Original architectural rendering of Pembroke Arcade, Washington Street by Vonnegut & Bohn

What would it be like if Indianapolis created such superior architectural design, it made us a destination for tourists and seekers of manmade beauty?

Actually, that used to be our story. And while we have a few examples left–the Athenaeum, Indiana Theatre, Circle Tower, Indiana’s State Capitol, Madam Walker Theatre, and a handful of others–the city’s architecture of 100 years ago overflowed with block after block of stunning buildings. Among the most striking and unique of all was our first “mall.” Mention the Pembroke Arcade to any local architecture fan or historian, and it will inevitably evoke a wince. Its loss is particularly painful in the context of what replaced it, but we’ll get to that later.

Preservation Month starts today, so what better way to kick off the month than looking at one of the most beautiful buildings that ever stood in Indianapolis, where unfortunately, preservation was denied.

Virginia Avenue side northwest view, Pembroke Arcade

The excerpt about the Pembroke Arcade in Hyman’s Handbook of Indianapolis pronounced: “It is one of the most strikingly beautiful structures, and next to the Monument Place as a center of attraction to all who visit this city. The architecture strongly resembles some of the beautiful work which marked the buildings at the World’s Fair.” The specific building to which this quote alludes is the Transportation Building at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

What inspired owners Henry M. Talbott and George A. Dickson to spend the additional money to create such an ornate and distinctive building? You might infer that since they owned three theaters, they had an appreciation for spectacle, grandeur and ornamentation. Whatever they built would house ticket offices for their theaters, so why not offer a destination that would offer a non-stop intriguing visual show? It turns out, the owners were inspired by a recent trip to England. One local paper said that small well-located shops were lacking in 1895, so perhaps they also endeavored to offer a more beautiful supply for the typical demand.

The three Dickson & Talbott managed theatres: the Park, Grand, and English’s. The ticket office for all three was installed in the Pembroke Arcade in 1895.

With the decision made to build an arcade building, and architects Vonnegut & Bohn selected to design it, the owners sought a name for the place. Dickson & Talbott offered a season ticket for the three theaters they operated to the person who suggested the winning name. Around 5000 people sent in lists of 10-100 names. The first person to submit the winning name was William Schmidt of 273 North Delaware; afterward the same name was suggested by George H. Martin, Lucy Taggart and H. B. Ragan. The announcement of the winner came on March 7, 1895: “The name was selected not so much for its beauty as its wearing qualities.”

Pembroke Arcade, Virginia Avenue side.

When the Pembroke Arcade finally made its public debut, in November 1895, one article compared it to some of the most remarkable architecture in the world: “It is a beautiful building and will be one of the attractions of the city. In this new enterprise, Indianapolis takes rank with some of the leading cities of the world. London has two arcades, the Burlington and the Lowther, neither of which compare in beauty of design and general finish with the Pembroke. Paris has a number of fine arcades, notably the Passage de Choiseul and Passage des Panoramas. The finest of arcade is perhaps Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan. This is five stories in height and is a marvel of architectural beauty.” Other arcades existed in the United States as well– in Providence, R. I.; Rochester, NY; Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio, and a number of other cities.

Floorplan of Pembroke Arcade

Since there are only a handful of black and white images of the building known to exist, the detailed descriptions help paint a vivid picture: “The beauty of the Pembroke lies in its high-arched glass roof and the harmonious color that prevails throughout. The facade is chocolate brown in color, toned up by the brilliant lights in decorative glass windows, the fine design of the marble mosaic floors, and the color of iron work inside.” The general style is described as modern renaissance, inclining towards Italian, though the architects asserted it had a “style of its own,” due to the constraints of this particular site on Virginia Avenue. The arcade contained 28 “apartments,” (shops) each with a cellar, first/ business floor and a room above to be used as a workshop or additional salesroom, with private stairways connecting the three rooms.

newspaper sketch of Virginia Ave side.

newspaper sketch of one of the large windows above an entrance

newspaper sketch interior looking to glass over one of the entrances

newspaper detail sketch

newspaper sketch, interior

The artistic specifications included:

