginia ham, and glazed beef tongue. On opening night,”small lobsters of perfect design” were given to the men as favors, while women received white and gold fans.

Following the grand opening, persons could pay a nominal fee to join the Hume-Mansur Garden club, which granted them admission to the venue’s Saturday night dinners, Sunday afternoon teas and monthly cabaret performances.  The Garden would also be available for banquets and other catered affairs.  According to Mrs. Talbot, the Hume-Mansur Garden would soon become “Indiana’s new home for music and art.”

As promising as all of this sounded, the Garden failed to draw the anticipated crowds, and the following year the 11th floor was leased by the newly established Progressive Club of Indiana to serve its rapidly growing membership.

Progressive Club exteriorThe Progressive Club of Indiana included former members of the Republican and Democrat parties who had switched over to Teddy’s Roosevelt’s Progressive Party during the 1912 election. Women were admitted to the membership ranks on equal terms with men, even though another decade would pass before they could vote in state and national elections.  By March 1913, the club had grown to 350 members and was looking for a permanent headquarters in Indianapolis.

On June 21, 1913, the Progressive Club signed a five-year lease for the entire 11th floor of the Hume-Mansur building.  Plans were drawn up for luxurious accommodations that featured a pergola garden and outdoor gymnasium, with separate club rooms for smoking, reading, billiards and cards.  Female members would have their own artfully designed lounge.  But the most novel feature would be a soda fountain and healthy dairy lunch counter, replacing the customary bar.

RevolutionBy the time the Progressive Club’s new headquarters opened in October 1913, membership had swelled to 600 men and women.  The novel venue was touted as a place “where a man could take his wife or sweetheart and she will be treated as an equal.”  Within the club’s ranks, “there would be no snobbishness, no devotion to wealth for wealth’s sake, and none of the other embarrasing features of some of the more fashionable organizations.” In less than a year, club leaders declared, the Progressive Club of Indiana would be one of the most powerful organizations in the middle west.

What happened next is unclear.  Although the Progressive Club announced plans in early 1914 to host a rapid succession of literary and musical recitals, cabarets, balls and even tango dancing, by December the Hume-Mansur Garden was under new management and the cafe was opened to members of the general public. A handful of events were staged at the garden in 1915, including a motorcyle and bicycle exposition, but by 1916, the 11th floor of Hume-Mansur building was leased for offices. By 1970, the once-grand top floor was mostly vacant, except for a couple of law offices and a dental supply company.

Progressive Club views_Page_1Despite the failure of the Progressive Club, roof gardens remained popular in downtown Indianapolis and were incorporated into many new buildings, including the Elks Club, the Athletic Club, the Democratic Club and the Hotel Severin. Even the Socialist Party hoped to incorporate a roof garden into its eventual state headquarters, which would be dubbed “The House of Debs” after the party’s imprisoned leader.

In mid-1914, the Plaza Hotel on the corner of Capitol and Indiana Avenues opened its rooftop dining room, which the Star called “a galaxy of splendor,” complete with sparkling crystal, fine china and an unexcelled view of the city. Within a year, the Plaza roof garden became a popular late-night spot for party-goers and out-of-town entertainers.  One of the Plaza’s main draws may have been its lax adherence to the liquor laws. In August 1916, more than 100 fashionably dressed men and women were nabbed in a raid that left the proprietor facing charges of illegal Sunday alcohol sales. Perhaps that was the beginning of the end for the Plaza garden. By 1922, the once-festive Plaza roof garden had been converted into a gymnasium for wrestlers and boxers.

Plaza HotelThe era of the outdoor roof garden came to an end in 1927 with the opening of the Indiana Roof Ballroom. With its twinkling lights, domed ceiling and climate controlled interior, the Indiana Roof offered all of the charm of a roof garden without the inconveniece of actually being outside. Today, rooftop dining is a relative rarity in downtown Indianapolis, featured at Dunaway’s and at the End of the Line Public House in Fountain Square.

5 responses to “Indianapolis Collected: The Hume-Mansur Roof Garden”

  1. Anna Bennett says:

    Thanks for another great article Libby! My memory of this building was of a very dark and kinda creepy place full of doctor’s offices. That is probably because as a child the time I spent there was in the office of my allergist — a man I associated with needles and nasty tasting medicine! I never would have imagined something as fresh as a rooftop garden in connection with that building. It is nice to know the building wasn’t as “sinister” as my childhood memories labeled it.

  2. Norm Morford says:

    How many of the “swells” at the fancy parties were members of the Ku Klux Klan? I am a bit ashamed to say that one person from my extended family was in it — supposedly, just as a social club in which many “upstanding” citizens had membership for the social connections.

    How much of the pain of that era is still be visiting on us in 2013?

    Would we still be denigrating IPS had Crispus Attucks never been created? There were already African-American students at Shortridge H.S.

    And who were the “swells” [some SHS grads] who allowed Shortridge to be closed in 1981?

  3. d mikels shea says:

    RE: Claypool Hotel Roof —-There was indeed a very elaborate somewhat Spanish type stucco roof top extravaganza there–not sure when (before my time which began in mid-40’s) when I became reporter for the Times and part of my beat took me almost daily to the “heart beat” on Indiana politics, and all things newsworthy in that era. Over time I became almost part of the family of the late Bryan and Pauline Karr, and their radio star daughter Paula Carr+(sic) and their grand 4th floor suite, extravagant parties swept me into Claypool’s vibrant things-going-on. I intereviwed First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt there, many other celebs (Clark Gable, Louis Bromfield, all the Hollywood stars and politico VIP=s. Even disguised myself as a maid to service suite of Eisenhower–fun front page story.

    Among my souvenirs—and many artifacts from Claypool–are the original sketches which show this Roof Top structure…actually, it was closed by that time and even I didn’t know it existed until Karrs happened to share that they sometime did family cookouts there. I would be glad to share the dozen or so wonderful sketches I have of 50 something re-do—and the many many wonderful stories===including how today’s 500 Festival was actually “born” there linked to visit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s heir Sir Adrian Conan Doyle when 500 resumed…too long to tell but will shareby phone if interested.

  4. d mikels shea says:

    About Hume Mansur–in the day we wits dubbed it “The Human Sewer Bldg” and it did indeed house so many med types that fun anecdotes come to mind:

    At The Times we had a wonderful if somewhat “dim” gopher–college reject 20-ish very sheltered daughter of “connected” family employed for low level jobs she could never quite conquer. She was well-liked but gently teased by staff–maybe because of her convertible and pocket money but again, because she was so likable. One problem: she fancied illnesses that kept her a steady visitor to many different kind of doctors in H-M bldg… much so that some of the females teased her”Tally–you are spending so much time in the elevators there you may ‘catch’ something–” and when pressed for what, the teasing answer was “You know–like colds, measles, mumps or pregnancy–all kinds of communicable diseases!” and her somewhat puzzled reply to the last was :”I don’t see how–I’ve never Communicated!”

    But, in our own family, when our toddler daughter, in her crib for the night, startled us by saying:”I put a button up my nose…..” and sure enough, one rounded pearl button was missing from her nighty. We paniced–when no attempt of ours or neighboring M.D. worked, we rushed her to wonderful Dr. Alan Sparks in self same Hume Mansur Bldg. It was laborious, terrifying but he finally dislodged it to a by-now terrified screaming 4 year old. Ever after, driving past that building in childhood she would point to it accusingly “That’s where that bad doctor put a button up my nose!” No good deed goes unpunished.

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