While walking on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail near Fountain Square last week, I was reminded of one of the benefits of taking a stroll: really seeing the landscape that is overlooked when whizzing by at 45 miles per hour. While most of us have probably noticed the sculpture at the Fountain Square Gateway on Virginia Avenue, the adjacent plaza has a more subtle beauty and meaning that is better appreciated while on foot.
A triangle of land located in the 800 block of Virginia Avenue was sliced up and left isolated by preparation for the interstate in the late 1960s. Sometimes weeds grew as high as the “Fountain Square” sign placed on the empty lot until the early 2000s when the Southeast Neighborhood Development Corporation (SEND) commissioned artist Dick Lutin to create a sculpture titled “Wishful Thinking.” The three curved panels, representing a fountain, display old photographs of Fountain Square, a blue neon panel, and a historic map of the area before the highway drastically altered the neighborhood. Raised on a base, the large sculpture is visible from I-65 as well as Virginia Avenue. The area south of the sculpture pays homage to what stood on the site before, and challenges viewers to understand the past, the disruption of our highway system, and the lives that intertwined with the space in the past.
Landscape architects Dawn Kroh, of Green 3, and the late Eric Fulford, of Ninebark, designed the space with elements outlining the former building and a long-gone street that bisected the land. Raised gardens fill large concrete rectangles representing the brick commercial building that once stood at 873 and 875 Virginia Avenue. In a nice touch, the former address numbers mark the corner stones. The herb garden, nicknamed the Herban Garden, is tended by neighbors and local chefs who use the produce in their restaurants.
The sculpture “Wishful Thinking” by artist Rick Lutin stands north of a crushed stone plaza that marks the former Wyoming Street. The opposite curb reads “Bismark,” recognizing the street’s old name. In September 1897 a city ordinance called for the uniformity of street names. Because the name Bismark was a duplicate of a street in Haughville in West Indianapolis, and because the street lined up with an existing section of Wyoming Street, the Common Council approved of the change, along with dozens of other street name and address adjustments.
Virginia Avenue, now full of gaps caused in part by the I-65 disruption, was once a solid mass of wood and brick houses and commercial stores ranging from confectioneries to barber shops to restaurants. As early as 1879, the northeast corner of Virginia Avenue and Leonard Street (then named Bradshaw) was home to a large brick structure. The corner consisted of a two-story, two-bay brick building with the addresses 873 and 875 (517 and 519 before 1898). Apartments were on the upper floors and the addition behind 875 housed at least two merchants. German immigrant Henry Rodewald (1826-1895) had operated a grocery store near the State House, but moved to Virginia avenue when it was considered out of town in the 1860s. According to Manufacturing and Merchantile Resources of Indianapolis (1883): “In 1879 he removed to his present location, No. 517 Virginia Ave., where he occupied the first floor and basement, each 18 x 40 feet in dimensions, with an additional room for storage purposes, carrying a finely selected assortment of staple and fancy groceries and provisions.” He also sold cigars, tobacco, spices, fresh bread, wine, and liquor by the quart of gallon for family use or medicinal purposes.
Some of the other businesses include a confectionery operated by Henry Luedeman (1900), Newton Tucker (1905), and William H. Weghorst (1906); C. C. Watson’s drug store (1902); Charles Koehring stove repair (late 1910s and early 1920s); and Norris F. Wright, dyer and dry cleaner (at least 1914-1928). In 1923 Ivah Wright, the wife of Norris Wright, an African-American dry cleaning shop proprietor, sued for divorce claiming that “she was required to open the place early in the morning while the defendant would lie in bed until 9 or 10 o’clock; that she was required to fire a large boiler connected with the plant and use a steam press while defendant would sleep; that defendant made from $100 to $500 per week from the business and would give the plaintiff none of it for clothes or spending money and had little food, while defendant would eat at a café; that he frequently cursed her; that he threatened to kill her; that in November he ordered her to leave and she did leave and come to her mother’s home in Plainfield.”
Polish immigrant Abraham Polaski operated a barrel house in the corner store in 1901, but in 1907 applied for a retail liquor (saloon) license for his 18 x 40 ft. tavern. A few years later, police caught him open on a Sunday at a time when Mayor Shank was cracking down on Sunday sales. He claimed that he was not actually open, but that the door was accidentally left open when one of his children entered the bar to get a chair for a party he’d had in his home behind the business.
The nature of the businesses changed in 1929 to tire stores and filling stations, indicating that the original building might have been removed or altered. The 1956 Sanborn map shows that the glass-fronted building seen above was constructed in 1948-49. Charlie Stuart purchased Kruse Motors in 1955 and operated Southside Motors (a used Studebaker showroom) for a while. The photograph above looks at the northeast corner.
While the recognition of the former building is a wonderful design element, I wish signage told the site’s history in a little more detail. Was your family involved with the property at 871-75 Virginia Avenue? Please share your stories here, and as always, we seek photographs of businesses at this location (or anyplace within the city).