Before the days of Mapquest and GPS, travelers could usually tell if they were headed in the right direction by looking at the street signs. Lafayette Road led to Lafayette, Brookville Road to Brookville, and Zionsville Road to Zionsville, Granted, no one ever got to Georgia by walking down Georgia Street, but Market Street has always led to City Market and Senate Avenue still ends in front of the Senate chambers.

But like any city of a certain age, Indianapolis has a number of streets that lead to places that no longer exist. For example, College Avenue lost its namesake in the 1870s, when Northwestern Christian University outgrew its original site at 13th and College and moved to Irvington. Fifty years later, Irvington was left with a University Avenue but no university after the college – now called Butler – relocated to its present site at Fairview Park.

In case you’re wondering whether University Park is another ghost of Butlers-past, the answer is… sort of. Northwestern Christian University was one of several different educational institutions that unsuccessfully vied for the rights to the property now called University Park.

Alexander Ralston’s role in selecting Square 25 as the site for a university is an urban legend in Indianapolis. The fact is, it was an act of the legislature, and not of Ralston, that gave the city a University Park uncluttered by an actual university. As originally platted by Ralston in 1821, Square 25 was broken into 12 different lots with alleys running both north-south and east-west. Unfortunately, the swamp-like conditions of the pioneer era rendered property in downtown Indianapolis less desirable in 1821 as it is today, and many of the lots in the Mile Square either went unsold or were forfeited later by remorseful buyers. In order to put some of the unused property to good use, the General Assembly adopted a law in 1827 that vacated the alleys in Squares 22 and 25 and set aside the land to be used, respectively, as a Lunatic Asylum and as a State University. Square 25 was then renamed University Square.

Like a bride left at the altar, University Square sat empty for another five years waiting for a state university that never showed up. Not wanting the land to go to waste, the legislature in 1832 agreed to lease the square to the trustees of the Marion County Seminary. Under the terms of the 30-year lease, the seminary was to be built on either the southeast or southwest corner of the square. The trustees had the option to buy the half-acre where the seminary stood in the event that the remainder of the square was needed for a state university.

The Marion County Seminary (pictured below) opened its doors to the young men of Indianapolis on September 1, 1834. Built for a cost of $783, the seminary was two stories high, fronting New York Street. In the early days, the lower floor did double-duty on Sundays as a church for several different congregations, including the newly established Second Presbyterian Church with Henry Ward Beecher at the pulpit.

The school ran through a succession of headmasters over the next decade, and finally closed around 1844. The building stood vacant for much of the next few years, until it was reopened in 1853 as the city’s first High School. Sadly, the High School on University Square lasted for only five years. In 1859, Indianapolis was forced to shut down its only high school and cut the school year in half for the lower grades after the Supreme Court ruled that property taxes could not be used to pay for school operations.

The seminary building was torn down in 1860. The only hint that a school ever operated in University Square is a nearly illegible limestone tablet embedded on the site of the old seminary by some of its grateful graduates.

Marion County Seminary

Not wanting the remaining part of the square to sit idle during the Seminary’s lease, in 1837 the legislature tried to lease the northwest corner to the Lutheran Church. After the religious purpose was deemed unsuitable for the property, the legislature made another fruitless attempt to lease the property in 1838, only this time to a Female Seminary. In 1850, the governor was authorized to sell an acre of University Square to Indiana Asbury University (now DePauw) for its medical school. That sale fell through after the appraised value of $3,566 was deemed too high.

The unsuccessful efforts to establish a university on University Square continued throughout the 1850s. In 1859, legislation was introduced to allow Northwestern Christian University to build a law school and a medical school on the site. Other Indianapolis-area lawmakers sought to use the site for a proposed state Normal School which was eventually built in Terre Haute. Meanwhile, the site was also considered as the location for a “female department” for Indiana University.

The summer before the Seminary was demolished, an entrepreneur named J.B. Perrine enclosed a large portion of the square with a high fence, covered it with a shed, and dubbed it “The Coliseum.” With seating for nearly 20,000 people, the Coliseum opened on July 4, 1860 with a military parade, a concert, a balloon ascension, and a magnificent fireworks display. The ambitious enterprise proved to be too large for the square, however, and by September both the shed and the seminary had been demolished.

Without a university to fill its space, the open square proved useful during the Civil War, when it was used as a drill ground for the 19th Regular U.S. Infantry. In 1863, with the threat of Morgan’s Raid looming in southern Indiana, University Square was called into service again as a parade ground for the Home Guard.

After the Civil War ended, another battle between the north and south was played out over the fate of University Square. Despite the square’s location in the center of Indianapolis, residents of Bloomington now believed that the land belonged to them and should be sold at auction with the proceeds benefiting Indiana University. The city of Indianapolis understandably took umbrage at this invasion from the south.

