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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.

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

(photo from Dawn Olsen)

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

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.

The church at the corner of 29th and Kenwood, as seen today. (photo by Dawn Olsen)

The church at the corner of 29th and Kenwood, as seen today. (photo by Dawn Olsen)

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?

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

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.”

The building was established as a Masonic Lodge in July 1971. (photo by Dawn Olsen)

The building was established as a Masonic Lodge in July 1971. (photo by Dawn Olsen)

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.

1927 Baist Map

1927 Baist Map

1956 Sanborn Map. Due to the influx of school-aged children (the baby boomers) the James Whitcomb Riley School had expanded in the mid-'50s.

1956 Sanborn Map. Due to the influx of school-aged children (the baby boomers), the James Whitcomb Riley School expanded in the mid-’50s.

The 40th and Capitol area in 2012 (satellite image provided by MapIndy). The original James Whitcomb Riley school has been replaced with a parking lot, but much of the neighborhood has remained the same since it was first inhabited.

The 40th and Capitol area in 2012 (satellite image provided by MapIndy). The original James Whitcomb Riley school has been replaced with a parking lot, but much of the neighborhood has remained the same since it was first inhabited.

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.

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

(photo by Dawn Olsen)

7 responses to “Sunday Prayers: 143 W. 40th (Capitol Avenue Christian Church)”

  1. DAVID L. NEIDLINGER says:

    I remember this Church very well. I used to attend James Whitcomb Riley School, PS Nol. 43 and lived only two blocks from the Church at 3910 Graceland. They had a basketball court in the basement of the Church and we used to play basketball down there. I remember the doors were never locked so we could go in anytime we wanted to play ball.

  2. basil berchekas jr says:

    Dawn, this is an excellent article. Nothing to add; this would be a jewel for the Mapleton area if restored to some community use…

  3. mike says:

    Hi:

    Would be nice to see the 1924 photo referenced in the beginning of the article.

  4. Dawn Olsen says:

    I truly and honestly wanted to include it! Sadly, the photograph is quite damaged. It would take quite a while for preservationists to “fix” and scan it—-the photo is brown, yellowed, and cracking. I was actually hesitant to handle it myself, as it peeled and flaked. Furthermore, the nearly two-foot-long photo is in four pieces! Mainly, I didn’t want to trouble anyone with piecing it back together. I thought it would be easier to try and describe it, but perhaps I didn’t say enough about its condition, and why I chose to not include it at this time. Handling it just reminded of how important it is to take care of my own photographs.

  5. eirenetheou says:

    This building is a historically significant location for the history of Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ in Indianapolis. Gerald L K Smith was minister of the Capitol Avenue-University Park church in the 1920s, and Frederick Doyle Kershner, the founding dean of the Butler School of Religion (which became Christian Theological Seminary) was a member. From 1940 into the 1960s this building housed the Church of Christ at 40th and Capitol.

    For research into the history of the congregations that have occupied this building one may visit the Heritage Room of the Christian Theological Seminary, Monday through Thursday. We should welcome you there. We are interested in that 1924 photograph and its preservation!

    God’s Peace to you.

    d

  6. Dr. Jack Boyd says:

    My family and I began attending the 40th & Capitol Church of Christ in the summer of 1940. I’m not sure just how long it had been housing a Church of Christ congregation, but we decided to travel from our home out on U.S. 52, near Flackville to this congregation. It was worth the time for the travel because, first, it was a very friendly congregation of possibly 75 members, and second, they could use us. We moved to 3237 Capitol in early 1941, and shortly after December 7, we were asked if we would like to move into a small apartment on the top floor of the 40th & Capitol building. We would be sort of live-in janitors and caretakers. For $30.00 a month we got a gruesomely fitted out 4-room apartment and all utilities, and I got a full basketball court in my basement! Probably the only kid in Indiana with that gift. The main drawback with that basement basketball court was the flooding that occurred about once a year after a hard rain. Eventually the narrow boards of the hardwood floor began to cup, which made dribbling a basketball an adventure. Also, the backboards were attached to the concrete walls at the ends of the basement. Made a driving layup iffy. Nevertheless, we often had other congregations come over for pickup games.

    There was also a full length open area above the top floor of the building that was unfloored. I quickly found some old 1 x 6 boards to floor a small area that became my personal playground and “office,” which worked fine until sometime in 1943, when in my slewfooted enthusiam at having my own private place, I slipped off one of the rafters and stuck my foot through the ceiling of a similar small apartment next to ours. A Texas preacher and his family doing “missionary work” (in Indianapolis!) lived in that other apartment. A chunk of rotten plaster ceiling about three feet across came slamming down on his bedroom. Since World War II was in full swing (and we weren’t doing all that well in 1943) his first reaction was to scream, “Get under the bed we’re being bombed!”

    The sanctuary (which I cleaned for $2.00 a week) was modest sized and quite plain. When we decided to build a baptistery, we knew we needed an authentic picture painted behind the baptistery water that would show a typical Indiana scene of snow-capped mountains and a six foot wide Sea of Galilee. We hired a grad student from the Herron Art Museum, and his painting was fine, except for one particular bush that looked forever like a humped-back prehistoric carnivore. My adolescent imagination went wild, meaning I missed sizable chunks of virtually all sermons. We lived there until 1949, when we moved to Keystone Street on the East Side, and began attending another congregations. Great memories, going from age 11 to age 17. I’m saddened at the current condition of the building. James Whitcombe Riley School No. 43 had a phenomenal music teacher, Mrs. Knannlein, who gave me my start toward three degrees in music and career in choral music. Which is another whole story.

  7. Jeremy Stewart says:

    There is a current petition to rezone this building to residential. The owners want to rehabilitate this building and make it a very unique home! We are excited to see new interest and life breathed into the building!

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