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.
The 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.
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.
The 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.
By 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.
Despite 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.
The 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.