The city gained control of the land, and the affluent residents who lived in adjacent homes began eyeing the open site for a park. A crop of oats was planted as cover for establishing grass, and the Council spent $750 to enclose the entire area with a handsome iron fence. This brazen act on the part of Indianapolis to mark its territory enraged Bloomington residents, who took their case to the legislature. Confronted with the two warring factions, the legislature opted to dodge the immediate bullet by assigning the thorny issue to a special study committee.

Pictured above are the homes of Fredrick Fanley and Albert Fletcher. These homes, which were located in the 400 block of North Meridian, are an example of the “palatial residences” built in the vicinity of University park.

The Committee on Education finalized its recommendations on the fate of University Square in 1867. The majority report called for the land to be reserved until such time as it was needed for a state university. The minority reported countered that the Indiana Constitution required only one state university and that university already was located in Bloomington. Since a second state university in Indianapolis had never been contemplated, the proponents argued, the land should be sold with the proceeds used to build an agriculture school in Bloomington.

Brevier’s Legislative Reports from 1867, which are published online by the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University, provide a blow-by-blow account of the fight over the future of University Square that was waged at the Statehouse over the next few months.

Bloomington-area lawmakers asserted that Indianapolis legislators were being disingenuous when they claimed that the funds expended to landscape and fence the property were simply aimed at making University Square a more desirable campus for the eventual state university. Instead, these amenities had been added at the behest of adjacent landowners, who wanted a beautiful park adjoining their palatial homes.

Sen. Horatio Newcomb, who also edited the Indianapolis Journal, rose to the defense of the capital city and its residents, alleging that Indiana University proponents were “the very professors of lobbying” and could teach the rest of the state how to lobby the legislature. Newcomb added that everyone knew University Square was not desirable as a park because it was not large enough. When Indianapolis wanted a park, he told his fellow lawmakers, the city would be able to command the means to get it. Until such time as the property was occupied for its intended purpose, he supposed this square would remain as it is – a walk for nurses and children.

The legislature finally punted the issue, and authorized the city to make a park of University Square until such time as a better use could be found for it. That was 145 years ago. The park was eventually redesigned by landscape architect George Kessler, who incorporated it into his citywide plan for the Indianapolis parks system.

9 responses to “Indianapolis Collected: The north-south battle over University Square”

  1. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    I’m wondering if there are any resources available that document the changes that were made to Indianapolis’ street address numbering system over the years. I’m trying to ascertain where an 1870s address would be today. My relative, Valentine Butsch (1827-1905), built a home on North Meridian Street around 1869. The home was reported as 553 in an 1871 newspaper article about his daughter Emma Butsch’s wedding to James Brown Dickson. The address also appears as 553 in several city directories of the era, so I believe that to have been the correct address at the time.

    Your inclusion of photos of residences in the 400 block of N. Meridian Street caught my eye. Albert E. Fletcher was listed just four dwellings away from Valentine Butsch on the 1870 Census. In addition, Frederick Fahnley (with an “h”) married Valentine Butsch’s sister’s sister-in-law, Lena Soehner. These bits of circumstantial evidence lead me to believe that Valentine’s home was nearby.

    There are several lots that have a legal description containing the name Butsch, which are located in the 1000-1100 block of N. Meridian Street and the 1000-1100 block of N. Pennsylvania Street. These lots formerly had single family residences on them, but now the entire block is home to the Landmark Center. A person might logically think that one of these eponymous building lots would have been a candidate for Valentine Butsch’s home. However, I can’t imagine that the numbering system of North Meridian Street could have changed that drastically (i.e., from 500 North then to 1000 North today).

    I’m thinking 553 had to have been further south than that, but which block was it? I’d love to figure it out (“just because!”). I’m wondering if Monument Circle was ever the starting point of the numbering system, which would have made Market Street 000, instead of Washington Street. That would have put 553 N. Meridian Street between North and Walnut Streets. Today that’s the south end of the American Legion Mall and across the street from the Scottish Rite Cathedral.

    Any thoughts? Thanks!

  2. Tiffany Benedict Berkson says:

    I just grabbed one of my files of research and have an introductory page of “Streets and Avenues in Indianapolis” from the 1865-66 City Directory, which reconfirms the starting points for numbering- “The leading streets are named East, West, North and South, taking Meridian Street for one basis and Washington for the other.”

    From a page in the 1897 City Directory, using New Jersey as an example of a north south street with number breaks provided (meaning up to that number included in that block):
    New York-150
    St. Clair-400
    St. Joseph-491
    Thirteenth- 700

    (and as another fyi, adding to the confusion is the change of number street names; like Tinker became Seventh and finally Sixteenth Street)

    These numbers weren’t necessarily exactly the same on all north-south or east-west streets. I recall reading an article saying that when either the 1898 or 1911 change was made it was because people would often just squish another number into the block and there was a lack of consistency and order. The biggest change (that helps make sense and helps with calculating) is when the city made the system uniform with 100 numbers per block and each 10 blocks equaling approximately one mile.

