“A country whose buildings are of wood can never increase in its improvements to any considerable degree.” Thus spoke Thomas Jefferson.
The quote, part of a discussion on the durability of architecture, appeared in Jefferson’s book “Notes on the State of Virginia,” which was first completed in 1781. Jefferson added that when buildings are constructed of durable materials, such as brick and stone, “every new edifice is an actual and permanent acquisition to the state, adding to its value as well as to its ornament.”
For a few days, I mulled over Jefferson’s statements, and asked myself what I believed in. After defending the existence of last week’s featured property, I concluded that a home isn’t necessarily important solely because of what it is constructed of. It is important because of its use, its history, and its residents. People. People who lived there, who made their start, who met their end, who gave life to its walls—whether they be of brick, stone, mud, straw, canvas, or wood. And though this week’s property is constructed of “less than durable” materials, it’s hard to de-value it, given that it was once the home of two Indianapolis legends: Abram Crum Shortridge and Tarquinia Voss.
Shortridge, the educator for whom Shortridge High School is named, was born in 1833 and spent most of his time on the family farm in Henry County. When he was 18 years old, he sold his horse and enrolled in Fairview Academy, despite having only 18 months of formal education. After finishing his training, Shortridge moved to Wayne County to teach. A few years later—and by the invitation of Dr. Allen Benton—Shortridge came to Indianapolis. For the next two years, Shortridge worked as the principal for the preparatory department at Northwestern Christian University. And then, in 1863, he was elected the first superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS).
As superintendent, and as stated by the Indianapolis News on Dec. 5, 1903, Shortridge watched the “development of a school system of Indianapolis from a nucleus of eight poorly arranged, inadequate buildings … to its present magnitude, with its handsome, costly buildings, magnificent equipment, its thousands of pupils and its hundreds of teachers…” The growth of the school district was not without its difficulties, of course. Libby Cierzniak’s “Indianapolis Collected” post “The Shortridge Vision” provides an in-depth exploration of the challenges Shortridge, the district and the city faced. For instance, in the beginning, IPS owned only one book—a copy of the dictionary. However, at the end of Shortridge’s reign as superintendent, the IPS library housed nearly 19,000.
IPS wasn’t the only institution constructing “handsome” buildings, however. In 1872, Shortridge constructed a home on the northwest corner of 13th and Broadway (then Home and Broadway). The home—Italianate in nature—featured a low-pitched roof and ornate brackets. Much like the home of Samuel Merrill, Jr., the Shortridge residence was a fanciful house for a notable citizen. It was the home of “the father of the Indianapolis Public Schools.” And though it was made of wood—and not of the durable materials Jefferson preferred—it’s hard to imagine leveling the home of “the man who blazed the way for the Indianapolis Public School system.” For example, would anyone want the crooked, creaky wooden buildings of Mark Twain’s childhood to be torn down? The log cabin where Abraham Lincoln visited his parents? Or what about Indianapolis’ own Merrill house, which is just up the street from Shortridge’s construction?
Wood. Brick. Mud. Whatever. It was home. Shortridge even returned to the residence in 1876, after spending two years as president of Purdue University. His early retirement was due to his ill-health, and his partial eyesight. In fact, Shortridge—who spent 50 years in a dark fog—went completely blind in 1899. However, the 1903 Indianapolis News article said, “years in the darkness in which he has lived for nearly a half-century have not dimmed the keenness of his intellect or blunted the edge of his memory.”
Shortridge—who died in 1919 at age 86—continued to live in the corner home until the mid-1890s. He eventually relocated to a farm a mile and a half south of Irvington. His failing eyesight endangered him more, and, as a result of an accident with an interurban car in Sept. 1906, Shortridge had to have one of his legs amputated. He was subsequently sued, in 1913, for divorce. An Indianapolis Star article published Oct. 15, 1913 said that his wife, Mrs. Martha L. Shortridge, was treated “cruelly.” The complaint stated that Shortridge had expected from his wife a variety of manual labor on the farm.
Though the elder Shortridge relocated to the country, his sons remained in town. In the 1894 city directory, both of Shortridge’s sons—Walter and Willard—are listed at the property. At the time, Walter was a bookkeeper, and Willard was a dental student. Within two years, however, the brothers had moved out of the home, and ownership passed to Miss Tarquinia Voss, who took up residence in 1896.
According to the 1979 Old Northside Historic Area Preservation Plan, Tarquinia—daughter of lawyer Gustavus Voss—was considered “quite a flamboyant character in the neighborhood, as she lived for a time in Paris, and dressed in colorful clothes.” Voss, who never married, was active in the Daughters of the American Revolution, as well as the suffrage movement. She even served as an ambassador to France in 1900, and represented the state of Indiana at an international exposition. She participated in a variety of social clubs and societies, and even had an adopted daughter, Lurline. For nearly 40 years (and between her travels, of course), Voss called the corner property “home.” For a number of those years, Martha McKay was her across-the-street neighbor. It wasn’t until Voss’s death in 1930 that the home changed hands.
Since then, 1301 Broadway has had a bit of a rocky past. The home was actually vacant in 1940. At some point, it was transformed and split into six apartments. The city directories show that, over the decades, the number of apartments stayed the same, though the tenants often changed. By the time 1980 rolled around, two of the six units were vacant, and another was inhabited by the owner of the home, John Floyd. The current owner has been in possession of the home since 1993. Though he began exterior work in 2002, the work abruptly stopped, and the house has remained boarded up, vacant, sitting, waiting, empty … for 10 years.
Simply put, the home is endangered. It was a grand Italianate, a palace for its former residents. And now it is empty, perhaps regarded by its owner as a “hut of logs,” something Jefferson attributed to the poorest of individuals. It is a wooden structure, yes, but in the end, the materials don’t matter. When the homes of influencers like Shortridge and Voss are lost, we mourn the empty air, not the cornerstones. Though Jefferson believed that “every half-century our country becomes a tabula rasa, whereon we have to set out anew,” I struggle with the thought of erasing such a historic home, such a monument to those who strove for progress and encouragement. To me, I guess, there just isn’t ornamental value in a vacant lot.