  • A decorative scheme built around Italian shields, recurring repeatedly throughout the building, surrounded by scroll work, pollutes, wreaths, flour-de-lis, etc., modeled in terra cotta.
  • The large archway spanned 46.5 feet in diameter, surmounted by a gilded cupola. The top of the cupola stood 78 feet above street level
  •  Eight circular panels filled in the outer portion of the terra cotta portion of the archway and in the center of each was a rosette in relief. From the rosettes in the center spring acanthus leaves, filling in the circles.
  • Above the connection point of the circles, was the caduceus of Hermes, all molded in the terra cotta.
  • The archway’s soffit, or the under side of the voussoirs was decorated with square panels, with a large boldly protruding rosette from its center.
  • The outer rim of the arch was decorated with shield-shaped, keystone-like agraffes, under which passes a vine of laurel leaves, that starts on each side, from handsome decorative vases resting on the capitals of the supporting pillars.
  • The apex of the arch is surmounted by a cupola, resting on a square lantern. This is of hammered copper, and is in the Moorish style. The cupola, or dome, at each entrance is covered with a filagree of gold leaf.
  • The arch was finished with a tracery of delicate copper cresting designed in harmony with the terra cotta molding and also covered with gold leaf.
  • Under the top terra cotta portion of the archway, was the large semi-circle of stained art glass window, 20 feet wide by 12 feet high in tones of amber, brown and sea green, fabricated by the Chicago firm, Healy & Millet.
  • The square panels in the frames below the arch could be removed and laid away in warmer months, allowing air to blow through.
  • The stained glass design featured a large medallion surmounted by vari-colored circles, with the figure of a woman at the center with outstretched arms reaching out beyond the limits of the circle and with a lighted torch in each hand.
  • The robe of the female figure, loosely draped around the shoulders, was a bright patch of eye-catching cardinal red, and her dark hair held in place by a wreath of laurel.
  • Outside of the medallion the window is filled in with scroll work. In the lower part of the window are the words “Industry” and “Commerce.”
  • The two French roofs were of red slate and wrought iron in artistic designs. From these roofs to the ground on each side were two plain, simple piers. One supporting the entrance arch; the other, the outer boundaries of the whole building.
  • The main entrance is flanked on each side by a small balcony, a continuation of the inside gallery.
  • The architects were particularly proud is that all the decoration and motifs were original designs; nothing was copied from other buildings.

    1898 Sanborn map (IUPUI Digital Library)

The passageway inside the arcade was 21 feet wide. The floor was a marble terrazzo mosaic with a unique Egyptian style border, and in the center of it, circular disks of heavy glass, through which, in the daytime, light can reach the cellar below. The ceiling contained 15,000 square panes of 15 x 15 centimeter pressed glass, flooding the space with so much light, it appeared as if there were no roof. Picturesque store rooms flanked each side of the arcade’s interior. One local paper said that so far as was known, Indianapolis was the only city in the world with a two-story arcade. That didn’t mean it was the only arcade located in a building more than one story high, but that it was the only one in which the arcade shop feature extended to more than the first floor.

side elevation

Each store was its own independent unit: with its own sewer connections, natural and artificial gas, electric light and water and were all heated by steam heat from the basement. A balcony made of electroplated wrought iron fronted the second story through the arcade. Unfortunately, the balcony was not for visitors, but a decorative choice for the  interior. A regulation of the arcade prohibited the storage of goods on the balcony, so as not to detract from its beauty.

With fire being the death of so many stunning pieces of architecture, the Pembroke’s structural components were all iron. The only wood in the building could be found in the floors and doors of the stores. The doors had fittings especially designed from them, in keeping with the rest of the decorations and each one weighed 60 pounds. The 450 incandescent electric lights were to be used to light the arcade at night. Arc lights were also suspended from the caisson vault at each end of the passage and the whole building fitted with combination gas and electric light fixtures after special designs. The Pembroke Arcade contained over 1500 electric lights in total.

Washington Street side of Pembroke Arcade, image courtesy Indiana Album

The cellar held private rooms underneath individual stores. The cellar was also accessible to visitors via staircases at each end of the arcade and toilet-rooms, wash-rooms, and store-rooms could be found down there. On Virginia Avenue there was a space in the sidewalk for an hydraulic elevator, and all delivered goods were brought into the building that way–rolled to the cellar of the tenant to whom they belonged and taken up his private cellar way. There was also an artesian well in the cellar, to which a marble fountain was fitted, where tenants and visitors could get drinking water.

