Opinions abound over the development of “Millikan on Mass,” apartments now under construction in the 500 block of Massachusetts Avenue and the removal of the green space surrounding the Barton Apartments. Insight Development Corp., the nonprofit development arm of the Indianapolis Housing Agency, breaks ground this week on infill apartments and retail to surround the 21-story Brutalist-style tower. Opponents argued for preservation of the tree-lined park setting as planned by architect Evans Woollen. New development will obscure the as yet under-appreciated modernist concrete structure, not to mention the blocked light and view for the lower-level tower residents. Some favor development, but feel that the design does not blend or enhance the iconic tower. Supporters believe that the tower was poorly placed originally and that the city needs more density. Located across from the set-back Indianapolis Fire Station and Credit Union (soon to be replaced with apartments and retail space), this block is seen by some as a gap interrupting the flow and vitality of the Mass Ave Cultural District filled with restaurants, shops, galleries, and theaters. As downtown has redeveloped, many residents and businesses have campaigned for the dead block to be filled. Regardless of your view, this post looks at what occupied the 500 block in the past and encourages comments about the project or memories of the older buildings  removed in the 1950s and ’60s.

1913 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Courtesy of the IUPUI University Library

Before the construction of the John J. Barton Apartments in 1968, this triangle-shaped parcel (bound by Michigan and East Streets and Massachusetts Avenue) contained wood-frame houses  and stores (indicated in yellow) and one- to three-story brick commercial buildings with upper-level apartments (colored pink). Businesses in this vibrant and dense block through the years included bakers, second-hand furniture and clothing stores, the Bennett-Swain Co. (men’s clothing), tire companies, Blacker’s Famous Chile, Sam Lee’s Chinese laundry, a battery shop, and even the salon of “Pandora the Clairvoyant.”

Brick commercial buildings also filled the space across the street, the current site of the fire station. The block housed the Cavett Hotel, drug stores, saloons, numerous small stores such as the Gioscio Sisters millinery shop, and the Sussex, Evans, Guilford, and Essex Flats. (IUPUI University Library, 1898 Sanborn Map updated to 1913)

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Company Collection #14627

The Millikan Flats, inspiration for the new development’s name, stood at the corner of E. Michigan Street and Massachusetts Avenue, literally in the shadow of the Athenaeum. The flatiron-shaped building housed a ground-level drugstore and 32 second- and third-floor apartments, later reduced to sixteen. This photo by the William H. Bass Company shows the recently constructed Millikan Flats and Pharmacy on November 27, 1908.

Indianapolis Star, 9 October 1909, p. 4

General contractor and builder Lynn B. Millikan built Millikan Flats in about 1908. Millikan, a New Castle, Indiana, native, was known for factories, business blocks, and high-end residences (he built sixteen houses in the 1600-2500 block of North Meridian Street in the 1890s, including his own home seen at “What Was There“). In this 1909 advertisement, pharmacist Frank J. Wehrel encourages shoppers to place orders via the high-tech for the era “telephonic” shopping.

1972 aerial photograph, City of Indianapolis

All of the buildings were leveled by 1967 when the John J. Barton Apartments were constructed. Named for the city’s 43rd mayor (1964-1968), this was Indianapolis’s first major public housing project since the New Deal and the first project built specifically for the elderly. As described in the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, the “building of concrete shear-wall construction had blind north and south end walls that expanded at the upper six stories.” The Brutalist-style concrete high-rise building (seen to the left in this 1972 aerial photo) later connected to the Barton Annex constructed a few years later. The four-story East Street residential skybridge joining the buildings was removed in the mid-1990s.

Indianapolis Housing Agency, ca. 2010

The low-rent, federally subsidized apartments for the elderly and disabled have been updated in recent years. Left: The John J. Barton Apartments (often referenced as Barton Tower); Right: The John J. Barton Annex.

Google Street View, 2009

Until November 2012, the green space held mature trees and residents cared for raised garden beds in the northeast corner.


Rendering of design created by Ratio Architects and A2S04 for Insight Development Corp.

With plans approved by the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission, Insight Development Corporation breaks ground today on the $11.2 million phase one of Millikan on Mass. The 61 apartments, funded with federal low-income tax credits, must be leased by tenants with low or moderate incomes. Sixty-eight market rate units will be built at a later date. First-floor retail space (yet to be leased) will fill the gap and visually help Mass Ave flow, yet residents will miss the underused green space that never seemed to meet its potential.

Much of the discussion taking place about this project can be followed at Urban Indy and the Cory Schouten’s Property Lines blog for the Indianapolis Business Journal. Read more about the project in today’s Indianapolis Star.

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