Circa 1867-1885 photograph of the Morris-Butler House (Courtesy of Indiana Landmarks)
As a preservationist, I really like it when the “then” and the “now” photographs look alike. Thanks to Indiana Landmarks, the Morris-Butler House in the Old Northside is one of those happy examples, despite sitting dangerously close to the original path for Interstate 65.
This grainy copy photograph is the earliest known photograph of the house, dated by staff as circa 1867 or maybe even as late as 1885. It shows the house from the corner of 12th Street and Park Avenue. Notice the four unidentified people posing on the balcony, the young trees with supports, and the decorative fence. The double south porch has not yet been constructed, confirming that this was made before the Butler family added it in the 1880s. Here’s a copying tip: the photograph process, mounting style, and name of photographer all provide dating clues, so when copying or scanning borrowed photographs always include the full front and back and make a color image.
This Second Empire-style home was designed by architect Diedrich A. Bohlen and built in 1864-65 for the John D. Morris family. Morris, the son of an Indianapolis pioneer, purchased a lot from Butler University’s founder Ovid Butler in a north-side suburb known today as the Old Northside. Morris worked as a railroad agent and later was with the Capital City Planing Mill. Unfortunately, an economic depression in the 1870s contributed to Morris’s default on a loan and eventual bankruptcy in 1878. The Morris family moved to Woodruff Place, but that home no longer exists.
Few stories about the Morris family’s time in the house have been passed down to the museum, but here is a recently discovered tidbit. Daughter Nancy Morris Haines, known as Nannie, recalled that her mother was instrumental with changing the street name to Park Avenue in 1867. Mrs. Morris was not happy with the name Jackson Street, which ran beneath rows of large trees disappearing into heavily wood grounds to the north. “It is just like a parkway,” she often told her children, and she felt that it needed a more appropriate name. Park Avenue was suggested to Mrs. Morris shortly after the end of the Civil War when she visited a sister who lived on a boulevard with that name in Chicago. After submitting the change to Mayor McCauley, he told Miss Nannie, then about age 13, and her brother David that “the Council will do just as you wish in this matter if you can get a petition signed by the residents on that street.” A few days later Nannie and her brother presented the signed petition and the street name was changed. In 1911 Nannie Haines, then living at 1635 N. Delaware Street, shared this story when a street name change was once again suggested during a mass street renaming and numbering project. The name was not changed and today the street is still known as Park Avenue.
Noble Chase Butler, a bankruptcy attorney, moved his family into the home in 1881 where he lived until his death in 1933. His daughter Florence was the last family member to own the house when she died in 1957. Numerous descendants have written wonderfully detailed letters to Morris-Butler House curators describing weddings, servants, the arrangement of rooms, landscaping, and other details helpful to the museum’s interpretation.
This 1920s postcard shows the home’s second owner Noble Butler and his daughters Anne Sturgis and Florence Butler, (standing). Florence, who never married, had been an accomplished pianist and had worked as a clerk in the Federal Building.
Many stories survive about the eccentric Florence Butler in her final years. As seen in these photographs of the home interior prior to the auction after Florence’s death, the home fell into disarray and she became somewhat a hoarder. One person recalled that when Miss Butler ordered groceries she lowered a basket with money from an upper window rather than allowing the delivery boy to enter the home. A family house guest remembered eating a meal with Florence and discovering that the dishes were covered with coal dust. Unfortunately, all but a few family pieces were sold at an auction after Florence’s death and the museum later furnished the rooms with items not original to the house. Through the years, a few pieces have made their way back. If you have any memories of the home or know of original items, please contact the Morris-Butler House.
By the late 1950s the house looked like the stereotypical haunted house. It wasn’t empty for long for the Park Avenue Gallery operated in the house from 1957 through 1964. Artists rented apartments and studios and shared a gallery space in the stairway and front hall. (Indiana Landmarks)
Eli Lilly, who had lived nearby during his first marriage in the 1920s, urged the newly-formed Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana (now Indiana Landmarks) to purchase the home. Realizing that the house was in the path of Interstate 65, Lilly put up $22,500 to buy the property and get in listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Due to finances, the Morris family had not finished the interior spaces as completely as designed, so the restoration crew finally completed the job with architectural glass, hardware, and doors taken from nearby homes slated for demolition.
This slide from 1970 shows the construction of I-65 south of the Morris-Butler House. Were it not for the concern of Eli Lilly, the path easily could have crept north and removed this wonderful Indianapolis treasure.
Robert Braun and H. Roll McLaughlin inside the newly renovated Morris-Butler Home Museum 1970, Indianapolis Star weekend magazine.
Today, the Morris-Butler House looks much like it did upon completion. This 1985 photograph shows the east façade that faces Park Avenue. The restoration work included repairing warped floors, cleaning the darkened brickwork, and adding a new slate roof. The house was opened to the public in 1969. The Morris-Butler House hosts educational programs, exhibits, holiday performances, and cultural events in the home. Learn more at the Indiana Landmarks website.
Morris-Butler House, April 2011. The small trees seen in the photos above have grown to largely obscure much of the house, except the iconic tower.