Interior looking towards Washington Street

The building cost around $125,000 and took almost a year to build and when it opened, the first shops renting space there included not only the ticket office for Dickson & Talbott’s theatres, but also Bertermann Brothers Florist shop, a notions store, soda fountain, jewelry store, confectionery, tailor shop and  others–almost anything except heavy groceries and dry goods were represented. A new saloon was also to be located on Virginia Ave and the entrance will be outside the arcade proper.

1941 Baist map (IUPUI Digital Library)

Numerous articles note the beauty of the building and predicted it would be one of the attractions of the city. Architects from other cities came to see the building and agreed its artistic merits were equal to any in Europe or the United States.

An poem/ ad from Gunther’s Umbrella Store, 21 Pembroke Arcade

by 1897, the city directory indicates that only 19 of the 28 spaces were filled. While the goal was that the arcade would only house shops, it looks like rent trumped that goal, because there were offices for a transfer company, contractor and a branch office for the William P. Jungclaus Company there. The Epworth League and a printing shop also leased space there. Some of the more usual suspects included dressmaker Joel Harrod; Albert V. Barkalow, men’s “furnishings” (clothing and such); Coppock Brothers wall paper; tailors Egan & Co and Ignatz Hurrie; Andrew Hughes, barber; Charles Gunther, umbrellas; milliner, Mary E. McKernan; pawnbroker, Patrick Conlen; Harry Hamilton, glass vendor; and William G. Brown, phonographs, with the florist and theatre ticket office still there.

Newspaper image showing the round glass circles that filtered light into the basement

In the spring of 1937, the building was changed into a “modern parking garage” by Indianapolis Motor Inns, Inc. Only the tenants in the Washington Street and Virginia Avenue facing storefronts did not have to vacate. Plans for $10,000 of “improvements” (what a perversion of the word) to the building were advertised, along with plans to erect large neon signs over the two entrances. (Mon dieu!) The two fronts and barreled glass ceiling remained, but the destruction of the interior was a tragedy.

1937, sure, change a beautiful arcade building into a parking garage. That makes sense.

And yet, it got even more tragic. Given the choice between preserving the facade for a garage and the vacant surface parking lot that ultimately replaced it–and has, to this day– who wouldn’t prefer the former?  Eleanor Dickson, George Dickson’s granddaughter, married Otto Frenzel, Jr. and Mrs. Frenzel, along with Talbott heirs, are the ones who allowed this place to be leveled. When you consider how many grand buildings were lost to fire, it’s particularly offensive to recognize a choice was made to destroy something so exquisite.

If anyone wants to rebuild it, we can furnish the floor plan and some other specs.

Virginia Avenue side northwest view, where Pembroke Arcade once stood

9 responses to “Superior Design: Pembroke Arcade”

  1. Louis Mahern says:

    Tragic. Can you imagine an ice cream parlor there today or a florist? I have long been a fan of the Pembroke Arcade.

  2. Dick Jenkins says:

    Great article, Tiffany! I was never aware of the Pembroke Arcade and its history. I suppose there could be lots of discussion about why the arcade wasn’t an economically successful venture, but I applaud the developers for their willingness to bring the concept to Indianapolis.

  3. Anonymous says:


  4. Cynthia martin says:

    The other day you did an article on the Nordyke house on Delaware Street, in passing a mention of the Cold Spring Murder was mentioned. Three lawyers were involved in the litigation who happened to live in close proximity to one another on Delaware. Could you briefly explain the case?

  5. Tiffany Benedict Browne says:

    Hi Cynthia, You must have stumbled upon one of our older stories, as that would have been done some time ago, and I am not the one who wrote that one. If you find the article you saw, I’d suggest leaving it on that story and the person who wrote it might respond. Thank you.

  6. Godfrey Daniels says:

    I guess the skylight feature on the former ‘zipper’ building next door must have been a nod to the arcade. The remodel of that building was very unpopular at the time; I guess it makes a little more sense after seeing these photos.

  7. Aarush Owen says:

    Wonderfully Explained ..Thank you very much for sharing this informative & Comprehensive article..

  8. Anna says:

    Anyone interested in visiting a bona fide arcade, there is still a two-story one located in downtown Nashville, TN. How long it will remain standing is anyone’s guess as it recently was sold to developers.

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