    So, it would appear that there was not a consistent method to the madness until the current numbering system. The 3 major eras relating to the numbering: pre- 1898 numbers, changed in 1898 and again (final change) in 1911.

    Might also want to check out this article, if you haven’t already:

  3. basil berchekas jr says:

    This treatise is highly enlightening. i, like many others, thought University Park (or Square) was originally designed to house “the state university”; however, concurrently, the state legislature (in 1820) located same in Bloomington instead of locating it in this square. I wasn’t aware of the fact that “University Square” actually came into view later. By the time Indianapolis DID obtain “campuses” of IU and Purdue, University Square would not have been extensive enough to house either branch, let alone “IUPUI”. VERY ENLIGHTENING!

  4. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    If the address numbering system always began at Washington Street, then 553 N. Meridian Street would have been in the block where the Veterans Memorial Plaza is today. I guess I (formerly) questioned that Valentine Butsch’s home could have been in that block, due to its being a parklike space. I assumed (bad practice!) that this buildingless block had always been an open, public gathering space, but apparently it was not. I just Googled “Veterans Memorial Plaza” and found that the park and obelisk fountain were not created until 1930. The land in the block immediately north of the Indiana War Memorial must have been privately owned until the State of Indiana acquired contiguous city blocks to complete what is now the Indiana War Memorial Plaza Historic District I think I now have a rough idea of where the Butsch residence stood (yay!). The address of 553 N. Meridian Street would probably have been more-or-less mid-block, which would put it due west of the obelisk fountain. If only there were a photo of the Butsch family’s 1869 home, that would be too cool for words.

  5. Libby Cierzniak says:

    Sharon, I got the photos from an undated book that I believe was printed about 1890. The Fletcher house was listed at 250 N. Meridian, corner of Michigan and Meridian, and the Fahnley house was listed at 200 N. Meridian. That would be the 400 block today, I think.

  6. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    Hmmm. If 250 N. Meridian Street was on the southwest corner of Michigan and Meridian Streets, then it would stand to reason that 553 N. Meridian Street would be a few blocks north of that. I guess I am back to being unclear as to where it was. I did note that on the 1870 Census, the Indiana School for the Blind was not far from the Butsch residence. If I remember correctly, the ISB&VI was on the north side of North Street between Meridian and Pennsylvania Streets. In the book that you have, are there other photos of homes in the vicinity? If I could plot them on a map,I might be able to guesstimate where 553 was by its relative distance from them.

  7. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    I just reread Tiffany’s post with the list of blocks and number breaks on N. New Jersey Street. I think I misinterpreted what she wrote when I read it the first time. I am now understanding it to mean that there were street addresses in the 500’s between 10th and 11th Streets. If that numbering convention held true for Meridian Street, as well, then that would put Valentine Butsch’s residence on one of the lots that has “Butsch” in its legal description.

  8. Joan Hostetler says:

    Sharon, I did a little digging and from maps, directories, and I believe that Valentine Butsch’s home at 553 N. Meridian Street became 1025 N. Meridian after the 1897/98 address change. It was a two-story brick house with a brick carriage house or stable. It was on the east side of the street, 2 houses south of 11th Street, in Butsch & Goerper’s subdivision. By the late 1890s, Thomas G. Barry (owner of Barry Saws) owned the house and he lived there through at least 1914 (maybe tracking down his descendants could result in finding photos). The house was gone by 1927. Another photo lead might be via Tabernacle Presbyterian Church. The old “Tab” was on the NE corner of Meridian and 11th and maybe the church archives would have a view looking south toward your ancestor’s house. (email me at if you’d like my sources)

  9. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    Joan, Thank you for these leads. I will attempt to follow them. Until recently, I couldn’t imagine that a house number of 553 (then) could be as far north as the 1000 block (now), but it’s beginning to look as if it was. Tabernacle Presbyterian Church happens to be my family’s church, so I have contacts there to inquire about photos of Tab’s previous location. Tracking down the descendants of people who subsequently owned the home after Valentine Butsch may be more challenging. However, your suggestion made me think of another avenue. The Goepper in the legal description of the subdivision was Frederick Goepper, Valentine Butsch’s brother-in-law. Frederick was married to Valentine’s sister, Susanna Butsch. The Goeppers’ address was 573 N. Meridian Street, probably next door to 553. I have many living Goepper-descended cousins, with surnames you might recognize (e.g., Frenzel, Bookwalter, Morrison, Perry, Sweeney, Ziegler, Mumford, Krauss and Mueller). Maybe one of them has a photo of their Goepper ancestors’ house in which a glimpse of the nearby Butsch house can be seen peripherally.

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