Did you ever think about what makes Indianapolis an interesting place to live? Probably you would say pro sports, Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard, live music, museums, performing arts, symphony, theater productions, art galleries, zoo, antique shops, lectures, parks, and restaurants with lots of themes. Would you include heritage on your list? What is it? Why would it be on such a list?
Heritage is all around us. It is concentrated in the older parts of the city, but it exists in the suburbs too. It can be three-dimensional—neighborhoods, shopping areas, houses, schools, churches or synagogues, office buildings, fraternal lodges, parks, gardens, sculptures, bridges, or factories. Or it can be two-dimensional—old family photographs or diaries, church trustee minutes, business correspondence, government deed records. Or it also can be locked in a person’s memory—recollections of events and people of long ago. But to be really enjoyed, heritage has to be protected, recorded, and experienced. Where that has happened in Indianapolis, heritage has become part of our quality of life.
House museums, such as the Benjamin Harrison Home, James Whitcomb Riley Home, and Morris-Butler House, bring to life interesting and important people from our past. Museums in other historic buildings help us re-live stirring events that shaped our present: the Col. Eli Lilly Civil War Museum in the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Indiana War Museum in the World War Memorial, Crispus Attucks Museum in Crispus Attucks Junior High School, and Indiana Medical History Museum in the Old Pathology Building at the former Central State Hospital. The Indiana State Museum and the Indiana Historical Society’s Indiana History Center have exhibits that explain Indianapolis history as part of the state’s story.
Residents and visitors alike visit historic neighborhoods of the city to experience not just a single building, but a whole district of houses, streets, and alleys from the past. Lockerbie Square offers a glimpse of a working-class German neighborhood from the 1860s through 1890s. Ransom Place shows the cottages, churches, and gridiron (checkerboard) street plan of an African American neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century. Woodruff Place depicts life in one of the first suburbs of Indianapolis, while the Old Northside shows the variety of residential architecture built by well-to-do citizens after the Civil War.
Many alumni cherish their high schools and grade schools. Crispus Attucks, Shortridge, Howe, and Washington High Schools have been all saved and re-opened as junior highs in part because of the positive associations that alumni have with the historic buildings. Tech High School, once the Civil War Arsenal of Indianapolis, continues as a high school after 90 years. Grade schools have fared less successfully, but their connections to the history of their neighborhoods and importance to alumni memories are no less strong. Historic churches are many and spread across the city. Many have small congregations, who are devoted to the ministries and heritage they represent.
Two-dimensional history contributes to the interest of life in Indianapolis too. The rich photographic collections of the Indiana Historical Society are used by businesses, publishers, newspapers, and individuals to find out what the city looked like in the past. Genealogists use the family records of the Indiana State Library to trace their roots. Canal enthusiasts find the original drawings of local canals from the 1840s in the Indiana State Archives. Residents of historic neighborhoods research the old city directories at the Indianapolis Central Public Library to find out who lived in their houses before them.
Many older citizens know the history of communities, organizations, businesses, and neighborhoods within the city. Occasionally, enterprising children or grandchildren, historians, or friends tape their comments and use the oral history to write records of the past.
In this series of columns, I would like to explore the many ways in which heritage contributes already and has the potential to contribute to the quality of life in Indianapolis. I will also touch on ways in which our heritage may be threatened and look for ways in which we can preserve it.