Southern view looking over PanAm Plaza, Union Station and Lucas Oil Stadium – Photo by Ryan Hamlett

Over 26 years ago, Indianapolis was making huge strides in changing its struggling, rust-belt image out of that of a dusty blip in fly-over country into a mecca for amateur and professional sports. The national image of Indianapolis at the time was bleak. A Los Angeles Times article from 1986 about our preparations for the 1987 Pan Am Games begins with:

Question: “What do you do for excitement in this town?”

Answer: “You go down to the nearest Roselyn Bakery and smell hot bread.”

Surely a pretty condescending way to begin an piece highlighting city improvements (though, truth be told, the things I would do for an open Roselyn Bakery).

Whether you’re a rabid local sports fan or no, it’s difficult to argue that the addition of the Hoosier Dome, the Natatorium, Major Taylor Velodrome in the 80s and continued development in the form of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, NCAA Hall of Champions, Victory Field and Lucas Oil Stadium have lifted the city into the national spotlight.

Landing the 1987 Pan American Games was a huge contributing factor to finding a new identity for Indianapolis. First held in Buenos Aries, Argentina in 1951, the Pan Am Games are held every four years, the summer before the Summer Olympic Games. Indianapolis, which had made a bid to land the 1991 games, was encouraged by the U.S. Olympic Committee to instead bid on the 1987 games after Santiago, Chile and Quito, Ecuador both withdrew their bids in late 1984. Cuba was also interested in the ’87 games, but as Indianapolis already had several key structures in place, we were awarded the 10th games while the Pan America Sports Organization (PASO) placated Fidel Castro by promising the ’91 games to Havana contingent on Cuba’s participation in Indy. All in all, 38 countries participated in the 10th Pan American Games (including first time appearances by Aruba, Grenada, and the British Virgin and Cayman Islands) with the United States medaling 370 times, more than twice as many as #2 on the medal count, Cuba (cue USA! chant).


What would become Pan Am Plaza – from the 1941 Baist Atlas plan #1

After the construction of the Hoosier Dome and continued expansion of the Convention Center, attention was turned across Capitol, to the relatively seedy block northwest of Union Station. In its heyday, the square block bounded by Louisiana, Illinois, and Georgia Streets and Capitol Avenue was a hotbed of hotels and wholesalers. There were severally literally hotbeds in the area as a 1905 fire started in the Fahnely & McCrea Millinery Company on South Meridian caught fire and took down most of the Wholesale district, wiping out several hotels in the process as touched on in a “What’s in a Name” installment earlier this year.


The western side of Illinois Street, looking south. The Spencer House is furthest away on the left. In front of the Spencer House, a street car heads up a ramp from a lower level station within Union Depot (Station) c.1911

As rail travel and Union Station declined so did the neighboring hotels. The corner of Georgia and Illinois housed the Good New Mission and the surrounding area became what could easily be described as “dicey”. So dicey in fact that the entire square block was razed, and in its place was constructed two skating facilities, a 12 story post-modern tower (designed by local architectural firm Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf, Inc. to echo the design of Union Station’s clock tower) and a huge open plaza, disguising the 1200 parking spots underneath.

Just as its block of hotels before it fell into disrepair, so did Pan Am Plaza. There was a mad rush to shore up the structure of the underground parking lot so that the Plaza could be used for the 2012 Super Bowl. The Indiana Skating Academy, which had long since occupied and ran the two ice rinks have packed their bags and left. The tower itself sits partially unoccupied, the ground floor home to a very lonely looking Lids hat and sporting apparel store.

However, just as it did 26 odd years ago, there is new life for Pan Am Plaza. The Indiana Ice Hockey team have taken over the rink at the corner of Illinois and Georgia, at least for the time being as the Pepsi Coliseum construction continues. And the Plaza itself has new life, the crumbling brick work that was hastily repaired pre-Super Bowl has all been torn out and replaced, the crusty fountain across from the Omni-Severin torn out as well. As Indianapolis makes a bid for the 2018 Super Bowl, I wager there are more changes afoot for a city block that has been hosting visitors to Indianapolis in one fashion or another for almost one and a half centuries.

Hopefully, five years is enough time to sort this out.



Seriously. Who was the brain donor behind this decision? – Photos by Ryan Hamlett



4 responses to “Pan Am Plaza”

  1. Norm Morford says:

    Ryan — don’t forget rowing on Eagle Creek Resevoir. There is also recreational sailing there, canoeing, and many on-ground ways to be active.

    However, every time we talk about sports, we ought to talk as well about the arts. The fact that the symphony avoided a financial crisis and is still “among the living'” must be celebrated — in spite of the attempt by Carmel to say that they are the center of the universe and that carries the notion that “you don’t need to go downtown.” Well, take away Indy and Carmel as the tail of the dog would not be so sweet! The last I knew Carmel had no institution of higher education. Even if Carmel has able scholars and athletes, they have to go to those little places called West Lafayette and Bloomington and Hanover, Indiana, and Richmond, and … well you get the drill! What buildings or institutions are there in Carmel that benefit the whole state? The one i know is the midwest power office at 116h and College. I guess we should give them some credit for keeping Indiana out of the blackout a few years ago that impacted much of the area to the east of Indiana.

  2. IntheKnow says:

    Or, not.

  3. Ryan Hamlett says:

    I’m not sure that I really understand where you’re going here. While it’s very much true that the arts play a major role in the rejuvenation of Indy, it wasn’t terribly applicable to this particular square block. Nor do I understand bringing Carmel into the discussion nor which eastern “blackout” they saved us from.

  4. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    Yes, who was the “brain” behind the placement of the railing?

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