Dedicated in 1922 as Capitol Avenue Christian Church, 143 W. 40th St. is also a former Masonic Lodge. (photo by Dawn Olsen)
They stared up at me, dressed in their Sunday best. They, the old and the young, the smiling and the solemn. The entire Capitol Avenue Christian Church congregation. It was 1924, and they, the people of the church, were posing for a photograph. Behind them, the building stretched tall, reached outside the frame. But within its protective shadow, the people gathered. And posed. And were frozen forever in a moment of Sunday camaraderie.
It was at this that I marveled. The group of boys, there, in the left corner, were they friends? What was the name of the youngest child, the one in the front row? Was the happy couple courting? Newly married? I sought answers from the near 90-year-old photograph. It didn’t answer, of course. But it did smell of history. A dusty, crackling, knowing scent of age.
It was in 1922 that the building on the corner of 40th and Capitol was dedicated. Its construction was the result of a growing congregation at Columbia Place Christian Church, which had been founded in 1909. The building on 40th and Capitol was intended to be part of a larger, more dignified structure. However, the construction never occurred, and the square lot west of the building remains empty even now.
In 1928, the church changed its name from Capitol Avenue Christian Church to University Place Christian Church. The re-naming coincided with Butler University’s westward move from Irvington. However, this would not the first time the church would undergo a name change.
In 1929, the very next year, the pastor of University Place retired. The congregation then merged with North Park Christian Church, which also had a pastor retiring. North Park, which had been founded in 1910, had quickly grown into its domineering brick structure on the corner of 29th and Kenwood. The merged congregations, now united under the name University Park, held Sunday morning services at its 29th and Kenwood location, while the building at 40th and Capitol was used for Sunday evening activities.
University Park experienced steady growth for the next few decades and eventually moved to a location on Illinois. By 1940, the building at 40th and Capitol was known as the “Community Tabernacle” (according to the city directory). And in 1948, the church sold its house of worship on 29th and Kenwood. Unfortunately, University Park did not have an eternal future. Due to a decline in membership, the church held its final service on Palm Sunday, 2006.
Sadly, the future of the building on 40th and Capitol is uncertain as well. Though Walk in the Light Christian Church purchased the property in August 2008, the building remains vacant and unused, a sore sight just across the street from the James Whitcomb Riley School. An article posted by Indiana Disciples News states that Walk in the Light–which had been using the school’s auditorium for worship services–intended to occupy the building by the spring of 2009. The article even observed that the Walk in the Light congregation is “… of the same denomination as was the earlier Capitol Avenue Christian Church that constructed the building. Now the building will come full circle with its history, housing once again a congregation of the Stone-Campbell tradition.”
But it’s 2013. Five years later. And still empty. There is nothing to photograph but boarded windows and brick walls touting graffiti. There is no one to stand outside the front door, no one to smile, no one to pose. That same question, again and again, arises: How?
The building wasn’t always an eyesore. The 1951 city directory lists at this location the Church of Christ, a congregation that remained through the ’60s. In 1971, however, the building was established as a Masonic Lodge, and room for a stone was carved into the northeast corner. Even today, beneath the peeling paint of the entryway, are the words “Masonic Lodge, Fidelity F & AM, Purity Chapter O.E.S.” The sign, now crowded with words, differs from the glass window that once crowned the front doors. That 1924 photograph–though yellowed and in pieces–captured what the building really was–a “Community Center.”
According to the Indiana Disciples News article, the building at 40th and Capitol was frequented by community members during the 1960s and 1970s. Social gatherings that attracted African-Americans in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood were often held. Community meetings were also common, even in the building’s early days. In fact–and in stark contrast to the open-door attitude of later decades–a 1929 article in the Indianapolis Recorder describes a meeting in which community members discussed segregated neighborhoods.
When it comes to architecture, however, the neighborhood has remained the same for decades. When comparing modern satellite images to Sanborn maps, the changes are minimal. Nearly all of the original homes in the surrounding few blocks are still standing. Even the 1924 photo–the one I so intensely stared at–includes a couple of homes in its frame. The most radical change, of course, is the growth of the James Whitcomb Riley School. The original building was expanded sometime in the mid-’50s. However, by 2005, the school was again too small, and a new, larger building was constructed. By 2007, the original school was demolished; there is now a parking lot in the exact shape of the once-standing building.
It is from that parking lot that I took my own photos of the old Masonic Lodge, the old church. Only there is no happy camaraderie now … even the ghosts of history have gone. It is my hope that the boards will be removed, the food wrappers will be swept up, the doors will open. That there will be a community group to photograph–where people smile and laugh and pause for another captured moment. A moment that, perhaps in another 90 years, someone will gaze upon with wonder and with questions.