Bona Thompson Memorial Building, Irvington Historical Society – Photo by Ryan Hamlett

The Bona Thompson Memorial Building has certainly seen significant revitalization since I first set foot inside, sometime in the mid-80s. At the time, it had been rather unceremoniously delegated to storage for the adjacent Missions Building, which served as headquarters of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) organization. It was from this dusty storage wing, that my father and I purchased my first desk, from surplus; a steel contraption five times larger than any child could put to use and easily the single heaviest piece of furniture ever produced by man.

Prior to housing disused office furniture, the Bona Thompson Memorial served as the library for Butler University, from its 1902 construction until Butler’s 1928 relocation to its current campus at Fairview Park. In 1890, one Edward Thompson moved his family to Irvington so that his daughter, Bona, could finish high school and attend nearby Butler College whilst living at home. Bona graduated from Butler in 1897 but would be dead from typhoid fever two years later after returning from a European voyage. Her parents donated $40,000 and land directly across from their house at Downey and University Avenues (no longer there) to build a library in her memory, though they themselves would both die before its 1902 dedication. Designed by architects Henry H. Dupont and Jesse T. Johnson the library was constructed with Bedford limestone by the William P. Jungclaus Construction Co, builders of the Murat Temple, the IRT and Merchants Bank Building (now Barns and Thornburg).

Original Library Floorplan - Irvington Historical Society Archives

Original Library Floorplan – Irvington Historical Society Archives

After World War I, enrollment was growing considerably each year and by the 1920s, Butler was actively searching to relocate, even though there was still plenty of space for expansion within its Irvington campus. Executive Director of the Irvington Historical Society Steve Barnett suggested that there may have been reason beyond limitations of space that led to Butler’s Fairview exodus. In Irvington, the campus was bracketed by two very busy rail lines. Trying to conduct class, windows open to combat the mid-August heat, with a constant din of whistles and rumbling isn’t exactly an ideal learning environment. Motivation to leave its sooty local, combined with a desire to build a world class athletic facility for which there was definitely little space in Irvington, led to the construction of Hinkle (then Butler) Fieldhouse, the Butler Bowl and Jordan Hall, the first structures on Butler’s current campus.


In 1940, the Disciples purchased the neglected Bona Thompson and neighboring 1909 Missionary Training School Building (shortened to the Missions Building by its new inhabitants) and combined the two structures to serve as its world headquarters, doing so for fifty-five years until they relocated downtown. After a few years of vacancy, the Irvington Historical Society, founded in 1964, helped revamp the Missions Building into senior retirement apartments before turning its sights on the Bona Thompson. Money was raised and from 1999 until its 2002 opening, the Bona Thompson was restored to house the headquarters of the Irvington Historical Society, but also the Irvington Garden Club, Irvington Guild of Artists and the Eastside Fire Museum. What I remembered as a dusty collection of chain-link storage lockers full of filing cabinets has found new life helping to preserve the history of a neighborhood with plenty of it.

Restored original floor mosaic in front of a non-origianal staircase, situated where the librarian's desk would have been located. - Photo by Ryan Hamlett

Restored original floor mosaic in front of a non-origianal staircase, situated where the librarian’s desk would have been located. – Photo by Ryan Hamlett

10 responses to “The Bona Thompson Memorial Building – Irvington Historical Society”

  1. basil berchekas jr says:

    I went to high school with Steve Barnett…must stay with this blog!

  2. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    As a child, obviously before it became simply a storage facility, I remember this building as a religious bookstore, additionally selling candelabras, crosses, communion trays, altar cloths, etc. When my Mother would take me there, I always thought that Bona Thompson was an odd name for a building. Now, I know its derivation.

  3. Norm Morford says:

    Thanks, Ryan. Never thought of that building as the former Butler U library!

  4. Todd says:

    And it is said the building is haunted. The Bona makes for a wonderful destination on a spring walk. Check it out.

  5. David Brewer says:

    I collect old yearbooks and was pleased to come across a Butler Drift from 1928 and 1929. Both have photos of the old Irvington as well as the present day campus. I was just thumbing through the 1929 yearbook and came across this (excerpted below):

    “I took a walk through south Irvington the other day. The streets, especially those near the old Butler, were very quiet. Where students used to laugh and talk as they strolled along (or perhaps hurried, being late to class) was now only silence. On University avenue, where cars of all sorts–some of them limousines and some junkers–used to be carrying crowds of boys and girls to and from the college almost all the time, the only sign of life I saw was a very small girl, who was singing to herself as she rode her tricycle up and down the sidewalk. In the windows of several of the houses, “For Rent” signs were hanging… And now the quiet, scholarly atmosphere that was Irvington is gone. On the winding streets, close up against the sidewalks, stand modern bungalows. They are probably equipped with tiled bathrooms and noisy radios. The Bona Thompson library is deserted: its shelves are empty and its doors are locked. And on the old Butler campus, the administration building, the science hall and the dorm are melancholy reminders of what used to be. When buildings are no longer occupied by human beings, they at once become strangely desolate. This desolation is more than silence or run-down appearance. It is something almost human, some hauntingly mournful quality that attaches itself to empty rooms and hallways.”

  6. Paul Diebold says:

    Nice quote David! Butler offered the old campus to IPS for conversion to a high school, as had been done with Tech, but the community turned the offer down, then the Depression hit, and it was too late.

  7. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    Love this excerpt.

  8. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    When my Aunt went to Butler, starting in 1924, this part of Irvington was Butler University.

  9. Ryan Hamlett says:

    For several years now, it’s been a hobby of mine to explore and photograph abandoned buildings. When people I know first find this out about me, invariably I’m asked “why” I do so. Beyond the low level rush of being somewhere that I’m generally not exactly supposed to be and the satisfaction of coming away with a handful of photos, that quote is the best verbalization of why I’m fascinated by neglected buildings I’ve come across. Thank you very, very much for that.

  10. Dawn says:

    The quote that David included is wonderful. It brings to life why you (and sometimes myself, as well) like to explore the abandoned, the forgotten, the old and left behind. I’m always fascinated with empty or dilapidated properties because I know, at some point in history, there were people there. They lived, breathed, laughed and lived in a particular home. Or worked in a particular building. And, somehow, despite the amount of time that may pass, there is always a wind of human emotion that remains, passing through each empty corridor.

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