The English Hotel and Opera House is often lamented as one of the biggest preservation losses in Indianapolis history. The grand Victorian building stood from 1880 until 1948 on the northwest quadrant of Monument Circle. (Library of Congress, Detroit Photographic Company, undated glass negative, circa 1905)
The building was constructed in three phases by the English family, who moved to Indianapolis from Lexington in Scott County. In 1864, the Honorable William H. English, a businessman, banker, historian, and politician, bought the W. S. Hubbard residence which had been built in this block in 1840. He greatly expanded the simple two-story home by adding a wing, a “queer-looking tower,” and an iron fountain in the front yard. (Indianapolis Star, July 8, 1923. The original photograph is in the English Collection at the Indiana Historical Society. The 1890s snapshot depicts William E. English, son of William H., standing in front of his old home. Zoom in to see a sign above the door for the Indianapolis Medical and Surgical Institute. William H. English moved into the new hotel in 1886 and leased the old house to various groups and businesses.)
The father, William H. English, purchased the rest of the block in the late 1870s, paying $83,777 total for the northwest quadrant of the Circle. His son William E. recalled in 1923: “The northwest segment of the Circle and Market street…was at the period of my first remembrance [about 1864] occupied by a large frame structure which was then the Second Presbyterian Church. The pastor of this church at the time of its erection, was the famous Henry Ward Beecher, who served this congregation as pastor from July 31, 1839 to 1847. It is said that, together with members of his congregation, he worked upon the building with his own hands. When the church removed to its present location, Pennsylvania and Vermont streets, the old building was purchased by the city and used as the City high school, until the school was removed to its present site.”
William E. continues: “At that time the entire site of the present Hotel English and opera house block extending from the corner occupied by this old church building to the northwest segment of the Circle and Meridian street, was occupied by this church and by three residences with large yards. The first of these next to the church was that of my father, next came the handsome home of James H. McKernan, and on the corner of Meridian street stood a very old one-story brick house said to have been originally built by Mr. Quarles, one of the leading lawyers of the city’s early period. Plymouth Congregational Church stood just around the corner on Meridian street, a few feet from the Circle, the old walls of which, on the alley, were later incorporated in the present Hotel English building.” He neglected to mention the old Bishop Edward R. Ames home, which by 1880 was an empty lot west of the Quarles home.
The hotel was built in two sections around the opera house. In 1884 the first section was constructed northeast to Meridian Street. The second section, completed in 1896, expanded the building south to Market Street and required the removal of the old English mansion and Circle Hall. A large balcony added in 1910 was a popular location for politicians to address large crowds on Monument Circle.
After nearly seventy years of continuous use as an opera house, and later hotel, the building was demolished in 1948. Deterioration, changing tastes, and the desire to showcase modern architecture all contributed to this decision. This July 26, 1949 photograph looks southeast toward the Monument and shows the remains of the brick foundation. (Negative made by the Indianapolis Fire Department)
Many more photographs of the English Hotel and Opera House can be seen in the online collections of the Indiana Historical Society.
Pieces of the old English Hotel and Opera House have been reused throughout the city. These architectural remnants depict Governor Noah Noble and Governor James Whitcomb. The English family was criticized in newspapers for including bas-relief sculptures of family members alongside Indiana governors. The stone busts are about four feet tall and were available for sale at Doc Keys Architecture Salvage and Antiques as of 2010. (Photograph courtesy of Sandra Jarvis)
The clean limestone lines of the J. C. Penney Co. building, constructed on the site in 1950, could not have been more different than the old building. Many residents rejected the modern style, but the new building had at least one fan. During his visit in 1957, architect Frank Lloyd Wright commented: “Indianapolis, like every big city is doomed. The only good building I saw downtown is the one used by J. C. Penney’s downtown, which is a little radical. It probably was designed by some out-of-town man.” (Actually, Nathaniel Owings, one of the partners of the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, was an Indianapolis native.) (Indiana Landmarks, Indiana Architecture Slide Collection)
Other views of the J. C. Penney Co. building can be seen in the Bass Photo Company Collection at the Indiana Historical Society.
Sadly, residents never learned to appreciate the design of the J. C. Penney Co. building. Like the recently “remuddled” Zipper Building (another modern structure never appreciated for its own merits after replacing a grand Victorian building), the façade was given a bland, postmodern corporate look in the early 1990s for Anthem Insurance (now Wellpoint). (Google Street View, circa 2010)
Hmmm….will future preservationists fight to save examples of our bland postmodern buildings and chastise our generation for not appreciating them? Nah.
[Would you like to see your old photographs featured in this Then and Now column? If so, attach a high resolution jpeg or png and any details about the building within our “Say Hi” link in the footer of our website.]